Buried in the notes section of Zach Lowe's Grantland column about the NBA's D-League Showcase is this tidbit which seems specifically designed to make Spurs' fans hearts skip a beat.
This could be random, but nearly a half-dozen executives from different teams mentioned the possibility of the Spurs luring LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency with a max contract.
Let me be clear, my beloved Portland maniacs: I do not see this happening. Repeat: I do not see this happening. Aldridge isn't the type to say stuff lightly, so it meant a lot - to everyone - when he declared so emphatically in July that he would sign a new five-year contract this summer and hopefully go down as the "best Blazer ever."
It's always wise to take sunny public comments about free agency with a pile of salt, but Aldridge is a bit of a different cat in this regard. Still: I found it interesting that after having heard very little San Antonio/Aldridge talk of any kind, ever, a bunch of unconnected higher-ups suddenly started mentioning it over the last two weeks. Someone said something to start the rumor mill churning, and the Blazers have always considered one of Aldridge's home-state Texas teams the biggest threat to snag him away.
San Antonio waited on a Kawhi Leonard extension precisely to hoard max cap space this summer in case both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire. Dallas could have max-level space, though it'd have to renounce several very good free agents to get it. Houston would need to cut some salary, but it also has the goods to put together a solid sign-and-trade offer if Aldridge makes it known he'd prefer to go there.
This is probably much ado about very little. Aldridge is in a wonderful spot as the co-centerpiece of a top team, with a superstar point guard, a smart coach/GM combo, and a nucleus of prime-age veterans - most of whom are also free agents the Blazers could re-sign this summer via Bird rights. Portland can offer him one more year and about $30 million more than any other suitor.
Please, please, please understand the following: Like Lowe and pretty much everyone at the San Antonio Express-News plus whoever else covers the Spurs, I fully expect Aldridge to stay with the Blazers. I cannot emphasize that enough. I think the realistic percentage for him to leave Portland in free agency for San Antonio is somewhere around 1.3 percent.
However, I also think if he'd leave the Blazers for anybody, it'd most likely be the Spurs. Aldridge, a native Texan, has stated multiple times how much he admires their organization, and also Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan specifically.
Duncan, the keystone of the franchise since 1996-97, will retire sooner rather than later, and his contract is up this summer. Same goes for Manu Ginobili. My hunch is that they're a combo package, that at this point their relationship is such that neither would be all that interested in playing without the other. Let me stress, for the record, that I don't really have anything to base this on, it's just an educated guess. My feeling is that they'll both retire this summer, especially if the Spurs don't repeat as champs. If they do win it all, again, then maybe the pair will talk themselves into one more year, just to keep the ride going.
Obviously Spurs fans don't want the ride to stop either, certainly not for Duncan and Ginobili, but more so, in the big-picture sense, for the team in general. Sure, it's natural for any great team to go through a down period for a few years (like the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan retired the second time and Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson were ushered out). But why go through it if you can avoid it? The benefit of Duncan's and Ginobili's retirements would be that cap room would open up, in theory, to sign worthy replacements. No, the Spurs would never be able to get guys as good as Duncan or Ginobili in their respective primes. But replacing this Duncan and this Ginobili, at their current diminished levels, with younger able-bodied players to complement Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker? It would enable the team to keep this run going for a few more years. At the very least we have to credit Popovich and R.C. Buford for having enough foresight to keep the team's cap sheet clean for just this eventuality.
Here's a scenario, just for the sake of argument. Suppose Aldridge's agent discreetly makes it known to Pop or Buford that his client is ready for a fresh start and that the Spurs are his preferred destination. He wants to sign a deal with a one-year opt-out and then re-sign with the Spurs for the max after the salary cap skyrockets in the summer of 2016, so he can recoup most or all of the $30 million he'd be sacrificing or leaving the Blazers, similar to what LeBron James and Kevin Love are trying to do in Cleveland.
The only catch for Popovich and Buford in this hypothetical situation is that Duncan and Ginobili just decided that they want to come back for another year.
What would you do if you were in PATFO's shoes? Take one more year of Duncan and Ginobili, at the very end of their careers, or encourage the legends to hang 'em up, take the gold watches for the good of the franchise and go forward with Aldridge --who's going to turn 30 this July-- for the next six years? Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was famous for getting rid of players a year early rather than a year late (eventually that philosophy even led him to quit a year early, something he regretted afterward). That hasn't been PATFO's history, and definitely not where "The Big Three" are concerned. They reached out to Ginobili in the summer of 2013, at the nadir of his career, and quickly made it clear to him that they valued him and still thought he had something left, when there was heavy speculation that Ginobili would either retire or play out the string overseas.
Aldridge doesn't have to be the only guy we play this game with either. Other guys in the 2015 free agent class aside from James and Love include (ages in parentheses and in order of desirableness):
Marc Gasol (29)
Draymond Green (25, restricted)
Goran Dragic (29, player option)
Paul Millsap (29)
DeAndre Jordan (26)
Al Jefferson (30, player option)
Roy Hibbert (28, player option)
Enes Kanter (23, restricted)
Greg Monroe (25)
Monta Ellis (27, player option)
Brook Lopez (27, player option)
The Spurs, because they're the Spurs, would undoubtedly choose loyalty to Duncan and Ginobili, even though they'd know it wasn't the best thing for the future of the franchise. It doesn't matter. The last thing they'd want to do is alienate their legends and open up the possibility for bitterness to ensue like we see with so many old athletes and their former teams. Just know that right now, the 2016 free agent class isn't very deep. Here is the list in order of desirableness, with the player's November 2016 age in parentheses. I'll do you the courtesy of ignoring Kevin Durant. There are dreams, and then there are pipe dreams.
Anthony Davis (23, restricted)
Andre Drummond (23)
Al Horford (30)
Joakim Noah (31)
Damian Lillard (26)
Mike Conley (29)
Jonas Valanciunas (24)
Aldridge would be sweet, but it's not going to happen. I'll stick to my prediction that Duncan and Ginobili retire this summer and that the Spurs sign Dragic and give Leonard his max extension. If the legends give us one more year, then Hoford might be a realistic target for 2016.
I'm sure we can all be completely calm and rational about this.