Many Blazers fans just went through what was likely one of their most tumultuous, uncertain and uneasy two weeks of following their favorite team. What started with the trades of long-time starter Nicolas Batum and Portland-staple Steve Blake evolved into the departures of fan-favorites Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Finally, after days of rumors swirling around while the Blazers faithful sweated out the opening of NBA free agency last week, LaMarcus Aldridge announced on Saturday that he'd be leaving Portland after almost a decade spent in town for fewer years and less money in San Antonio, where he could chase a ring with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs' supporting cast.
Four-fifths of the Blazers' starting lineup from the last two seasons now reside in different cities across the map; Batum traded in his Rip City residency for a Buzz City membership in Charlotte, Lopez is now plying his trade for $13.5 million a year in New York near his twin brother Brook, Matthews accepted a four-year, $52 million deal to join up with Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks while Aldridge went back home to Texas to be near his friends and family with the intent of icing his fingers out with NBA Championship jewelry in the coming years.
The first three transactions were tough to swallow but ultimately, most Blazers fans can probably understand GM Neil Olshey's decisions; Batum was too inconsistent on the court for many followers' tastes and was entering the last year of his long-term deal with the team. Lopez' value in Portland was debatable as his price tag approached eight figures a year, let alone the $54 million over four years he netted from the Knicks. And on the heels of a potentially catastrophic injury that has warped -- for the worse -- the careers of more than a few players, Matthews' asking price of $15 million a season heading into free agency had to make the prospects of retaining him feel at least a little unrealistic to many.
But that last departure...man, that one stings a little. Aldridge, Portland's four-time All-Star and All-NBA talent who was a long-time cornerstone of the franchise, left even the most casual of Blazers supporters miffed as he fielded free agency offers from the Spurs, Suns, Raptors and -- gasp! -- the Lakers. Rumors came out about his pre-planned departure, his difficult-to-pin-down personality and his motivations for either staying or leaving. Ultimately, it turns out, Aldridge took a pay-cut with dreams of hanging NBA Championship banners in the AT&T Center rafters and the close geographical proximity of his inner-circle dancing around in his head. His professional obligations to Portland were fulfilled, and it's difficult to criticize a guy who took less money to be closer to his family and for an opportunity to play with Duncan, a player Aldridge -- and the rest of the league -- has admired and looked up to for years.
Is it worth it to wring our hands and lament Aldridge's exit after nine years with the team? We all have different ways of handling adversity, and one is certainly entitled to his or her own methods of dealing with this loss.
We could pile on Aldridge, claiming the team is now free of his diva-like grasp on the organization. That might ease the pain a little in the short-term, but Blazers fans from the Championship-era squads of the late 70s don't seem to hold Bill Walton's acrimonious departure in 1979 -- he sat out the entire 1978-79 season over a disagreement with how the team handled the broken foot he suffered the year prior -- against the guy who many consider to be the greatest player in franchise history. Though a segment of fans begrudged Walton at one point for his quarrels with the franchise that drafted him, time has since quelled much of that visceral resentment to a low simmer, if anything.
Similarly, Blazers fans from the 80s and early 90s saw the Portland front office surround superstar guard Clyde Drexler with the perfect fit of role players and talent, only to see him fall short of his championship hopes as a Blazer and request a trade in 1995. Any unsavory narratives about Drexler's choice to leave town 20 years ago are now eclipsed by the fond memories fans hold onto of the Glide. The melancholy some felt when Drexler hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy with the Rockets in the spring of 1995 has mostly dissipated; His No. 22 jersey now resides above the 300-level of the Moda Center, retired nearly 15 years ago and hung alongside those of other franchise heroes from over the decades.
Aldridge had every right to leave, and like Walton and Drexler before him, he did everything he could to bring a championship to the organization while he was here. Feelings of distaste will likely give way, eventually, to fond remembrances of Aldridge and his time spent in a Blazer uniform. Who would've thought the skinny, 6-foot-11 jump-shooting power forward from Texas would eventually become one of the most dominant offensive forces in the NBA? The All-Star big man's consistent, year-to-year evolutions and adjustments to his game will go down positively in team lore for many.
Still, it's not easy. From a public relations standpoint, the Blazers have likely dented the morale of their fanbase, at least in the short term, following their handling of Aldridge's departure and now staring down the prospects of rebuilding their product on the court. Fortunately, from a purely operational perspective, Portland's not in as bad of shape as it seems.
Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton are all young, cheap pieces, all 27 or younger, who can either grow in Portland around Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Leonard or become part of a trade package to net proven talent or picks eventually. The team possesses plenty of cap room now and will maintain that flexibility in the coming offseasons. And with Blake sent packing to Brooklyn on draft night, D-League MVP Tim Frazier may find an opportunity to be unleashed to the world as the Blazers' backup point guard next year.
Over the next several days and weeks, the Blazer's Edge staff and its readers will pore over these players with a fine-toothed comb, extracting per-36 minute advanced statistics and daydreaming about Lillard-Plumlee pick-and-rolls. Coach Terry Stotts will no doubt have to rework his offense now that its pillar of the last several seasons headed back to the Southwest, and with this much personnel turnover and considering all of the youth under contract, the team defense will also see a radical transformation. Check out Zach Lowe's take on the Bucks' utilization of speed and length last season -- coach Jason Kidd actually employed some strategy he learned from Rick Carlisle and Stotts during his playing days in Dallas -- for a glance at what could potentially be the blueprint for an exciting team defense in Portland next year, even if the losses outnumber the wins on the ledger by season's end.
Right now, though, let's focus on Lillard, the unequivocal franchise player for the Blazers who just inked a five-year extension with the team that will ostensibly keep him in Portland until at least 2021.
Lillard operates best with the ball in his hands -- a multi-pronged offensive tool who can create off the dribble, off the catch or off screens, able to pull up from just about anywhere around the perimeter or attack the basket with near-unmatched ferocity and without fear. A willing passer, he's also adept at controlling the offense and providing scoring opportunities for teammates.
Aldridge justifiably had a usage rate of 30 percent last year, according to NBA.com -- ranking him No. 11 in the league for players who registered at least 10 minutes per game for the 2014-15 season -- as the Blazers built their offense around the talented big man who generally needed to create his own shots, typically from the midrange.
Criticizing Stotts for making Aldridge the focal point of his team's offense would be armchair analysis at best; The nine-year veteran has been one of the most difficult covers in the league for several seasons. But now Lillard, a two-time All-Star who made the All-NBA Third Team a couple seasons ago, all before the age of 25, unquestionably has the keys to a system that will be implemented by Stotts, the man who helped orchestrate the NBA's best offense in the 2011 playoffs and contributed to the Mavericks' eventual championship that same year as an assistant.
The Blazers will likely run a faster-paced, higher-octane offense next season, while allowing Lillard to flourish in the pick-and-roll with potentially devastating finishers like Plumlee and Davis, both of whom love to attack the basket. Portland can also utilize Leonard in the pick-and-pop with Lillard...and who will be able to guard a 7-footer who can hit three-pointers at a 40 percent clip? As we recently saw in the playoffs, not even the Grizzlies could completely bottle up the big man who's entering his fourth year in the league at just 23 years old. Opposing teams will have to gamble on who they want to defend in the pick-and-roll, and with players like Lillard, Plumlee, Davis and Leonard leading the charge, that choice will be particularly difficult.
All his life, Lillard has felt slighted by evaluators of his talent. Consider his underwhelming college recruitment prospects coming out of high school, his falling to No. 6 in the 2012 NBA Draft, his missing out on making Team USA's roster last summer and then finding out last February that he would initially be watching the All-Star game either from home or from the bleachers. All that doubt cast upon Lillard -- even if some of it might carry a hint of hyperbole -- has helped shape him into one of the NBA's premier point guard talents and, heading into year four, the guy who turns just 25 in less than a week's time still hasn't reached his ceiling.
The defense needs work, no doubt, but we know how hard he'll work. Lillard's career aspirations certainly include his accompaniment in discourse among fans, media and opposing players alike of the league's elite players, and at his current rate he should find himself in that conversation soon.
Chastise Olshey & Co. all you want for how they handled free agency this summer. They deserve the criticism, and have a lot to prove going forward. It'll be a tough sell to convince fans that the team's best years are soon to come.
But also know that the cupboard has not been left bare -- not even in the slightest -- and that Lillard, Vonleh, Henderson, Davis, Aminu, Leonard, McCollum and the rest of the Blazers' core as currently constructed are young, hungry and want a chance to prove they can win in this league.
And, after all we've learned about Lillard in his three short years in Portland -- it feels like more than that, really, considering his list of accomplishments -- as he's repeatedly displayed a keen sense of leadership and his loyalty to the Blazers and their fans, is anyone really doubting the heights he's capable of reaching?
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter