During his press conference following the 2015 NBA Draft, Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey fired back at rumors that star forward LaMarcus Aldridge is ready to depart the team via free agency.
The Aldridge departure story started gaining steam in the wee hours of Thursday morning as ESPN's Marc Stein and Chris Broussard quoted sources saying the probability of Aldridge leaving was 99.9%. It intensified Thursday afternoon as Erik Gundersen of The Columbian quoted a Western Conference executive saying that Aldridge had told the Blazers that he wouldn't return.
This led to Olshey denying one or both stories in tonight's press conference. Sample quotes from his speech:
"It's not true." - LaMarcus Aldridge to Neil Olshey on rumors.— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) June 26, 2015
LMA wanted Olshey to "say it’s not true."— Amy Schwartz (@TheAmySchwartz) June 26, 2015
Olshey says he talked to LaMarcus Aldridge a half hour ago, said he was "bemused" about the reports— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) June 26, 2015
Neil Olshey: "I hung up with LaMarcus a half-hour ago ... he was as bemused by the report as I was."— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) June 26, 2015
"It was misreported, it's not true" — Neil Olshey on reports that Aldridge has informed the team of his free agent plans— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) June 26, 2015
Olshey said "in no way" has Aldridge given any indication he would not be back.— Mike Tokito (@mtokito) June 26, 2015
Gundersen has replied with this Tweet:
Olshey says that Aldridge and he have spoke recently and he refutes our report from today. Which is here & I stand by http://t.co/92shw6FDhZ— Erik Gundersen (@blazerbanter) June 26, 2015
We appear to have conflicting reports: a dramatic story and an even more dramatic offensive against that story. Parsing out the truth in this kind of situation is near impossible, as it's colored by perspective. It's unlikely that either party is flat-out lying but the truth that each is telling may not lead to the polar conclusions that appear on the surface.
The obvious loophole on the media side is source quality. ESPN quotes sources who "know Aldridge". The Columbian quotes a Western Conference executive with knowledge of the situation. Without further details--impossible to obtain in situations like these--we're left to wonder whether these sources are both close and dispassionate enough to relay a clear view. They may not be lying, but do they know the whole truth? The only gauges we have are the same reporters who penned the stories. They know these sources; we don't.
Media are often accused of "drive-by" scandal reporting in order to generate hits, inflating claims for shaky sources. Those accusations have already flown in this instance. Neither report bears the hallmarks of that practice, though.
When a national media organization engages in this behavior, the usual pattern is an innuendo-filled brush against the subject, then silence. The goal is to stir the pot then let people dance around it without giving them more information which might lead them to see through the charade. An alternative approach is to have one national expert make a claim, then have another expert at the same network refute it. Either way the network can claim to have reported the "truth".
Neither of those things happened here. The story started as a simple assertion that Aldridge might be leaning towards the Los Angeles Lakers as a possible destination...certainly an avenue to click heaven given the size and prominence of that market. The story was edited overnight with added information that enhanced and shifted its focus to Aldridge's decision in general. Nor did an alternate view appear at ESPN to carry on the conversation and justify the network. It was the opposite of the innuendo-filled brush and the "play both sides" traffic sweep. If anything their commitment to a single view of the story increased.
Local media rarely employ these tactics. They're much more likely to consider themselves beholden to the organization and they have to deal with executives face to face . They want to break stories but they don't want to end up on an isolated island while doing so, lest they be singled out and discredited. Fabricating a story like this for quick hits would sacrifice viability for a temporary burst of notice. The benefit from inflating a shaky source for cheap traffic would be outweighed by the loss of credibility in a tight-knit circle of peers and readers.
We haven't even talked about journalistic ethics yet, which Erik Gundersen and the Columbian possess in spades. If he's standing by this story, it's a story. If he says a source is credible, it is.
If these stories aren't fabricated, don't carry the hallmarks of exaggeration, and the sources are close enough to be credited, we're left with the wiggle-room attributed to every source: what's their perspective and is it complete and accurate? It's possible that a Western Conference executive might not have the entire picture or may have heard only part of the story himself. It's possible that a source "close to Aldridge" may only be hearing and relaying part of Aldridge's thought process. This would allow both the source's stance and Olshey's to ring true.
