The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to have a big summer, armed with picks, trade exceptions and a smidge of cap space. They’ll also likely need to fill out the roster with veteran minimum contracts as the team potentially returns close to, or over, the luxury tax.
There will always be still-capable veteran players trying to prolong their careers by settling for relatively measly couple of million dollar-a-year deals.
Enter 36-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge. You remember him? Portland’s franchise star during the first part of the last decade, who so brazenly decided to play for the San Antonio Spurs in 2015 and break our collective hearts.
Before his departure, Aldridge was Portland’s much-loved, media-shy superstar who had bridged the franchise’s Jail Blazers era with Damian Lillard.
Taken second by the Blazers as part of a 2006 draft night deal with the Chicago Bulls, Aldridge, along with Brandon Roy, became instant fan favorites.
And through his nine seasons in Portland, Aldridge averaged 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1 block to go with three All Star selections, an All NBA Second Team selection and two All NBA Third selections.
In fact, he still lays claim to Portland’s rebounds (5,434) and defensive rebounds (3,698) records. He’s third in points with 12,562 behind Clyde Drexler (18,040) and Lillard (17,510), sixth in points per game (19.4), third in offensive rebounds (1,736) and fourth in blocks (658).
The impact of Aldridge’s departure
I know it’s hard to re-live, but Aldridge chose to leave Portland fans with his first shot at unrestricted free agency. Whether that was out of jealousy of Lillard’s rising star, his own doubts about the team’s potential or just an urge to return to Texas, we’ll probably never know.
One thing we can say is that the season prior to his departure, the Blazers arguably looked ready to contend. Lillard was flourishing at age 25, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum made up an elite wing tandem, Aldridge was a legitimate star and Robin Lopez did everything he needed to do to complement the potent starting unit.
There was sweet-shooting Arron Afflalo who had been brought in at the trade deadline for Will Barton Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver and a lottery-protected first rounder — which later became current Minnesota Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley.
And CJ McCollum was also in his second year, playing limited but tantalizing minutes off the bench, which also included a cast of decent role players. Unfortunately, Matthews tore his left achilles in March 2015, dooming the Blazers chances at making a stir in the playoffs.
Plans were dashed and when Aldridge flew back to Portland solo after losing Game 2 of its first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
Before Aldridge’s free agency decision, Batum was jettisoned to the Charlotte Hornets. And once the Spurs were Aldridge’s new team, then Portland General Manager Neil Olshey let Matthews, Lopez and Afflalo walk in free agency.
And while the ensuing re-build allowed the team to return to the playoffs the very next season, the Blazers have not been able to pair Lillard with another All Star since.
The Brooklyn Nets
Aldridge’s 2021-22 team were embarrassingly swept out of playoffs by the Boston Celtics this week despite fielding names like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Given the nature of the loss, re-signing Aldridge probably won’t be Nets General Manager Sean Marks’ highest priority this summer. In the long run, they should be able to replace Aldridge with the same money on a younger player who can contribute a little more.
Aldridge has played his career with Wolff-Parkinson-White disease, which can result in a faster heartbeat and other serious cardiac conditions. In April 2021, Aldridge temporarily retired from the game following an irregular heartbeat but returned to play five months later.
He’s also featured heavily on the injury list in recent seasons. Over the past three years, he’s dealt with ankle, foot, wrist, hip, knee, shoulder and thumb complaints. So not someone a team should be relying on for heavy minutes.
His potential role in Portland
Don’t expect Aldridge to see much of the court if he returns. Like the Nets, the Blazers won’t be paying Aldridge to contribute too much on the court. Depending on what Interim General Manager Joe Cronin — or his successor — does with the rest of the roster, Aldridge will unlikely be the first, second, third or fourth big man on the depth chart.
Why? He’s no longer able to play anywhere near the 30 minutes a night he would have tallied during his prime years with the Blazers and Spurs.
He’s also no longer a power forward, a position he previously and vehemently fought to play exclusively. The former Blazer’s reduced mobility and age has seen to that. Aldridge, at 6’11, is now a full-time center.
Does he want to come back?
Finally, we need to talk about Aldridge’s own interest in returning to the Pacific Northwest. Whether you believe the reports about the bad blood between he and Lillard, that seems to be over with Aldridge publicly stating that he and the point guard are on good terms.
In 2018, reports suggest that Aldridge, then a Spur, called Lillard to help orchestrate a trade back to the Blazers.
Aldridge also told reporters last year that he had wondered about how the Blazers would have continued if he’d chosen to stay in 2015.
And CJ (McCollum), who’s been killing it too. So you put us all three together, and the sky could definitely be the limit.
And he’s not wrong. I, personally, choose not to think about it for obvious reasons.
This would be a sentimental signing. While Aldridge leaving in 2015 devastated the Blazers, he still gave the franchise a series of really enjoyable years.
Now, it appears that whatever bad feelings that may have been there previously have gone and Aldridge, who turns 37 in July, still holds the Blazers close to his heart. I for one, would be all for an Aldridge return on a veteran minimum signing, with heavy minutes dedicated to towel waiving.
We don’t yet know what the Blazers will look like next season but they appear to be building something interesting around Lillard. Having Aldridge in the huddle, on the sidelines and in small spurts, on the court, would deliver closure and a lot of joy for Portland fans who still treasure the big man’s contribution to the franchise.