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Next challenge for Blazers is keeping Aldridge

Portland faces interesting offseason with free agency

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer
Published: April 30, 2015, 5:00pm

TUALATIN, Ore. — With their wounds still fresh after being eliminated in five games by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers said their goodbyes to each other and the media for the 2014-15 season.

Two figures will be under the microscope this summer: unrestricted free agent LaMarcus Aldridge and Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey.

As they both try to move on after a promising season that was derailed by injuries, they face a summer that will go a long way toward determining their legacies.

All eyes will be on whether Aldridge will re-sign with Portland or move elsewhere.

Aldridge would not give a statistical estimate which way he is leaning, but was positive about Portland.

“I’ve always been here, I’ve had a great nine years here,” Aldridge said. “That’s always going to have more weight than anything else.”

Aldridge said he was thankful for his nine years in Portland.

“I’m thankful for everything this city has given me,” he said. “It’s been an amazing nine years, of course I wouldn’t want it to end. But when the time comes, I will sit down with my agent and Neil and Paul (Allen) and we’ll figure it out.”

Portland will not be the only team coming after him.

Is Aldridge looking forward to experiencing the free-agent process for the first time in his career?

“Yes and no,” he said. “I think every player wants to be wanted. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be wanted. Because that means you’re one of the top players at your position. I just have to deal with it.”

For Aldridge, his priority right now is resting and getting his left thumb, which has a torn ligament in it, checked out. Aldridge also praised Olshey for instilling a “player’s first culture” and making improvements to the Blazers’ facilities.

Gratitude aside, for Portland’s decision-maker, there is no rest.

Olshey said he and the Blazers would be “proactive,” and not wait until July 1 when other teams can start pursuing Aldridge and their other free agents.

“We’ll be active around the draft starting to build our roster,” Olshey said. “You don’t wait until July 1.”

The Blazers only have four players under contract for next season — Damian Lillard, Nic Batum, Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum. Arron Afflalo and Steve Blake have player options on whether they want to return.

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And Olshey assured that Portland had contingencies in place for every possible outcome during free agency, including Aldridge. But Olshey also noted that forces outside their control will effect whether those contingencies will have to come into play.

But this is the type of stuff that Olshey lives for.

“It’s a lot more fun than going out with the midlevel (exception) and trying to find a 15th roster spot,” Olshey said when asked about the challenge.

In addition to Aldridge, cornerstones of their starting line-up and unselfish culture, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez will also be free agents.

Matthews tore his Achilles, which was the straw that broke a contender’s back in a year filled with injuries.

“Right now, what’s most important is Wes’ health and well-being,” Olshey said.

Lillard is eligible for a max contract extension over the summer.

The play of Leonard and McCollum, along with Lillard, gives Portland what Olshey calls “a strong core of youth,” which he pointed to as a key to building sustainable success.

Olshey praised Terry Stotts and the coaching staff for another 50-win season, one Stotts thought was more impressive than their 54-win mark after having basically no injuries one year ago.

The challenge for Olshey has already begun and Portland has the Bird rights for all of their free agents, meaning they can offer them more than anybody else.

But however excited Olshey is for the task at hand of building a contender, he acknowledges how different it could look around these parts come October.

“What form that takes and what variation that takes, we don’t know all of those outcomes,” he said.

Columbian Trail Blazers Writer