Note that it's also possible that ESPN's source is Aldridge's agent himself and that they're being fed the exact story from the heart of his camp. We just don't know.
Whatever wiggle room we attribute to media sources must also come to rest on Olshey. We know that he cannot talk about these matters fully and openly. In fact, he was explicit in the press conference that Portland's PR department would allow only one question regarding Aldridge this evening. Here is the transcribed text of that question and Olshey's reply:
Reporter: *Has LaMarcus informed you of his intentions?*
Olshey: "Via ESPN? No. I hung up with LaMarcus a half hour ago. LaMarcus and I speak multiple times every week. He was as bemused by the report as I was. Thankfully, I had other things to distract me today to keep me from getting too infuriated by the reporting. I spoke with LaMarcus... I actually asked him, "how would you like me to address this?" And he said, "Just say it's not true. You and I know where we are right now." It was misreported. It's not true. I can tell you he has not informed anybody in this organization of his intention not to return to the team. We've always known that LaMarcus was going to have a robust free agent market. That it was a market we were gonna compete in. It's a market we're still planning to compete in. But in no way has he given us any indication that he is not returning to the Trail Blazers."
Note that the question was not, "Do you think Aldridge will return to the Blazers?" That's the central matter at hand, the issue everybody wants to know about. That's what a normal person would ask. That matter was never addressed. This question was set up specifically to give Olshey the chance to deny the media reports rather than talk about Aldridge.
Almost everything that follows is a dance of one sort or another, from, "Via ESPN?" (which is not implied, and of course Aldridge wouldn't have informed them in that fashion) to being infuriated (it doesn't matter how one feels about the matter when one is asked for the truth) to the fact that somehow Aldridge is asking Olshey to speak for him instead of answering the question himself (which you'd think he'd do if it were that important to him).
Olshey has one solid thrust in the middle of his reply, the straight claim that Aldridge has not informed anybody in the organization that he's not returning. The way it's phrased, this rings true. But even so, it doesn't completely invalidate the other stories. Aldridge may not have told the Blazers his full intentions or, as most of us do with bad news, may have soft-pedaled the news to the people it's going to hurt most. By the same token, he may have been freer and more direct with the people who ended up as media sources than he was with the Blazers. Or it may be just as Olshey says without qualification. Once again, we just don't know.
Left with two "just don't knows", we're left to guess. Since that speculation is going to happen anyway, I'll offer these two pieces of wisdom with the understanding that I don't know Aldridge's final destination any more than anyone else:
1. No matter who says what right now--up to and including Aldridge himself--things can change anytime up to the moment a final contract is signed. Aldridge could be all set to head elsewhere and then experience an 11th-hour change of heart. Nothing here is binding.
2. That said, this still smells far more like Aldridge leaving than staying. It's not just the media scrutiny but the lack of motive to do anything but tell the truth, the intensity of the reporting, and the widespread, multiple directions from which it's coming.
On the media side you have the wiggle room of not seeing sources face-to-face and maybe not having the complete story from any of them. But when the media operates with this level of surety and strength, they're usually pretty confident that they've got it right. Otherwise we'd see more voodoo and less intensity.
Olshey, on the other hand, can't tell the whole story even if he has it and (perhaps understandably) hasn't addressed the heart of the story, only this side-channel of how much and in what ways he's been informed. If everything ESPN and The Columbian have reported is dead on, it indicates Aldridge is leaving. If everything Olshey has said is dead on, it still may indicate that Aldridge is leaving...it in no way indicates that he's not leaving.
ESPN and The Columbian spent their time talking about Aldridge. Olshey spent his time talking about ESPN and The Columbian, not really Aldridge. The wiggle is bigger in the second case than in the first, which usually means the first assertion stands on more solid ground. There might be a glimmer of hope for Aldridge devotees in what Olshey said tonight, but it's pretty faint.
In any case, we may never get the answer to all of this. But we will get a firm answer to the question of Aldridge staying or leaving in a couple weeks. After that, none of this will matter.
Note: In the course of the press conference Olshey mentioned that his wife is suffering from illness. The Blazer's Edge community joins in wishing her a speedy recovery. Basketball is basketball but life is more important than any draft or free agent decision.