In a summer that's seen All-Stars change teams, league-mandated front office changes and bickering amongst ex-teammates, the FIBA World Cup and Team USA are becoming some of the most controversial topics of the summer.
And they still haven't even played a game in the tournament.
That all changes Saturday, though, when the United States play Finland in their first of five games of pool play. If anything, these games, while technically "official," provide more opportunity for Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski to play around with different lineups and units for the latter rounds.
The one Portland Trail Blazer that got the most coverage during the "tryout" period was Damian Lillard, who was essentially considered the replacement for ex-MVP Derrick Rose if his recently-operated on knees couldn't handle the schedule. However, it was determined by the coaching staff (and surely team doctors) that Rose would be able to make it through the grind overseas, and thus Lillard wasn't picked for the final 12 to make it to Spain.
However, Portland's other All-Star -- LaMarcus Aldridge -- was also on the team at one point. Initially invited to camp, Aldridge opted to not play during it. Before withdrawing, Aldridge was apparently invited to participate as a member of the final 19 (a group Lillard made it to) before removing his name from the roster.
Though it may not directly affect the Trail Blazers roster, and knowing the current state of the Team USA roster (namely, without many dominant front court players), it still begs the question:
Did LaMarcus Aldridge make a mistake by leaving the team?
There's obviously plenty of on arguments on both sides. For starters, injury risk is at the forefront of most people's minds after the horrific injury suffered by Paul George during a scrimmage (link omitted out of respect for your eyes and stomach). Described brutally by George as someone pouring gasoline on his leg and lighting a match to it, the injury serves as the greatest reminder of the sport of basketball: injuries, sometimes catastrophic ones, can happen at any time.
For Aldridge, the injury risk is a real one, just as it is for everyone. But in Aldridge's case, the risk was a monetary one as well -- after turning down a contract extension by the Blazers' front office this offseason, Aldridge becomes a candidate for a maximum contract extension at the end of the 2015 season. An injury, albeit generally unlikely (especially to the magnitude of Paul George), could be a real argument against participating in a tournament like this.
There's also the fatigue factor, though to a somewhat lesser degree. Over the last two seasons Aldridge has played in a combined two playoff series. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo wasn't thrilled with the idea of Aldridge leaving the team for rest or otherwise, citing a player like Kawhi Leonard as one that had legitimate fatigue concerns after playing in two straight NBA Finals. Either way, playing in an offseason tournament plus all of the other practices and tune-up games leading up to it could theoretically hinder LA's performance as a Trail Blazer.
But the arguments all go back to the money. Aldridge is prepared to sign a max contract in a year -- nothing he would've done with USA Basketball would make any difference to the views of Neil Olshey and company (or the rest of the league for that matter). Additionally, not only was there no long-term financial payoff, there wasn't a short-term payoff either. It's not like these guys get paid to play in a FIBA-sponsored tournament.
In short, the "Aldridge stock" is so high right now that the only thing that could devalue it would be sustaining an injury or running himself into the ground. While both unlikely, there still is the risk with little to no fiscal reward.
On the flip side, though, is to think about the NON-financial reward. This is really the precedent and argument put for by both Colangelo and Coach K: when you're with USA Basketball, you learn a tremendous amount. You're playing for a coaching staff that includes defensive gurus, offensive tacticians and leadership mentors. Plus, you're playing with some of the best players in the world while representing your country on an international stage.
The pride argument is one that's not necessarily "practical." It's not something you see in a stat sheet, nor is it something that makes you a better individual or team player. Representing Team USA (or any nation for that matter) is one that is probably the hardest to understand just because there are only a select few athletes in the world that have an opportunity like that. To say you have done it could surely improve your resume, but it's also something that's purely intangible.
The overall improvement you make while in the USA Basketball program, though, is a little more concrete. Players and coaches have talked numerous times about how important the opportunity was in developing their game. Even after suffering the injury, Paul George was excited and hopeful that he'd be able to play on the team in 2016. Just watching the short amount of games, it's obvious the types of impact guys like Kenneth Faried, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving are having on the team even when their respective NBA teams didn't make huge movements last season. That learning is invaluable.
The latter argument seems like the biggest missed opportunity for Aldridge. Playing for Coach K and defensive masterminds like Bulls' coach Tom Thibodeau and Syracuse head man Jim Boeheim would have provided excellent chances to improve his overall game on defense. Being reunited with Monty Williams and others might have taken his leadership skills to the next level, too. And, though offensively polished already, Aldridge could have learned a ton about the team-style that Terry Stotts implements from college basketball's all-time winningest coach.
Finally, with the way this team is currently constructed, Aldridge would've no doubt been one of the headline players in Spain. Obviously things were different when he was initially part of the team, as both Kevin Durant and Kevin Love (guys who play the same position as LMA) were still on the roster. However, in light of both of their withdrawals, Aldridge would have needed to beat out Kenneth Faried in order to get a starting spot on the team. Certainly it's not a foregone conclusion, but there's a legitimate possibility that's he's not only a member of USA Basketball, but a starter and one of the most experienced on the team. Leading the Trail Blazers is one thing -- leading Team USA is entirely different, and one that couldn't possibly have been a negative.
This is all to say that we don't exactly know what's going on. Maybe Aldridge thought that with Love and Durant in the picture it was unlikely he'd make the team, and getting cut would hurt his brand. Or, more likely, the changes of suffering a devastating injury weren't worth the reward of representing Team USA.
In the end, though, it seems like it was a missed opportunity. While playing defense against the risk for his pocketbook, he really lost out on an opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches in the world and play for a team that really needs a guy with his skills right now. He's big, athletic and has an inside-outside game. Within the concept of the 2014 version of Team USA, Aldridge is a perfect fit. Ultimately, the amount of development that could have occurred during a time when most are training on their own or playing in semi-informal scrimmages would've carried a tremendous amount of momentum into a season packed with high expectations.
For a player set on getting to the next level, sometimes you have to get a taste of it, whether it's in the NBA or otherwise.
Then again, we're not the one with millions of dollars on the line, either.