The Portland Trail Blazers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs on Wednesday, winning just one game this derby. Given the constant stream of doctor visits the Blazers faced as the season wore on, a first-round exit wasn't a surprise. Without Wesley Matthews, the team wasn't a serious contender for the crown, and injuries to Dorell Wright and others exacerbated the problems on the wing. So, yet another Portland playoff run falls short.
The Blazers have won one series in LaMarcus Aldridge's tenure, an era that's included five 50-win seasons and a few moments when hopes were extraordinarily high. Those hopes were most frequently dashed by horrible injury breaks. The Aldridge-Brandon Roy-Greg Oden trio looked like a dynasty in the making, and we all know how that turned out. Aldridge's second life with Damian Lillard looked promising all the way until Matthews tore his Achilles in March.
That bad break did more than just remove Portland's third best player for the stretch run. It could make Matthews less available or effective next year because of the severity of his injury. He's a free agent, and there's no telling how the market will deal with him.
Added to that, Matthews' sudden absence revealed some very discouraging things about Lillard's defensive deficiencies. Close observers already knew Lillard was no ace defender. Since Matthews disappeared, we now see that Lillard is among the worst defenders in the league. (Nick Calathes beating him backdoor on Wednesday didn't help matters.)
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Mavs and Spurs to pursue Aldridge in free agency
The star power forward might return to his native Texas once he enters free agency in the offseason.
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Aldridge will also be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and the list of reasons to return to Portland is short but strong. The Blazers can, of course, offer a fifth year and bigger raises. There's Lillard, who is genuinely promising and genuinely likable. There's Paul Allen, who Aldridge knows will spend gobs of money chasing success. There's Portland itself, a community with deeply committed, smart and respectful fans. (Portland is an excellent basketball town, and a hoopshead like LMA must appreciate that at some level.)
Finally, there's familiarity. That matters more for some than others -- certain types of people prefer the excitement of new adventures and challenges, while others get excited by comfort and routine. While going home to Texas could have some value for Aldridge, he may also decide the last thing he wants to do is move across the country without improving his basketball lot.
That's the interesting thing about Aldridge's particular free agency. Can any team actually improve his situation?
The Spurs would seem to be No. 1 on this list with a bullet, except that Tim Duncan is preparing for retirement, Manu Ginobili can't possibly be far behind and Tony Parker is aging rather quickly. The way in which Chris Paul has outplayed Parker in that epic series has been sobering. Heck, Patty Mills has been better than Parker.
Last summer I wrote that the Spurs' new trio of stars appeared to be Kawhi Leonard, Parker and Tiago Splitter. The latter two have faced injuries, and I'm not sure Parker has more than two above-average seasons left in his body. You eulogize the Spurs at your own risk, yes, but Parker looks like a ghost. Is that just injury, or a sign of things to come? And if Parker is on his way out along with Duncan and Manu, is San Antonio really so attractive after all?
There are mitigating factors, like the premise that Duncan would return for 1-2 more years to transition the franchise into Aldridge's care. There is Gregg Popovich, there is R.C. Buford, there is Kawhi Leonard, there are five (and counting) championship parade tapes. But is the upgrade large enough to offset the salary concession and the inconvenience of changing everything about your life and career?
Houston would be a large enough upgrade. With Aldridge, James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets would have serious championship chops. (One could argue Houston has those chops without Aldridge.) In a way, joining Houston would give Aldridge what fate once took away: A chance to play with a dominant scoring wing and a defensive genius at center. But at this point in his career, does Aldridge want to be a second fiddle to a ball-dominant player like Harden? Does Aldridge want to follow Chris Bosh and Kevin Love into relative subjugation?
Dallas will get mentioned because that's where LMA grew up and because the Mavericks will insert themselves into every major free agent chase. The problem with Dallas is that there is no core. There is Dirk Nowitzki, who is staggering toward retirement within a couple of seasons, and there is Chandler Parsons, who was a bit of a disappointment, is coming off a serious knee inury and probably isn't better than Nicolas Batum long-term. Everyone else is a candidate to be gone by July 1.
Portland enters offseason
Portland enters offseason
The draw besides being "home" is that perhaps the Mavericks can arrange Aldridge to bring a friend on a max contract. Is there another free agent worth lots of dough who could join Aldridge in Dallas in 2015 and make the situation more attractive? Is DeAndre Jordan that player, or might it be Marc Gasol? Can Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban convince Aldridge and one other guy to join up on a package deal? It seems like a long shot based on the Mavericks' free agent struggles since 2011.
If Aldridge wants to win playoff games and lock in All-Star berths, the East is calling. In fact, it's a surprise more second-tier West stars don't look East to boost their credentials and opportunities to play meaningful spring games. If the Blazers moved to Portland, Maine, and kept their roster together, they might be the favorites in the East.
The Knicks are obviously interested, but joining that maelstrom seems like more trouble than it's worth. Aldridge doesn't give off the vibe of seeking the Manhattan marquee, but who can really know? The Celtics are flexible and in need of a star, but Aldridge will turn 30 in July and as such might be a couple years too old to fit the Boston rebuild plan. Atlanta, where Paul Millsap is a free agent, is an intriguing option. If Washington could spring some early flexibility and make a run at Aldridge a year before Kevin Durant's free agent, LMA would have to at least listen.
Aldridge will have options, and it appears he'll look at them. It's unclear if any of the options will be obvious improvements on his situation in Portland. The question is whether after nine years and just one playoff series win new scenery will be improvement enough to convince Aldridge to bail.
SB Nation presents: As playoffs intensify, so do the fights