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What's At Stake for the Trail Blazers in Free Agency This Year?

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LaMarcus Aldridge will become an unrestricted free agent in July. How big of a barrel are the Blazers over and how do they get on top of it?

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we talked about what's at stake in this summer's free agency process for LaMarcus Aldridge. Today we look at what Aldridge's decision means to the Portland Trail Blazers.

What's at Stake for the Trail Blazers in LaMarcus Aldridge's Free Agency?

THE LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE EFFECT

Let's start by looking at some numbers. This season Aldridge ranked #1 in field goals made, #3 in field goals attempted, 18th in free throws made, 8th in defensive rebounds, 11th in total rebounds, 7th in points scored, 13th in minutes per game, just out of the top 20 in total minutes played, 7th in points per game, 9th in rebounds per game, 9th in PER, 5tn in turnover percentage, 7th in usage percentage, and 20th in Defensive Win Shares in the entire NBA.

Don't worry about parsing out all that; instead let the cumulative effect wash over you. Those numbers don't just indicate that Aldridge is one of the better players in the league, they show how vital he is to the Trail Blazers. Portland depends on Aldridge as much as any team in the league depends on their best player, maybe more.

Hitting more field goals than anybody else in the NBA doesn't necessarily make you the best offensive player. It does establish you as the hub of your team's offense. At the top of the list with Aldridge in field goals made are Steph Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis. Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lillard accompany LaMarcus atop the field goals attempted chart. Every one of those players except Lillard would make the first sentence of a "Players who Carry Their Team" essay.

Aldridge's central place isn't just indicative of talent, but of how the Blazers have been built. Portland's offense is designed to generate three-pointers, offensive rebounds, and cuts through an open lane. To make it work they need somebody who will draw defensive attention out of the lane, shifting defenders to one side of the floor. LaMarcus could not be more perfect for this. His mid-range shot is impeccable, his ability to score over single coverage all but unimpeachable.

Consider Robin Lopez. He is the Greek giant Antaeus who defeats everyone as long as his feet remain in contact with the ground. In Lopez's case we can replace "ground" with "paint". Lopez averages over 4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes in part because Aldridge's offense leaves room for him in the lane. Sub in a classic, post-up power forward and Lopez gets pushed out of his effective zone.

The same is true on defense. Lopez looks strong because Aldridge either defends perimeter bigs for him or has the speed to swoop in and help at the cup when Lopez can't get there.

Look at Wesley Matthews. His offense has diversified and he's capable of hitting shots with the ball in his hands now, but most of his scoring still happens on the weak side of the floor. When the defense shades towards LaMarcus on the left, Matthews is 1-2 passes away from an open three or a quick drive.

LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't just score 23 points per game with 10 rebounds for the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge makes everybody else on this team who they are. He allows them to take advantage of their talent and skill, making them look better than they would otherwise.

Aldridge isn't just a player, he's a domino poised to tip this team's future one way or the other. If he stays, the Blazers can retain the bulk of their core, confident that (health permitting) they have a chance to contend over the next 3-4 years. If he goes, the story is much different.

THE BLAZERS WITHOUT ALDRIDGE

In yesterday's team exit interviews Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey was quoted thus:

Not as long as LaMarcus Aldridge is a free agent, you don't. No contingency plan exists to replace him save retooling the team from the ground up.

The situation could be likened to Clyde Drexler leaving in 1995 or Bill Walton in 1979. Those championship-contending teams had plenty of talent around their superstars: Maurice Lucas, Cliff Robinson, Lionel Hollins, Rod Strickland to name a few. It didn't matter. They were never the same without their key player.

If Aldridge leaves, his teammates' liabilities show more and their strengths tell less. Perhaps you noticed Portland's offense struggling to generate and hit open shots during the series with the Grizzlies as Aldridge's production plummeted. That's the story every night if he's gone.

Under these conditions re-signing Lopez makes little sense. Matthews too, perhaps, and Batum next year. The Blazers would be paying their roster to support a player who was no longer there.

Some might suggest a sign-and-trade, bringing talent back in exchange for Aldridge. For one thing, it's too late. If watching him walk out the door was going to be a possibility, the Blazers could have gotten a mint in trade for him over the last 2 years. They could have picked up draft picks, young talent, or even somebody else's disgruntled star.

Provided Aldridge would agree to a sign-and-trade, who would another team give up to make it worth the Blazers' time? If the trade partner has a star, they're getting Aldridge to play alongside him, not in place of him. Would the Blazers want a package of lesser players eating up $18 million of cap space when they won't have the same effect Aldridge did?

The only situation that makes sense would be trading Aldridge to a team with young talent to spare. That'd reset the roster too, but at least the Blazers could build towards the future. But the chances of that happening in a sign-and-trade are narrower than in an open field deal.

More likely Portland would have to forego the sign-and-trade, settling for the cap space LaMarcus would leave in his wake. But they'd be getting that space a year before everybody else in the league gets the same because of the new TV contract. They'd collect the asset right before its value dropped.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL CASE

If you want to see Exhibit A of how the Blazers' fortunes would turn with Aldridge gone, look no further than Arron Afflalo. He was acquired to bolster a bench looking to make a serious playoff run. But the "serious" part of the equation would depart with Aldridge, leaving Afflalo in roughly the same situation he faced in Denver: battling for minutes in a crowded backcourt on a team that wasn't going beyond the first round, if that far. Retaining Afflalo wouldn't make sense under those circumstances. Portland would need to trade him or settle for even more devalued cap space in a seller's market when he left as a free agent.

Meanwhile the Blazers gave up an asset of true value--their first-round pick in 2016--to get Afflalo. If their record diminished after Aldridge left, the value of that pick would go up. They'd have lost one of their most important assets for a player they ended up not needing.

NBA rules would also prevent them from trading their suddenly-attractive future picks until after draft night, 2016, and maybe longer if pick-protection prevented the deal from going through. The Afflalo deal wouldn't just cost them an important asset, but near-term flexibility.

A cost that seemed minor in February with Aldridge in tow and the future looking bright would now leave the Blazers twisting in the wind. That's the difference this decision makes.

CONCLUSION

For all these reasons, the Blazers need to get a deal done with LaMarcus Aldridge this summer. He's going to win either way, getting paid big money whether he stays or goes. Portland only wins if he stays.

Whichever side has more to lose usually ends up giving up the most in negotiations. Unless something goes wonky in July--or unless they plan to start over again, building primarily around Lillard and draft picks--the Blazers will be trying to stuff as much money in Aldridge's pockets as he can stand.

If Aldridge doesn't re-sign with Portland, if he leaves and the Blazers get nothing of value in return, it'll end up one of the most monumental blunders in team history. After the demise of the 2000 Western Conference Finals team, after the Jailblazers, after the fractured end to the Brandon Roy-Greg Oden saga, we'll be talking about another hole this franchise has to dig out of. After dreaming of contention 6 months ago, we'll be wondering whether Portland's success will ever be measured in more than 4-year bites.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge