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There's no easy way to bounce back from losing a superstar in his prime.
When LaMarcus Aldridge left the Portland Trail Blazers for the San Antonio Spurs this summer, the Blazers had little means of replacing him. Four-time All-Stars who average 23 points, command double-teams on the block, are death from the elbows, and can capably defend aren't readily available on the market, and the post-Aldridge Rip City roster wouldn't have been attractive to an equal-caliber free agent.
With Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Arron Afflalo all free agents and Nicolas Batum entering the final year of his contract, the timing was right for Portland to enter a full-on rebuild. Even coming off of a 51-win season, the path to long-term contention with so many pieces removed would have been far too arduous.
And so rebuild they did.
They let Matthews, Afflalo, and Lopez walk with Aldridge, they flipped Batum to the Charlotte Hornets, and they took veteran salary into cap space in order to pick up a pair of future second-round picks.
But they didn't acquire a single first-round pick, a rebuilding summer staple.
Losing Aldridge and company, in most cases, would have been cause for a complete tear-down, similar to the one the Philadelphia 76ers are going through, if shorter. For some franchises, a year or two at the absolute bottom, accompanied by a chance to land a future-altering superstar in the draft, outweighs the benefit of being moderately competitive in the short run.
And while this Blazers team won't be competitive in a broader sense - their upside is probably 35 wins, in a best-case scenario - there's an obvious reason a scorched-earth rebuild wasn't palatable, or even reasonable. Aldridge didn't leave the team in the lurch without a capable star; it's tough to give your 2015-16 season an early chalk outline when you have so much yellow tape.
Damian Lillard signed a five-year extension projected to be worth $125 million this summer, a deal that will kick in for the 2016-17 season. While Lillard has his flaws, particularly on the defensive end, he's a 20-point scorer who's made two All-Star teams in his first three seasons. The No. 6 pick in 2012, Lillard has developed into the quality of player the Blazers would be hoping to land if they bottomed out for lottery balls.
Even then, asking one young star to be patient while the team builds a young core around him through the draft would be fine, except that Lillard's already 25. A four-year senior out of Weber State, "Dame DOLLA" is on the older end of the spectrum for players still on their rookie-scale contracts. He's entering his prime, and the Blazers would be wasting a good portion of that prime by tasking Lillard with scoring empty buckets for a 20-win team.
Instead, Portland went about their offseason in a way that suggests they may see 2017 as the beginning of their next competitive window. Lillard will be 27 then, they'll have added two lottery picks - assuming they don't make the playoffs in 2016 or 2017 - and the young players they gambled on this summer will have grown into known commodities, good or bad.
Rookies are, by and large, ineffective and take several seasons to contribute in meaningful ways. By adding players in their second, third, or fourth seasons, Portland has still gotten much younger and taken fliers on risky talent, but they've expedited the development curve in hopes that these lottery tickets materialize while Lillard is still in his prime.
The Blazers acquired Maurce Harkless for free, betting the 22-year-old can turn his defensive acumen and 3-point shooting into steady production in year four, freed from the dog house. They added Mason Plumlee in a draft-night trade that surrendered a pick (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson), in part because the 25-year-old Plumlee is close to the prime years for big men and still has two seasons on his rookie deal.
And they landed Noah Vonleh in the Batum deal, with the 20-year-old power forward essentially set to re-do his rookie campaign after playing just 259 minutes due to injury and a perceived lack of readiness. The No. 9 pick in 2014, Vonleh is effectively the equivalent of having owned a lottery pick in 2015, save for one year being burnt off his rookie deal.
Portland also signed Ed Davis (three years) and Al-Farouq Aminu (four), ostensibly adding veterans that have little place on a rebuilding team, even on reasonable deals. But those players are 26 and 25, respectively, and fit the team's timeline around Lillard.
This isn't to say the Blazers will be title contenders two years down the line. Fliers on Harkless, Vonleh, and Plumlee, closer to when those players will become more expensive, aren't necessarily safer bets than top-five or even top-10 picks.
But the Blazers have a star offensive player signed to a long-term deal, and it would have made little sense to tear things down around him, only to have quality young pieces at the ready as Lillard exits his prime four years down the line.
There's no easy way to bounce back from losing a superstar in his prime, but having a second star about to enter his prime helps.