The San Antonio Spurs are parting ways with LaMarcus Aldridge for a very simple reason: he isn’t helping them win basketball games. The Spurs are 8.7 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor. He is scoring only 13.7 points per game, the fewest he’s posted since his rookie season. His 4.5 rebounds per game are a career-low. At 35 years old he’s lost too much physically to defend effectively in space. Most impact metrics paint Aldridge as a negative-value player at this point in his career.
But one team’s trash is another team’s treasure. Time and time again, we’ve seen declining veterans land on the right contender and contribute to winning. The Lakers needed Dwight Howard to win the championship last season. Brooklyn is hoping for similar success with Blake Griffin this season. Whether it’s through a trade or a buyout, some team is going to give Aldridge a chance to turn things around this season. Here are five viable candidates to do so.
You knew it was coming. Aldridge and former teammate Damian Lillard have been playing social media footsie on the subject for quite some time. Portland has been so depleted by injuries up front that Aldridge could play critical minutes until Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return. There isn’t a more comfortable destination on the board for Aldridge. Rodney Hood and his non-guaranteed 2021-22 salary could form the basis of the salary filler. Things get trickier from there, as Enes Kanter is the next likeliest piece to be involved in such a deal, but is currently starting for the Blazers with Nurkic out. Aldridge has a $24 million cap number this season. Matching that money wouldn’t be easy for the Blazers.
There’s also the question of fit. Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony have very similar shot profiles. Do the Blazers really need two mid-range gunners with inconsistent touch behind the arc? Could their defense support the two of them? The answer to both is probably no. The Blazers have bigger needs than Aldridge and should direct their salary and draft capital towards them. But the Anthony signing is instructive here. Portland added him in a bid for pure talent last season and it largely paid off. Bringing in yet another former star could have a similar effect if he is used properly. A buyout would make this reunion likelier, but even if the Spurs insist on a trade, the Blazers are a team to watch in the Aldridge sweepstakes.
The Heat pursued Aldridge in 2015 free agency. They pursue just about every big name that hits the market. The question they need to answer with regard to Aldridge is how much that name brand matters to them because at present, Kelly Olynyk is playing a role quite similar to the one Aldridge would hold in Miami and doing it at what might be a higher level. Olynyk rarely takes the mid-range jumpers that Aldridge has made a living making. Few Heat role players do. But he’s made over 67 percent of his 2-point attempts overall this season, and while his 3-point percentage has been mildly disappointing, he is roughly a career 37 percent 3-point shooter. He’s going to be fine on that front. He defends and rebounds at a higher level than Aldridge right now.
Aldridge has the higher ceiling, and the Heat might believe that their infrastructure can help him reach it again. Olynyk is arguably the superior player right now. Miami needs to decide which it would prefer, because Olynyk’s expiring contract would likely form the foundation of its offer for Aldridge. A month ago, this might have been an easier decision. The Heat were struggling. Now they’re back on track and looking closer to the team that reached the NBA Finals last season. Do they want to mess with what they already have in favor of a 35-year-old that is clearly declining? We’ll find out soon enough. The Heat have the salaries to make an Aldridge work. The question is whether or not they’ll have the motivation.
Boston makes this list for one reason: along with Oklahoma City, it is one of only two teams that can afford to absorb Aldridge outright. The Celtics have a $28.5 million trade exception from the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade with Charlotte, and could theoretically use that exception to bring in Aldridge without sending a dime back to the Spurs. Considering the trouble other suitors will have matching Aldridge’s hefty salary, any contender in that position bears mentioning.
But will the Celtics actually chase Aldridge? It’s unlikely, at least as a first choice. Boston had a chance to acquire Myles Turner in exchange for Hayward and declined the opportunity. Turner is younger, cheaper and better than Aldridge. That indicates that Boston, even before losing Hayward to the Hornets, was not particularly interested in turning him into a big man. A 35-year-old big man would be significantly less desirable to a team whose two best players haven’t even seen their 25th birthdays.
Boston will scour the trade market for younger, smaller players that make more sense alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Harrison Barnes and Jerami Grant stand out as targets that Boston is reportedly interested in. If they do go big, someone a bit younger like the 30-year-old Nikola Vucevic, would make more sense. But Boston is one of the few teams that can acquire Aldridge relatively painlessly. If all else fails, they might view Aldridge as something akin to their Plan G or Plan H if Plans A-F all fail.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
We’ve reached the “buyouts only” portion of this list, as the Lakers simply do not have the matching salary necessary to acquire Aldridge, especially under the constraints of the hard cap. Rob Pelinka’s interest in fortifying the front line has been no secret since Anthony Davis got hurt. The Lakers are reportedly interested in Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside. They’ve now signed Damian Jones to multiple 10-day contracts. DeMarcus Cousins has even been a subject of rumors.
Aldridge isn’t a traditional center as those players are, but he could serve a different function as a floor-spacer. The Lakers rank No. 25 in 3-point attempts and No. 24 in 3-point percentage. Aldridge shot almost 39 percent on 3-pointers last season. If he dedicated himself to turning those inefficient mid-range jumpers into 3-pointers, he could play meaningful bench minutes for a Lakers team that struggles to score whenever LeBron James leaves the game. Aldridge infamously met with the Lakers twice in 2015 before signing in San Antonio. The Spurs, at the time, presented a clearer path to a championship. Those roles have been reversed in 2021, though, and if winning is Aldridge’s ultimate goal, he’d be hard-pressed to find a better destination than Los Angeles.
Another “buyout only” destination, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has always been effusive in his praise for Aldridge. Golden State was reportedly interested in Blake Griffin before he landed in Brooklyn, and Aldridge could fill a similar role with the Warriors. Golden State’s offense falls off of a cliff whenever Stephen Curry leaves the game. Aldridge, in theory, could generate decent shots for bench units that have been completely unable to do so this season. That he’d add an extra dash of overall shooting to a roster that quietly lacks it would be a bonus.
The Warriors have a slight financial advantage over the buyout field thanks to its taxpayer mid-level exception. The question is whether or not Aldridge cares about money coming off of three hefty contracts. Is he trying to maximize his earnings? If so, the Warriors make sense, both in terms of what they can offer him right now and in how he could potentially inflate his market value on a team that could give him plenty of shots. If the goal is purely to win the championship right now? The Warriors are likely out of luck.