It’ll be weeks, even months, before the dust from the 2014 free-agent frenzy finally settles. Not that we’ll rest before rustling up the source of next summer’s storms, of course.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge highlights a 2015 cast of talent that, while not quite the caliber of cornerstones we’ve seen on the move these past few months, remains no less loaded with potential game-changers.
To bring Portland its first championship in nearly four decades is clearly something that motivates the Blazers big man.
Whether the team can effectively build around the 29-year-old Aldridge is, of course, an entirely different question.
The good news for Blazers fans: According to a July 8 interview with The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman, Aldridge is committed to remaining in Portland for the long haul:
I want to be the best Blazer—ever. If I stay the rest of my career, I should be able to catch Clyde [Drexler] by then. … And I will be able to say I played here my whole career. This city has embraced me and grown with me. I have so much history, it just makes sense to stay.
To be sure, with a core that includes third-year phenom Damian Lillard, two-way wizard Nicolas Batum, rim-protecting pivot Robin Lopez and sharpshooting 2-guard Wesley Matthews, the Blazers don’t lack for a serious starting five.
It’s the rest of the roster that’s proven the real pickle.
According to HoopsStats.com, the Blazers have wielded the league’s worst bench, in terms of pure point production, over each of the last two seasons.
And while that alone isn’t a hard-set harbinger for one’s title chances—only four teams in the last 10 seasons have won a championship while finishing in the top 10—Portland’s bench has presented a unique challenge, both positionally and production-wise.
Writing at Blazer’s Edge, Dave Deckard tackles what’s proven Portland’s biggest Achilles' heel lo these past few years:
It's hard to break down Portland's bench woes into, "They need a scorer" or "They need a rebounder" when they need almost everything. Most of all, they need to not be so young. They need enough serviceable players to alleviate their dependence on non-dimensional veterans who lack scoring or rebounding or defense. They don't need every player to be a jack-of-all-trades veteran. They just need enough different dimensions off their bench that they can pick and choose, compensating for matchups, not making opponent adjustments so easy.
The additions of center Chris Kaman and backup point guard Steve Blake will certainly help. As will next-year jumps from the likes of Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum. To truly make a team-wide leap, however, will require Portland make more than mere fringe improvements.
The first and most immediate concern (beyond Aldridge, that is) will be to ink Lillard to a long-term contract when he becomes eligible for an extension next summer. At that point, it’ll be up to billionaire owner Paul Allen to let his wallet do the talking.
Matthews, for example, is slated to become a restricted free-agent next summer. Does Allen decide to double down on his starting shooting guard’s two-way prowess, perhaps at a significantly higher price tag?
Or does he set his sites on a crop that could include Arron Afflalo (player option), Gerald Green, Danny Green and Gerald Henderson?
With five team options on their docket for the 2015-16 season, it’s clear Allen and the Blazers intend to retain as much flexibility as possible. Not surprising, considering the monster free agents set to hit the market that summer.
And while Portland might not be in the running for LeBron James or Kevin Durant, the class touts plenty in the way of second-tier stars, with Afflalo, DeMar DeRozan, Dwight Howard and, last but not least, Batum being just a few notable examples.
Just how ready will Allen—bitten by the championship bug as he must be after watching his Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl—be willing to break the bank? If a 2011 interview with Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune is to be believed, Blazers fans shouldn’t hold their breath (h/t ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott).
As an owner, you want to do the team right, the fans right, the community right, and build a winning organization. It comes back to the desire to win and enjoy with the fans and the community the success you have. I’ve invested a lot, but the crazy luxury-tax days are gone.
It’s one thing to say, "It’s a near-championship year, I’ll spend a little extra money on free agents." To do that on a regular basis doesn’t make sense.
These are not the remarks of a spendthrift, per se. But nor do they suggest Allen is in any way prepared to pay out with the likes of Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, either.
Still, if having a genuine chance to hang the team’s first championship since 1977 means wading—rather than cannonballing—into luxury-tax territory, that’s probably a dice roll Allen will be willing to make.
In Aldridge and Lillard, Portland boasts one of the top five forward-guard combos in the league. But while Lillard’s relative youth and upside could, in time, yield the bigger star, it’s Aldridge’s team to lead, win or lose.
For a franchise well-versed in vicious blows to its keystone big men—from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden—building a team around Aldridge must feel at once a like a terrifying tightrope walk and poetic justice long overdue.
Unlike those bygone tragi-heroes, however, Aldridge's has been a career built, in both style and statistical substance, on steadfast sturdiness and steady improvement. And judging by his latest breakout year, there shouldn't be many more small steps left before the floor that hangs the banners.