Two years from now, you're watching a basketball game and see an athletic big man put his back to the basket along the left baseline. He takes a few dribbles, then shoots a fadeaway jumper with such a high release that no one in the NBA can hope to block it on a regular basis.
As the ball drops through the net for two points, LaMarcus Aldridge jogs back down to the defensive end of the court, waiting for a high five now that he's extended the lead against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Against the Blazers?
Much as Portland fans might hate to admit it, Aldridge's future with Rip City isn't set in stone. He's up for an extension this summer, but if he doesn't sign one, he'll play the 2014-15 season on an expiring contract, set to hit the open market next year.
And then anything can happen. But "can" and "will" are entirely difference concepts.
Is there actually a chance that Aldridge will be lured away from the Blazers after leading them to such lofty heights during the 2013-14 campaign?
Aldridge isn't guaranteed to remain in Portland throughout his career, even if he's spent the first eight seasons of his career playing home games in the Rose Garden Moda Center.
He's entering into a contract year, set to make just over $16 million during the 2014-15 season, per ShamSports.com. After that, he'll become an unrestricted free agent, able to test the waters for the first time in his career and see how much his services are worth.
Aldridge was picked up during the 2006 NBA draft, acquired from the Chicago Bulls in a draft-day trade that had Portland sending Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa to the Windy City. Since then, he's always been under contract with the Blazers, thanks to the five-year extension he signed in 2009, one that kicked in for the 2010-11 campaign and is still keeping him put.
Free agency will be a first for Aldridge, and the process can do strange things to even the most loyal players. Money is a driving force behind decisions in the NBA, and there's no telling whether the dollar signs (from marketing ventures, not just a contract) will be enough to sway Aldridge toward a larger market.
Another extension is indeed possible, but as Dwight Jaynes writes for CSNNW.com, it's not a decision that makes a ton of sense for the Texas product:
First, though, let's briefly dismiss the idea that he's going to sign a contract extension this summer. Yes, Aldridge could do so -- but it would likely cost him millions of dollars and he'd be crazy to do it. Aldridge will earn a little more than $16 million in the upcoming final season of his contract and an extension would have to be built off that salary. The most he could earn off a three-year extension from the Trail Blazers is about $55.5 million. On the other hand, the projections on what he could make off a five-year deal from Portland as a free agent totals more than $127 million.
It makes no sense for him to take the smaller figure now with a bigger number looming if he has another top-notch season.
An extension just doesn't cut it from a financial standpoint. And if Aldridge isn't going to ink that type of contract, he's going to hit the open waters of free agency.
Plenty of sharks will be swarming.
One of those sharks is even affiliated with a certain Shark Tank. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, will certainly be looking for a long-term replacement for Dirk Nowitzki, and he'll have plenty of money to spend while capitalizing on the hometown roots angle. After all, Aldridge was born in Dallas and went through the entire educational process in the Lone Star State.
This is exactly what the Blazers have to avoid. And, as Jaynes points out, other big-market teams will come swarming after him as well once the first drop of blood hits the water.
But, will it matter? Would Aldridge really leave Portland behind?
Rip City Revival
Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the answer would've been a rather definitive "yes."
The Blazers were expected to be a moderately competitive team, one that might be able to sneak into the playoffs if everything broke correctly throughout the Western Conference. ESPN.com's Marc Stein had Portland at No. 16 in his preseason power rankings.
On top of that, Aldridge even asked to be traded, per Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune:
Whether or not LaMarcus Aldridge has "requested" or "asked for" or "demanded" a trade is semantics. Fact is, the Trail Blazers' all-star forward confided to at least one reporter that during the team's end-of-season exit interviews, he told general manager Neil Olshey that he'd like to be moved.
Then the season started, one that obviously saw the big man continuing to play for Portland.
In early December, Aldridge clarified his stance while doing a segment on The Jim Rome Show, as transcribed by BlazersEdge.com's Ben Golliver:
It was just me being overly emotional at the time. Nobody wants to lose. I'm in my prime right now. At the time, I was a little emotional about not winning or what not. After I had time to talk to Neil and the team, I knew they were going to make some moves, bring some guys in.
It's amazing what an impact winning can have.
At the time of that Dec. 4 interview, Portland was red-hot, boasting a 15-3 record and the top spot in the Western Conference. Up to that point in the season, Aldridge was averaging 23.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game and had established himself as an early MVP candidate.
Of course he was going to be happy. And the success only continued during the Rip City revival.
