Now that the season is done, it's time to tackle what will be the #1 issue of the Summer of 2015 for the Portland Trail Blazers: the future of LaMarcus Aldridge. In July Aldridge will become an unrestricted free agent, capable of signing with any team he wishes. NBA rules prohibit last-minute trades of players with expiring contracts. The Blazers have no choice but to let him hit the market, hoping he opts to stay with them.
Most of the discussion thus far has centered around Aldridge's personal decision. Media and fans spent the last 2 weeks deciphering veiled comments and chasing rumors. It's a fruitless pursuit. Only one person gets to make the decision. Nobody else can read his mind. We're not going to know until the choice is made and announced. All the talking in the world won't change that.
We can about what's at stake for the Blazers and Aldridge this summer, though. Understanding the environment in which the decision will be made will help us grasp its implications, illuminating the process if not the actual outcome.
Today we're going to examine what's on the table for LaMarcus. Tomorrow we'll look at the Trail Blazers point of view.
What's at Stake for LaMarcus Aldridge
LaMarcus Aldridge will turn 30 years old this summer. Having just completed his 9th season, he's in the prime of his career. But you can see the other side from here. 32 and 33 are looming and will likely arrive before Aldridge's next contract is complete.
Aldridge's $16 million paycheck this season was the largest he's received. Given his production, Portland's win-loss record, and the national accolades he's received, Aldridge is in line for a pay increase. He may end up signing 1 or 2 more contracts in his career but he'll never have the leverage he does at this moment. The decisions he makes this summer will set him up for the rest of his life...or at least pave the way even if the final signature comes 2-3 years from now.
No matter what contract structure Aldridge leans towards, the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows the Trail Blazers to offer him more money than any other team can. That won't change. But Aldridge's decision isn't as simple as, "Commit to signing the biggest contract offer and get on with your summer." Three other factors come into play.
If Aldridge wants to be one of the top players on a championship team, he has maybe 5 years to accomplish it. He'll probably be able to contribute at age 36 and beyond but he won't be the main focus of his team anymore.
During the Memphis Grizzlies series the popular assessment of Portland's future was relatively depressing. "The Blazers are stuck" and "Aldridge might not want to be on a team that's going nowhere" became common refrains. Though understandable given Portland's steep fall, these comments lack perspective.
The Trail Blazers franchise reset when Brandon Roy and Greg Oden fell to career-ending injuries in 2010 and 2011. Portland missed the playoffs for 2 straight years, picking up Damian Lillard in the process. The fruits of the nascent Aldridge-Lillard era have been a first-round victory over the Houston Rockets followed by a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, then a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies this year.
Two years is not enough time for this franchise to get "stuck", nor to judge momentum. A year ago the Blazers were glad just to make it to the playoffs. This year the goals were higher but the team entered the post-season crippled by injuries. Had Wesley Matthews been healthy and had the Blazers faced the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, this year's accomplishments probably would have equaled last year's. A 30-8 start to the season portended better than a 1-3 first-round exit.
As we said on this week's edition of our podcast, had Portland's 2014 and 2015 results been inverted the current narrative surrounding the team would be much different. The Blazers would have been fine with losing to the Grizzlies in 2014, especially with injuries involved. They still would have met their goal of reaching the post-season that year. Had they gone on to a thrilling first-round victory this year followed by a second-round loss to the eventual champions, everybody would be talking about them right now as a team on the rise in the West. The words "stuck" and "not attractive" wouldn't be in the lexicon.
The last public statement we heard from Aldridge about the Blazers came as he returned from thumb injury in late January. He declined surgery, opting to play out a season which he described as "special". Though further injuries made the gesture moot, his assessment of the team's potential when healthy probably stands.
We can be confident that championship contention is on Aldridge's wish list, as this is true of most every player. We have to be careful about assuming that this desire automatically excludes returning to Portland, either empirically or in Aldridge's estimation. We do not know that. All we know is that his statements and actions up to this point have indicated the contrary. Up until now Aldridge has not only believed in his teammates, but publicly praised and sacrificed for them.
