When it comes to NBA free agency, armchair general managers—as in everyone who isn't an actual NBA GM—tend to pair available players with teams that have the cash and the need, as if the entire procedure is akin to acquiring and installing a missing part on a car.
The problem with that: Car parts don't have feelings. Free agent LaMarcus Aldridge does. Among them: jealousy, disappointment, loyalty and fear. Jealousy over how other stars are treated. Disappointment over another postseason ending far too soon. Loyalty to a teammate and friend whose future is suddenly unknown. Fear that he will look back on his career and wonder about the road not taken.
All that, apparently, is why a source familiar with Aldridge's thinking said several weeks ago that the about-to-be 30-year-old power forward was aggressively exploring options other than returning to Portland.
Indeed, he moved out of the house he rented from former Blazer Damon Stoudamire, and it is up for sale. But will Aldridge’s emotions be tempered by the prospect of leaving $27 million on the table, the amount a Blazers maximum-salaried contract differs from the maximum that can be offered under collective bargaining agreement rules by any other team?
Or, as someone who uses TXBOY12 as his moniker, will the tug of finishing his career near home win out? Will the frustration of having only made it past the first round of the playoffs once in five tries with the Blazers, the only team he's ever known, prompt him to see if his fortunes are better with, say, the perennially title-contending Spurs? Would the lure of joining forces again with his close friend and fellow Texan, Mavericks assistant coach Kaleb Canales, pull him in that direction? Or would being the undisputed centerpiece of an up-and-coming team such as the Celtics in the easier-to-navigate East appeal to him?
Aldridge did not respond to messages seeking comment, nor did Blazers GM Neil Olshey. But sources from both sides of their relationship confirmed two significant points: First, Aldridge isn't feeling the same way he did last summer when he publicly stated his intention of signing an extension with the Blazers this summer; second, there isn't a clear-cut better situation for him than what he has in Portland.
Of his potential suitors, league sources indicate that the Mavericks are the biggest threat to pull Aldridge away from the Blazers, but it's the general idea of returning to Texas, not a specific destination, that appeals to him. Both the Mavericks and Spurs, of course, could have the requisite cap space, reputation of success and location.
Both also may not be perfect fits. Several sources have indicated that the Spurs, for whatever reason, are either off his list or not very high on it. And the question concerning Dallas is: Does an aging Dirk Nowitzki truly give him a better chance of competing for a title? Dallas, sources say, is clearly interested, but where he sits on its priority list is not clear.
"LaMarcus feels, as all great players do, that wherever he goes he'll have a great chance," a source familiar with his thinking said. "But don't think about this as what makes the most sense. He feels he's been in Portland a long time and that maybe it's time for a change. That's what is driving this."
While Aldridge is considered one of a handful of soon-to-be free-agent big men worthy of a maximum-salary contract—a list expanded to a half-dozen names thanks to the anticipated influx of TV revenue that will raise the salary cap in coming years—there are reasons Aldridge could slide to the middle of a list that includes Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez and Greg Monroe.
Start with a combination of his health and age. Only Gasol, already 30, is older among the six. Aldridge also was diagnosed years ago with cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that has not impacted his career but nonetheless has to give pause to any team looking to build around him for the next five years. Then there's the torn ligament in his left thumb with which he played the second half of the season.
The Blazers would happily look past all that, league sources say, and keep Aldridge in the fold if he had no reservations about staying, but the team has heard the whispers that Aldridge feels as if he's consistently had to take a backseat, whether it be to former Blazers Brandon Roy or Greg Oden, and now to current point guard Damian Lillard.
If true, that's a concern for the franchise because it has gone out of its way in recent years to treat him as if he's its cornerstone. When coach Terry Stotts was hired, Aldridge was the only one Olshey and Stotts flew to visit. Aldridge also apparently has been in the loop on all roster decisions and first in line when it comes to their marketing and PR plans, a source said.
If he truly is still disgruntled about his place in the franchise's pecking order, it has to make the Blazers wonder: Will he ever be satisfied? Or could he be the next Shawn Marion, a crucial cog in the Phoenix Suns' success next to Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire, but always somewhat disenchanted that he wasn't given more recognition.
There's no denying, of course, that from a national perspective, Aldridge's profile isn't any higher than Lillard's despite arriving in the league six years earlier. Adidas has promoted Lillard more prominently than Nike has Aldridge. The personalities of Roy, Lillard and Oden seem to have resonated more deeply with fans as well, although Aldridge did draw nearly three times the All-Star votes as Lillard last season.
On the court, the truth is the Blazers need at least one more player of Aldridge and Lillard's caliber to compete for a title. To acquire that player, the Blazers may have to think twice about investing in Wes Matthews, a free-agent swingman who suffered a torn Achilles tendon before the playoffs and happens to be Aldridge's closest friend on the team. Devoting a major chunk of the cap to Aldridge and Matthews would be a gamble, health-wise, for Olshey. And if Aldridge already feels attention-starved, how would he react to another star added to the mix? Especially if that star is coming in and supplanting his best friend?
"The uncertainty surrounding Wes changes everything," one league executive said.
On the flip side, if Aldridge is looking to find a team that checks off more boxes than the Blazers, he's going to be hard-pressed to find one among the teams capable of offering him a four-year max salary. The Lakers and Knicks are not considered viable options, league sources said, because Aldridge isn't likely to sacrifice $27 million—the difference between a max five-year deal with the Blazers and a four-year deal with anyone else—to join a rebuilding team in a bigger, more expensive market.
Of greater intrigue is a San Antonio team trying to keep its title window open. The Spurs do not yet know if Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are returning, but they are tentatively approaching free agency as if they are, setting their crosshairs on acquiring one of any of the aforementioned big men. But uncertainty of not knowing how much longer coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan and Ginobili plan to keep going might be reason enough for Aldridge to think twice about the Spurs.
While a rumor about a sign-and-trade deal that would send him to the Celtics emerged, league sources are skeptical whether Aldridge or the Blazers would agree to one. For the Blazers, neither Boston's 16th pick nor its young big men are enticing; for Aldridge, if Portland's weather is as unappealing to him as it supposedly is, he certainly would want no part of New England winters. And while the East postseason competition is a little thinner, is there any reason to believe the Celtics have a chance of getting to the Finals before the Northwest Division-champion Blazers?
At various times this season, there have been rumors about every prospective free agent, both restricted and unrestricted, being a candidate to go elsewhere. Their respective teams—Blazers included—understand that the largest sack of guaranteed money isn't the fail-safe bargaining chip it once was; Dwight Howard and LeBron James are proof of that.
But they also know that feelings stirred up by events during the season—Aldridge's included—have a way of dissipating with time and distance.
"They are all determined to go elsewhere, until they do or don't," said one league executive. "It always changes in July, when (the conversation) goes from the subjective to the objective."
History and common sense say the massive difference in guaranteed money wins out and Aldridge stays put. After all, Chris Bosh, another Dallas native, was all set to join the Rockets last summer until the Miami Heat upped the ante beyond what Houston could offer.
How did that work out?
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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