Portland went on to win 54 games, giving it the No. 5 seed and a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. Aldridge dominated throughout 2013-14, finishing the season with averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.6 dimes per contest—all career bests.
His play was enough for him to earn serious consideration as one of the 10 best players in basketball. He ultimately finished No. 11 in my NBA 200 rankings, trailing only Kevin Love and Blake Griffin at his position.
Not too shabby, huh?
And the success didn't stop at the end of the regular season. Buoyed by Aldridge's 89 combined points, Rip City stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first-round series with the Rockets. Damian Lillard would end up clinching a second-round spot with his unforgettable dagger to end Game 6.
While the San Antonio Spurs proved to be way too much for the Blazers, the message was still clear: Portland was back.
Now, think back to that earlier quote about why Aldridge had originally wanted out. "At the time, I was a little emotional about not winning or what not," he said.
Well, he doesn't have to worry about not winning anymore. Instead, he's surrounded by success, a growing roster and a passionate fanbase that supported him as much as humanly possible throughout this past season. There's no reason to demand a trade anymore—not as long as the team keeps winning.
And that brings up the most crucial question of all. Did Portland just get lucky, or is this the start of something special?
Ability to Grow
First, let's establish that the 2013-14 season wasn't a fluke. One of the best ways to do this is by looking at point differential, as Bill Barnwell explained for Grantland.com:
It’s true in just about every sport: Point differential is a better predictor of a team’s win-loss record than its previous win-loss record. Wins aren’t created equal. A three-point victory over the Jaguars at home isn’t the same as blowing out the 49ers by 28 points at Candlestick. (Side note: It’s going to be really weird to have to start saying “Levi’s” next year.) Win-loss record gives us only 16 observations to project 2014 performance. If you make the case that a team can give up a touchdown or score one on every single play, point differential allows for thousands of observations in a single season.
Wins can be fluky, given the size of the sample. Point differential usually isn't.
Fortunately, Basketball-Reference.com lets us take things one step further by also neutralizing strength of schedule. "Simple rating system" is a way to rank teams based solely on strength of schedule and point differential, so let's see where the Blazers ranked during 2013-14.
With the No. 8 margin and one of the 10 most difficult schedules in the league, Portland emerged as the No. 6 team in all of basketball. Not just in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA. Granted, all five teams ahead of the Blazers played in the West, but that's beside the point...
What's most important is that this squad was a legitimately great one. And it's only going to get better.
It would be understandable if Aldridge wanted to flee a good team that was entering a state of decline; it would be nonsensical for him to abandon a strong one that is on the rise.
Portland falls into the latter category.
According to ShamSports.com, the Blazers are capped out heading into this offseason, and things won't be much better during the summer of 2015. Sure, Portland may have only $27.7 million committed for the 2015-16 season once it picks up all the team options, but Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez will be free agents.
Re-signing them along with other Portland veterans poised to hit the market will likely push the team right back up against the cap.
So, are there other methods of growth available to Portland? It better hope so, seeing as only cap exceptions and veteran minimums will be used to bring in new free agents during the next few offseasons.
The draft is one manner in which Rip City can continue to improve. The team doesn't have any selections to take advantage of this year's stacked class, but it has a first-round pick every year in the foreseeable future. That's beneficial, but the draft won't be as meaningful to the Blazers' success as will be the development of young players already on the team.
Right now, the core of Portland's roster is extraordinarily young.
Aldridge (28) is actually the oldest starter, and he's joined by Lillard (23), Lopez (26), Matthews (27) and Nicolas Batum (25). Everyone should still be getting better, especially the point guard from Weber State. It took him two years to become a legitimate All-Star, and he's nowhere near his ceiling, especially considering his potential for improvement on the defensive end.
But the true growth will come on the bench.
C.J. McCollum struggled to recover from an injury that delayed the start of his rookie season this year, but the 22-year-old combo guard has plenty of time left to live up to his status as a lottery pick, admittedly one in a weak draft.
Thomas Robinson might have bounced among three teams during his first two professional seasons, but he's only 23 and looked quite good in limited action during his sophomore campaign. As for Meyers Leonard, the 22-year-old big man is very much a work in progress, but he's still filled with athleticism and upside.
At least one of these players will develop nicely, and any progress will greatly aid a bench that often held back the team. So too will the veterans that inevitably flock to a team on the rise.
Point being, 2013-14 wasn't a one-year adventure for Portland. It was the start of something special.
Aldridge, who became quite the fan favorite throughout such a successful season, isn't going to want to miss out on that.
Sleep easy, Blazers fans. He isn't going anywhere.
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