Jan. 6, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge during game against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 102-77. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One Great Offseason, One Big Question Mark

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It’s been a great offseason so far.

General manager Neil Olshey’s moves were much more subtle than a flashy big name signing of Dwight Howard or a blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. However, an argument can be made for him as the general manager who has made the best decisions in this offseason. All things considered, he’s all but worked a miracle.

CJ McCollum, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson, Terrel Harris. Those are the names the Blazers have added. Entering the offseason, they were coming from a situation where they needed to rehaul their bench completely, and find a capable defensive center. Both were major areas of concern, and the way things have unfolded, they have been addressed very well.

Now, the Blazers have a team that isn’t simply their core of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews. Instead, they have reinforced it with the defense of Robin Lopez, the depth of C.J. McCollum and Dorell Wright, and the upside of Thomas Robinson and Allen Crabbe.

Again, it’s been a great offseason so far.

However, even with everything that’s been done, one big question remains: have the Blazers done enough to sell LaMarcus Aldridge on staying in Portland?

Rumor has it, Aldridge wants out, and it’s no surprise. He’s 28 in a little more than a month, and starting to age out of his prime. This Blazers team is questionable to win a championship any time soon, and Aldridge might want to move on to a better team.

The Blazers don’t have long to convince Aldridge to stay. His contract ends in 2015, and if the trade rumors persist and continue to grow, he could even be gone before then. They have to sell him on their future now. However, that’s not easy to do. Even with all of the improvements that they’ve made, have they done enough to convince Aldridge that they have a chance at the title in the near future?

First of all, let us not forget who the Blazers’ opponents are. Portland has undoubtedly improved a lot because of Olshey’s magic, but does that mean they can stand on equal footing with some of the other teams in the Western conference? Many teams have decided to go with the tanking strategy in anticipation of Andrew Wiggins and the other high-level prospects in next year’s NBA draft, but as always, making the playoffs in the Western Conference will be a very difficult task.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs will keep chugging along on their romp through the NBA. The Los Angeles Clippers brought back Chris Paul with the allure of having one of the NBA’s best head coaches in Doc Rivers. Houston, as we all know, brought superstar center Dwight Howard into the fold. Golden State and Memphis will continue to hold down those middle seeds on the strength of their core of players. Denver may be the only playoff team to have taken a step back, but even at worst, they’re still on the same level as the Blazers, if not better.

Provided none of those teams fall apart, that leaves just one open spot in the playoffs. Granted, the competition for that last spot is pretty weak. The Blazers might be at the top of that pack, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who will be getting Kevin Love back next season, might be their only serious competitor. However, making the playoffs in the eighth seed, or even the sixth or seventh seed, guarantees no more than a matchup with one of those elite teams in the West. Winning in the first round would be very difficult, and at this moment, going further than the second round is practically out of the question.

Of course, the goal for now is simply to make the playoffs. Anything more would be overachieving in such a tough conference, and even Olshey would be hard-pressed to find a way to catapult the Blazers into the upper echelon of the Western Conference immediately. With that said, however, would Aldridge want to stay with the Blazers even if they could make the playoffs?

Looking long-term, the Blazers have no guarantees to be anything special. Obviously, Damian Lillard is a great young player. However, while he has All-Star potential, it’s still very early to be calling him the centerpiece of a winning basketball team. Aside from Lillard, the Blazers have two very good young players in Nicolas Batum and C.J. McCollum. However, just how much confidence can be put into those two players? At this stage, it’s difficult to call them All-Stars in the making.

So, a core of Lillard, Batum and McCollum. Not one that will inspire a lot of confidence at all, and Portland doesn’t have much of a history in building its team through signing big name free agents. Unfortunately, they can’t count on building through the draft either, as being in the playoffs leaves them with picks right in the middle of the first round where most of the best prospects are NBA role players. In terms of making trades, their best trade asset might be… LaMarcus Aldridge.

That leaves the Blazers in a very tough situation. What can they do? They’re back in the playoff hunt, but in spite of all of the improvements that they have made this offseason, they’d be hard-pressed to advance. At this point, they’re really counting on in-house development, a lucky draft pick or two, and perhaps one big name free agent if they’re lucky. That’s not an easy sell to someone in the position LaMarcus Aldridge is in.

So, what can the Blazers do? Hoping for some near-miraculous improvement to convince Aldridge to stay is hardly a plan for success. At the same time, neither is staying in a holding pattern and getting caught up in mediocrity. That’s hardly going to help Aldridge stay, either. In fact, if the Blazers are thinking of rings, their hand might be forced. LaMarcus Aldridge may have to go, allowing Portland to pick up some more assets and continue to bide their time.

That, however, is an extreme idea and too early for the Blazers to be considering at this stage. There are still two years left on Aldridge’s contract. Play at least this year out, see how it goes, and then reconsider the available options when we know more and aren’t speaking so much in hypotheticals.

For now, the plan should be simply to understand the situation, and be ready to act on it however it unfolds. If that means trading Aldridge, then give the man a well-deserved handshake and send him on his way. If Olshey can continue to gather helpful producers and this team develops very nicely, perhaps Aldridge will decide to stay and other moves can be made to get this team closer to being a contender instead.

In the NBA, mediocrity might be a bit of a trap. No high lottery draft picks, but no easy way to continue to improve without tearing down what you already have.

If the Blazers are caught in this trap of mediocrity, they should be prepared to trade away LaMarcus Aldridge to escape it. The era of Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Aldridge never was what it was supposed to be. Lillard, Batum and the rest are a nice young foundation, and if this team isn’t capable of being a contender with Aldridge on board, they have to be ready to move Aldridge and use the return to help develop a new core that can contend in the future.

If it comes to that, then you could count me as one of the first to thank Aldridge for everything he’s done, and move on.


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Tags: LaMarcus Aldridge Portland Trail Blazers

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