We're only a couple days into the 2015 NBA free agency season, and it's already been nothing short of epic. There are monster sums of money ($145 million for Anthony Davis!), surprising deals (Paul Pierce to the Clippers - and for three years!), countless meetings, plenty of cap maneuverings and tons of player movement already. It's everything you could ask for.
And yet, to me at least, this summer has still felt a little weird.
It took me a while to figure out exactly why. But I think I've finally managed to put a finger on it.
Here's what dawned upon me. LaMarcus Aldridge is the best player in this free agent class - pretty clearly, I'd say. I'm not counting guys like Davis who signed extensions with their current teams, or someone like LeBron James who's technically a "free agent" but obviously going to stay put. Among legitimately free agents - the guys who might actually leave their current situations - LMA is king. Apologies to DeAndre Jordan, but no.
What's weird is that usually, when there's a guy in the free agent class who's clearly the best player - the type of talent that can transform a franchise overnight - that player is written about to death. Not just the news items about his meetings and negotiations, and not just the breakdown of his on-court potential, either. But usually, you get a great deal of armchair psychoanalysis about the guy as well. What makes him tick? What motivates him? How is his decision in free agency affected by his personality, and how does it fit into his larger life goals?
With Aldridge, there's been very little of that. Don't get me wrong - people have tried to discuss LaMarcus the guy, as opposed to LaMarcus the basketball player, but for the most part, it's all been idle speculation. Talk radio hosts have blabbed about whether Aldridge cares most about winning, or loyalty, or #branding himself as a celebrity, but they're all just guessing. Who can say anything about the man with any degree of confidence? To put the question more simply - who out there really knows LaMarcus Aldridge?
It's a strange question to ask about a guy who's been a franchise cornerstone in Portland for nine years. But seriously, think about it. What do we know about him? Sure, he's got a nice mid-range jumper and he can get you 10 rebounds a night. But what's he like as a person? What are his values? What's his belief system? What I'm getting at, of course, is: As he gets ready to make this momentous, life-changing career decision, what is he thinking about?
It's hard to know. Aldridge is a pretty quiet, reserved guy. He says all the right things to the media, he hides from the spotlight and he dutifully goes out and does his job 82 nights a year. Beyond that, he rarely gives you a glimpse into what he's all about.
So all we're left to do is guess.
How much does Aldridge care about money?
We should start by stating the obvious here - there's a ton of money on the line for Aldridge this summer, and he needs to consider his finances before he signs on the dotted line with anyone. Because of the way Larry Bird rights are configured in the league's current CBA, Aldridge has a financial incentive to stay with the Blazers - as our fearless leader Dave Deckard pointed out, he can make $108 million in five years if he stays in Portland, versus only $80 million over four years with someone else. That fifth year might be crucial here - a lot of players decline physically between ages 29 and 33, and there's no guarantee that Aldridge will still be a max guy four years from now. Does that sound crazy to you? Just think: Dwyane Wade is now 33, and look how he's declined in the last four years.
Neil Olshey can guarantee Aldridge $28 million more in guaranteed cash than anyone else. That's big. I know, I know, he's already a very rich man either way, and his quality of life probably won't change much whether his career earning totals $150 million or $178 mil. But it's still hard to say no to a massive stockpile of cash like that.
Does that matter to Aldridge? I have no way of knowing. But if he decides in the next few days to leave the money on the table and skip town, we'll have a much clearer idea.
How much does Aldridge care about winning?
This is the assumption that we always have about athletes, right? That winning is the one factor that matters to them above all else? With Aldridge, we have no reason to doubt his competitive spirit. After all, this is a guy who played this entire past season despite a torn thumb ligament that should have kept him out 12 months. Clearly, he's a fighter.
But what happens when the chance to be a winner is pitted against other values, like money or loyalty (more on that one later)? Also, what will Aldridge decide if he's faced with "short-term versus long-term winning" decision? For example, the Spurs are sure to be formidable next year if they have LMA in the fold, but what if he doubts their long-term viability due to the ages of the Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili/Tony Parker troika?
Some guys play the game to win a title - any title. Others would rather position themselves to be in the mix for three or five years. Simply saying "I want the best possible chance to win" sometimes isn't simple at all.
How much does Aldridge value loyalty?
Some players, even the superstars, make decisions based on their loyalty to "their" guys. I covered the Celtics for a few years, and I can't tell you how many times I heard a rumor of Kevin Garnett vetoing a potential trade because he wanted to stick with his best friends, Pierce and Doc Rivers. Look at LeBron - he made his earth-shattering "Decision" in 2010 because he was close with Wade and Chris Bosh personally. Some people care just as much about their friendships as they do all the other stuff.
Is Aldridge that guy? We've heard plenty about how close he is with Olshey - they still talk daily, allegedly. The last few years, he's been best buds with Wesley Matthews (who now appears to be on his way out of Portland too). Does he have any friends in Portland worth staying for? What about Aldridge's role in the community in Portland? Does he have a strong enough connection to the city to make any difference? Or does he feel more loyal to Texas than the Pacific Northwest (remember: San Antonio is only a 90-minute drive from Austin, where Aldridge attended college)?
None of these are things we have a clear read on, but all could have an impact.
How much does Aldridge crave respect?
This, to me, is a big one. There have been rumblings for a long, long time now about Aldridge bearing resentment toward other Blazers who have been more popular than he. He was hiding in the shadow of Brandon Roy for the first five years of his career, and after Roy's retirement in 2011, there was only a brief one-year window before Damian Lillard arrived and became the new favorite son. Despite being a fantastic player here for nearly a decade, LMA has never really had his chance to be the undisputed leader of the Trail Blazers.
Then again, it's hard to say whether he could get that status anywhere else, either. Imagine if Aldridge goes to San Antonio. The three veteran leaders are obviously royalty in that town, and LMA would merely be the mercenary hired to join them. Even after those guys move on, will Aldridge ever get a chance to be the most respected Spur? Doubtful considering that Kawhi Leonard is already a Finals MVP and a budding superstar player.
A lot of players have a desire to be respected. With Aldridge, at least if you believe the buzz that's out there, this is a big deal - he's never enjoyed being overshadowed by other, more glamorous star players. Then again, given the options he's currently facing, he may not have a choice.
Does Aldridge want to carry out tradition, or blaze his own trail?
Obviously, if Aldridge goes to San Antonio, he will be following in the path of other great big men who have come before him. The Spurs won a title in 1999 with the veteran David Robinson mentoring the younger Tim Duncan; while the situation wouldn't be quite the same, the 2016 Spurs would probably have a similar feel, with the outgoing Duncan passing on his wisdom to the next-generation guy. The Spurs over the years have had a system that's tried and true. They produce champions.
There's something noble about being a part of that, but it's also a tad unoriginal. Winning a championship in San Antonio - the sixth of the Duncan era - might not have the same emotional impact as winning one in Portland. This city hasn't seen a title in almost four decades. Bill Walton is old enough to be Pat Connaughton's grandpa. If Aldridge were to stay here and build a winner here, he'd be achieving something far bigger than just tossing another ring on the pile. Aldridge's pledge last summer about being the "best Blazer ever" was a realistic one. In Portland, he has a chance to leave a unique legacy. He might not have that opportunity anywhere else.
Ultimately, though, I can't tell you whether that matters to him. No one can, really, except Aldridge himself. Until a decision happens, we're all going to keep doing what we do best - speculate, speculate and speculate some more.
So let's speculate. What do we know about LaMarcus Aldridge, the man? What does he want? In the end, why will he make the choice that he makes? Your guess is as good as mine.