Suggestions for a LaMarcus Aldridge reunion with the Portland Trail Blazers were floated a couple weeks ago, just as I took my first extended vacation from Blazer’s Edge in years. Though the storm has passed, traveling around the midwest gave me a chance to think about the matter. Let’s tackle it today in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
LaMarcus coming home? Are you on board with that? I’d be stoked but I’m sure you have pros and cons.
Aldridge left the Trail Blazers in 2015 as the focal point of the offense at the apex of his career. Neither of those things remain true today.
Aldridge benefited from a philosophy hatched by Nate McMillan, intensified by Terry Stotts. He became the hub of Portland’s attack, setting screens and rolling to the elbow for a pick and pop, or just posting mid-range on the left side of the floor and working solo. None of those areas see heavy use in the Blazers’ offense today. If Al-Farouq Aminu called for the ball at the elbow, the entire bench would begin looking for Aston Kutcher, assuming they were getting Punk’d.
The Aldridge-centered offense relied on guards willing to give up the ball, a coach good with developing two-point jump shots late in the clock, and weak-side three-point marksmen who were cool with standing still and waiting for the catch-and-shoot. Taking the rock out of Damian Lillard’s hands isn’t optimal for Portland. The Blazers now like to get up shots quickly, from multiple locations. They don’t like the mid-range, favoring three-pointers and layups. CJ McCollum is not a weak-side, catch-and-shoot player. The jury’s out on Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood in that department.
In short, Portland’s entire system has changed since 2015. Expecting Aldridge to return to his past glory is like heading downtown expecting to shop at Woolworths.
Aldridge fared well enough in San Antonio during the past four years. His 2017-18 season was as good as any he’d produced prior. 2018-19 wasn’t shabby either. The secret sauce to his resurgence was San Antonio moving him to center, where he could play slower and, at least last season, where he faced little competition for touches and shots. Even so—and this is a purely personal assessment—he’s never quite captured the “it” factor with the Spurs. He’s proven to be a really good player. I’m not sure he’s a great one.
At 34 years of age, Aldridge is going to start swinging downward. He’s not going to be a savior. He won’t revolutionize the franchise the way that was hoped five years ago.
Even so, this is a move Portland should make. They don’t need a savior. “Really good player” would be an improvement at power forward. Aldridge’s stats are still All-Star-level impressive. San Antonio has asked him to be more flexible on offense and he’s responded. He can still rebound; he can still pass. Teaming him up with Jusuf Nurkic would create a multi-layered, ball-movement-oriented offense.
Portland would need to wean themselves away from the three with Aldridge on board. They would have gone from a lineup where nearly everybody sat outside the arc waiting to catch the ball to a lineup where literally nobody fits that role. They’d need to revamp their offense. It’d be new, counter-cultural, and probably justified.
The move wouldn’t hurt Portland financially. Aldridge’s $26 million contract nearly matches Hassan Whiteside’s $27.1 million. Aldridge’s $24 million salary for 2020-21 is not guaranteed. If the Blazers wanted to pursue free agents in 2020, they’d need to cut him.
But here’s a fun wrinkle. If the Blazers deemed Aldridge better than any free agent they could otherwise acquire, guaranteeing his contract would make further salary cuts moot. They’d be over the cap at that point, eliminating the need to jettison their current players to make room. Under those conditions, the Blazers could justify keeping Bazemore. If Hood didn’t opt out of the second year of his contract, they could conceivably keep the whole gang together. This would solve the “two steps forward, three steps back” quandary that they’re in now.
For those reasons, I’d be on board with an Aldridge return. The Blazers couldn’t do much better. They could do a lot worse. The only questions remaining are how many draft picks would be necessary to get the deal done and how funny the side-by-side comparison of Portland’s statements about the departed Aldridge in 2015 and their 2019 “welcome back” quotes would be. This trade would be proof that time does, indeed, heal all wounds.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!