Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Surely, LaMarcus Aldridge's twitter announcement of Portlandia-independence this weekend did not break the internet.The largely expected signing did, however, inadvertently cost a Portland assistant coach his job, drove Gregg Popovich to seemingly re-up as de facto Spurs' Emperor well past his 70th birthday, and gave San Antonio's Death Star its first mercenary scoring assassin in two decades, creating perhaps the league's most intriguing 1-2 punch through 2019 in the process.
Looking ahead, the 2015-16 Western Conference does surely and suddenly feel like a two-horse coronation. A starting five of Parker-Green-Leonard-Aldridge-Duncan—even without Manu Ginobili's soon-to-come either retirement or contract announcement in Argentina's La Nacion—is enough for ESPN's Kevin Pelton to project 66.5 wins next year, which approaches the historically dominant-levels of this year's Warriors' 67-15 mark. Such a projection gets far juicer if the likes of David West, Luis Scola, or Ray Allen round out the Boris Diaw- Patty Mills bench weaponry—even if withstanding a five-win hit because of Pop's typical minute-conservation and postseason-preparing methods.
With that prospect, a reprisal of the ever-compelling 2012-13 West semis (the defining moment for Golden State's ownership to build towards a championship with the Splash Brothers core), seems to fall somewhere between distinct possibility, and foregone conclusion. This is true especially given the foot-health unknowns and man-in-the-middle vacancies plaguing OKC and Lob City, respectively. Houston's place at the title-contending table still seems iffy, given a lack of a bona fide third weapon, and the troubling chasm between Dwight Howard's definition of himself as a champion, and, um, the dictionary definition of actually being a champion.
And what theatre a GSW-SAS rematch would be: the Emperor Popovich versus his Young Padawan Steve Kerr, the champions-du-jour versus the dynasty-of-seemingly-forever. Remember, the prevailing rationale of many covering the Warriors' this postseason assumed they would be hard-pressed to get past the stingy likes of both Memphis and San Antonio. A showdown of empires, old and impending, would allow Golden State to exorcise such hypothetical demons.In the meantime, though, there remains plenty of murkiness in the coming months to sort out in San Antonio, specifically how the Spurs integrate their first non-home grown, semi-superstar and ball-dominant scorer (Tracy McGrady in 2014 doesn't quite qualify) into an artistic, movement-heavy system favoring spacing and rhythm above all else.Another potential hiccup: how Aldridge fits in positionally. With the league's dearth of centers now discussed ad nauseum, the obvious fit is for LaMarcus to slide into the middle; he performed admirably in the post against Howard in the Blazers' first round triumph over Houston two seasons ago (Portland was far more effective in that series sans Robin Lopez), and his potent mid-range game makes him a matchup nightmare at center.Even this season, the frontcourt-combo of Aldridge and Duncan projects to be a tad lumbering and lacking in rim-protection defensively (even worse when slotting Diaw in at small forward). Also, San Antonio just traded away their starting center, and the closest thing they had to a paint-protector in Tiago Splitter, with no real (and/or athletic) backup coming imminently.
Meanwhile, Aldridge reportedly canceled a Knicks free agency wooing, after ZenYC relayed their vision of playing him at the '5' in the future, something Aldridge was "adamant against doing." Obviously, there are a few thousand reasons to cancel a meeting with New York, but still, this is a somewhat troubling indicator for LMA's willingness to be positional-flexible going forward.And of course, lest we forget that NBA championship lore is almost entirely barren of All NBA power forwards of Aldridge's ilk. (And no, Duncan does not qualify at PF simply because he won two rings with David Robinson.)The biggest potential problem for San Antonio and Aldridge are Parker's aging wheels. His whirling chaos looked mostly ordinary-to-pedestrian for the majority of their first-round exit to the Clippers; a flat-tire for the 33-year-old French maestro next year could severely limit San Antonio's ability to pace-and-space and properly utilize Duncan-Aldridge in the post, given the team's largest weakness is likely their complimentary ball handlers (or lack thereof) in Green and Leonard.
Meanwhile, in Portland (remember them?), the playoffs now appear a dream for at least a few seasons, but their future still looks quietly bright. Outside of the oddly petty firing of assistant Kim Hughes, every other move out of Moda Center screams savvy prudence, with GM Neil Olshey grasping the harsh reality of on-the-fly rebuilds—a far-cry from The Hinkie Doctrine—and electing to stay viable, young, athletic and interesting.And in a flash, PDX feels strikingly similar to PHX circa-2013, Pacific Northwest edition, with Rip City's current construction of low-risk, high-upside young assets. Damian Lillard represents a better "best player on a playoff team" candidate than either Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic. At worst, the Blazers will be high-scoring, frustratingly-lengthy defensively, and a tough out every night.Meanwhile, in Aldridge's new world, the problems are far more quality, and of the championship-variety.And once the Big Three hangs it up for good, thanks to LaMarcus, the transition bridge over the Riverwalk looks sturdy so long as Leonard and Aldridge comprise the sharpest shooting guard-forward combo in the game; so long as Kawhi remains capable of shutting down The King, KD, Chef Curry or whomever is the league's in-vogue superstar/action-figure; and so long as Pop is pulling every imperial string in the background.At 29, Aldridge puts San Antonio in play for rings until the end of the decade, no doubt. But then again, the journey to ascend again atop the NBA could well be a bumpier road than we realize in this current, crowning moment of Spurs' free agency conquest and revelry.