Had the Jazz waited until last offseason to trade 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. Kevin Love is due for a new deal the same year, and although the Timberwolves have the advantage of having Ricky Rubio to build around alongside Love, he has already expressed an impatience to make the playoffs and contend for a championship. If he can’t do that in Minnesota in the next two years, it’s likely they’ll be forced to deal him. But doing it sooner could give them a better foundation on which to rebuild.
This approach is not without risk. Dangling a star in trade talks before he publicly asks for a trade could make the entire proposition something of a self-fulfilling prophecy—if he sees that he isn’t wanted, he may want out even if he didn’t before. In the case of Aldridge, he has so far said all the right things about being willing to stay the course through Portland’s rebuilding effort. If the Blazers were to start dangling him in trade talks within the next 18 months, they would run the risk of alienating him from the organization and diminishing his eagerness to see the rebuild through. But that rebuild is only a few blown draft picks or ill-advised free-agent signings from collapsing, and it will be difficult for him to justify signing on to waste the rest of his prime on another half-decade of 35-win teams. And this is where the problem lies for the Blazers: With the exception of Rajon Rondo (and, I suppose, LeBron James), Aldridge probably has the best contract of any elite player in the league. He’s making between $13 and 16 million per year for the remaining three seasons on his deal, which makes him extremely attractive to teams looking to add a franchise-caliber star without completely tying up their cap. This combined with the significant amount of team control left on the contract should mean Portland would get a return comparable to what the Jazz got for Williams, should they decide to move him.
On our TrueHoop sister site Red94, Michael Pina ran with this idea in a piece of his own, exploring a possible trade scenario that would land Aldridge with the Rockets for some combination of the young players and picks that were in play when Houston attempted to acquire Dwight Howard:
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).
All of this is pure speculation, of course, but given the changing direction of the league and the way Orlando’s saga played out with Howard, it seems at least worth considering.