Two days ago, fellow TrueHoop scribe Sean Highkin wrote a thought provoking piece on Hardwood Paroxysm about the rookie extension, and why small market organizations ducking for cover in the Super Team age can no longer take comfort in re-signing their homegrown prospects. The NBA is busy shifting to a place where teams like the Magic, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Pacers, and Timberwolves are forced to re-adjust their expectations in regards to how long they can realistically milk franchise players, resulting in a league where the rich get even richer, and the poor are continuously searching for a way to compete.
Had the Jazz waited until last offseason to trade [Deron] Williams, they would have likely run into many of the same complications the Hornets and Magic did when attempting to move Paul and Howard. A star’s openness to staying with his new team long term affects the offers his old team will receive. The longer a team with a star soon to hit the open market and no chance at a title waits to act, the smaller their leverage is. By trading Williams earlier than they had to, the Jazz were able to maximize their return. This is something the Portland Trail Blazers should take to heart before LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract is up in 2015.
With Houston currently deploying a “youth movement” that my gut tells me is only a facade to appease a fan base once promised a nightly Herculean effort from Dwight Howard, the last sentence in Highkin’s paragraph got me thinking. The Rockets are still in the hunt for a superstar, and will be until they get one. Please don’t let anything else fool you. Aldridge is about to enter the third year of a five-year extension with the Trail Blazers; while he isn’t Dwight Howard, there’s no denying his rightful placement under the shrinking “superstar” umbrella that hangs over the heads of a select few.
Acquiring him in a deal comparable to the one New Jersey threw at Utah would be a more than ideal situation for both teams involved. As the Rockets have shown, renovating a team shouldn’t be done in a half-hearted manner. Once you start the process of cleaning house, it makes no sense to leave the kitchen untouched: they traded both starting point guards, amnestied their most consistent player, and refused to re-sign anybody who’d command more than a one-year contract.
After firing their coach and general manager, trading a productive former All-Star for a lottery pick and re-signing a crotch-hunting talent to his own rookie extension, Portland finds themselves in a similar situation. With Utah continuing to get better, Golden State on the rise, and Minnesota lurking with Ricky Rubio’s knee as a crucial variable, the Trail Blazers aren’t in a position to make the playoffs this season. Paying Nicolas Batum and Aldridge a combined $25 million this season and $26 million in 2013-14 doesn’t give them much flexibility to leap the Western Conference’s aforementioned up and comers, let alone Oklahoma City, San Antonio, or either of Los Angeles’ squads.
We all saw the muted package Morey thought would be good enough to pry Howard from Orlando, but because the threat of him walking away after just one season hung over the whole thing, it wasn’t nearly the best Houston could do. Aldridge is different because he’s under contract for two more years after this season. With Kevin Martin’s expiring deal serving as the necessary salary filler, Houston could throw in a two man combination of Motiejunas, Lamb, White, Jones, Johnson, or Morris along with Toronto’s first round pick. What this would do is give the Trail Blazers a bit more cap flexibility for 2013-14, two talented prospects on rookie contracts, and a lottery pick to add to what could probably be one of their own (giving them the possibility of four total lottery picks in two years, which is pretty awesome).
What Houston would be getting is exactly what they’ve wanted since Yao Ming’s retirement. While he isn’t a household name (for some reason), Aldridge is arguably one of the league’s 10 best players. Unlike Josh Smith or Rudy Gay, two players we’ve discussed time and again as being prospective All-Star candidates the Rockets might go after, the 27-year-old is talented enough to be the centerpiece on a championship team.
Last year he posted the seventh highest per game scoring average in the league with a PER higher than Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki. Playing as the undisputed number one option next year under new head coach Terry Stotts, an “offensive genius” according to Nowitzki, Aldridge could see an inflation in numbers that were already elite.
Let’s take a look at how he fits specifically with the Houston’s pieces that most likely wouldn’t be headed to Portland in a hypothetical deal. Almost all of Aldridge’s offense comes from the post, or in a high pick and roll. He’s an excellent spot up jump shooter whose length allows him a Kevin Garnett/Nowitzki-like unreachability. Despite the fact that he rarely rolls to the basket after setting a screen, Aldridge’s versatility is devastating: he can use his big body to let his teammate get into the lane and either create for others or throw it back to him at the top of the key for a wide open jumper (last year he shot 43% on just over six attempts per game from 16-23 feet—both career bests) or slip the screen and find himself open even closer to the basket for an equally wide open jumper. Aldridge’s overall pick and roll efficiency equated to 1.02 points per possession last season, which is quite reliable.
This is literally the perfect player to place beside Jeremy Lin, a point guard who thrives on high screens. Teaming the two together would be an honest-to-goodness nightmare for opposing defenses that would likely “force” Houston into a bunch of Aldridge jump shots. But if those weren’t falling, the Rockets would always have his back to the basket game as a more than suitable option.
Not to mince words, Aldridge might be the most fluid post player in the world. Throw him the ball with his back to the basket and get ready for an offensive arsenal that’s unheard of in the modern day game: running hooks, spins, baseline turnarounds, and deadly shoulder fakes make defending him a total crapshoot. If he isn’t comfortable with his position, Aldridge will calmly kick it back out to the entry man before reasserting himself on the block. When he is comfortable, there’s very little a defender can do. Aldridge towers over a majority of his fellow power forwards, and he never hesitates if a good shot is available.
After watching nearly all his post-up plays on Synergy, this is probably what I like most. When he catches the ball with a man on his hip, Aldridge wastes zero seconds getting into his move. Really, it’s a beautiful thing to watch if you love uptempo basketball. In 2010-11 the Trail Blazers were dead last in the league in pace, averaging 87.9 possessions per 48 minutes. Due in large part to Nate McMillan’s departure midway through this past season, the Trail Blazers finished the year 15th out of 30 teams with a pace of 91.2. For the first time in his career, Aldridge’s usage percentage was one of the 20 highest in the league last year, which might indicate that he wasn’t the reason for Portland’s one-time slow attack. He’s a big guy doing most of his work in the post, but he’s very effective, very fast, and very entertaining.
On defense Aldridge would be placed beside Omer Asik, an above average defensive center, allowing him to roam a bit more beneath the basket to protect the rim and grab rebounds. On offense, Asik would benefit greatly playing alongside a talented option like Aldridge. He’s a lunch pale carrying garbage man who cleans up the glass and takes advantage of easy opportunities; both of which would be numerous.
When Utah traded Deron Williams to Brooklyn for what amounted to be a quick transition period and an even brighter future, it was league-wide reverberating news. Aldridge’s name doesn’t quite carry the same weight, but when you combine his improving skill-set with his versatility playing multiple positions, Aldridge’s impact on a basketball team may be even greater.
Let’s say he comes to Houston right before the 2013 trade deadline. What they’d be getting is two full years with him under contract alongside Lin, Asik, Chandler Parsons, and random leftover, fifth player X. It’s most likely a starting five talented enough to make the playoffs, but to speculate beyond that would be useless. The bottom line of the deal is that Houston will have their guy, and what they do with him will define a new, relevant era for a team that’s long been searching for one.