The NBA's new broadcast rights deal throws a monkey wrench into Aldridge's decision. We'll look at hard numbers in a separate post, but here's the general lay of the land.
Maximum contracts are calculated as a percentage of the current salary cap. The more years of service you have behind you the bigger percentage of the cap you command.
This summer's salary cap won't include the influx of television dollars from the new deal. It'll probably sit between $60-70 million. The cap is projected to rise above $100 million (more than half again the current amount) by 2017.
As a 9-year veteran Aldridge can receive 30% of his team's cap this summer. Once he's served his 10th year that number goes up to 35%.
35% of $100+ million per year in 2017 is a far bigger number than 30% of $60+ million is now. Signing a 2-year deal or a 3-year deal could be attractive to Aldridge under these circumstances.
The "home team" advantage in contract negotiations comes in the ability to offer an extra, 5th year on a deal. Other teams can only offer Aldridge 4 years at max salary, Portland can make it 5. All other things being equal, that's the difference between a guaranteed $80-ish million contract and $100+ million, which is significant.
The impending cap balloon throws this out of whack. By using an early-Bird exception after a 2-year contract an opposing team could roughly equal Portland's $100+ million max offer to Aldridge in 4 years, not 5. A full Bird exception after a 3-year contract could set him up for incredible money. The Blazers' 5-year "max" offer--which is absolutely the best they can do this year--isn't actually the max Aldridge can earn anymore.
Rest assured, Portland could still offer more money than anyone if they, too, proposed a short-term contract and then re-signed him with their own Bird Rights. If Aldridge wants the absolute most money, Portland is the destination.
But if this year's 5-year, max-money offer from Portland was good enough for Aldridge and remains so, he can now reasonably expect that same amount of money in a shorter time from any team with cap space to sign him this summer. As cap guru Storyteller says, Portland's "home-town advantage" offer isn't an advantage anymore, it's the "home-town discount" if Aldridge signs it.
Aldridge will need to balance the risk of injury and his projected earning power after 2 more seasons against the potential financial gain of a shorter-term contract. He'll also need to be wary of the CBA changing in 2017 as the owners and players prepare to fight over the bonanza of dollars. But if he is leaning towards another team, the financial implications of that decision are a whole lot easier to swallow this year than they would have been before the TV deal got signed.
It's a whole new world financially. Aldridge and his agents have to decide how to best take advantage of it.
No matter what Aldridge thinks or feels, revealing a preference--let alone a commitment--before all offers are on the table would be a bad business decision. If LaMarcus Aldridge were dreamily doodling Trail Blazers logos inside his Pee-Chee at this very moment, his agent would still tell him to keep completely mum about his desires and he'd be a fool not to.
If the Blazers knew Aldridge was committed to them for life, their incentive to maximize his deal would diminish. The team is looking at re-signing 3 starters this year, another next, and extending Lillard for an enormous sum in the process. Every dime they save helps them with cap flexibility, luxury-tax avoidance, and the bottom line. Aldridge can't risk getting wrapped up in their cost-cutting measures at the peak of his earning power.
Voicing a preference for Portland would also offer disincentive to other teams who might make an offer. Value gets determined when people bid for your services. Fewer bids means less demand, less basis upon which to judge value.
This holds true even if Aldridge is committed to staying in Portland. But as much as Blazers fans don't want to admit it, he could be undecided. Even if Portland is one of his options, Aldridge might want to see all the fields in play before determining where the grass is greenest. Wouldn't you, in his position? If so, you'd need to keep still until all the offers had come in before even hinting at a commitment.
No matter what questions he's asked, Aldridge will not voice a preference early in this process...at least not if he's smart. The advantages to him are zero, the potential costs high. That means Portland fans will need to get used to hearing silence without interpreting it as doom.
But silence doesn't mean Aldridge is staying either. Being non-committal means absolutely nothing except Aldridge is smart enough not to short-circuit a once-in-a-lifetime process upon which his financial future hangs just so we can all feel better.
Tomorrow: What's at stake for the Blazers...
And believe me, you don't want to miss that. Call your friends and neighbors and buckle...the heck...up.