Stein's Scoop: Aldridge, Blazers buzz

Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Portland Trail Blazers in the wake of their five-game exit to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs:

1. Will LaMa‎rcus Aldridge's sub-par series in any way dissuade teams from coming after him in free agency?

Good one.

There's no denying Aldridge played well below his usual standards against the Grizzlies, shooting just 33 percent from the floor and, worse yet, looking less than fully engaged at times ... particularly when Aldridge was the lone Blazer who accepted the team's offer to all players to fly home on their own after a Game 2 loss in Memphis or wait for the next day's charter.

But ... seriously.

The line is long and growing amid the rising whispers in recent weeks that Aldridge is far more gettable than we've been led for months to believe.

Early in the season, when the tale of his desire to go down as the best Blazer ever was being cited routinely, rival teams essentially thought they had no shot at Aldridge. But that's an outdated stance. Even though Portland is the only team in the race with the right to put a five-year offer on the table, it's no stretch to suggest that more league insiders expect Aldridge to bolt in free agency compared to the number expecting him to stay.

It's a turning tide that Aldridge himself ‎didn't do much to stem in a recent interview with my ESPN colleague Chris Broussard, who reported that the 29-year-old -- when asked if Portland was still the No. 1 destination on his board -- responded with a coy "we'll see."

2. So who are the leading contenders to steal Aldridge away at this early juncture?

You can't say loudly enough that it is early in the process.

Very ‎early.

We've only just made it to May, leaving two months for climates to change.

But the consistent word on the personnel grapevine at the minute informs us that San Antonio and Dallas not only both believe they have a real shot at signing him but are also legitimately in Aldridge's thoughts.

Does Aldridge, even accounting for his Dallas upbringing, really want to go home to North Texas or down to South Texas, where he'd essentially be casting himself as the heir apparent to either Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan? Wouldn't he be putting himself in some awfully challenging circumstances to try to live up to the legacies of either of those certifiable legends?

Answer: We're hearing Aldridge connected to both of those teams so frequently that you can only conclude that neither idea scares him.

Yet sources insist -- at, yes, this early juncture -- that San Antonio sits near or at the top of Aldridge's list ... unless the Cleveland Cavaliers were to lose Kevin Love and then somehow manufacture a way to sign-and-trade for him.

The Knicks and Lakers, of course, also intend to enter the bidding. And there will surely be others.

3. So why is Aldridge so eager to leave?

The reasons aren't completely clear yet.

However ...

The rumbles are out there, and thus impossible to ignore, that Aldridge is said to feel somewhat underappreciated in Rip City because of the ever-growing focus inside and outside the organization on backcourt darling Damian Lillard.

Combine that with the inevitable wanderlust that sets in after nine seasons in the same city -- and just one trip beyond the first round of the playoffs in that span -- and a top-shelf big man long presumed to be a lock to stay with the home team is suddenly in play.

Aldridge won many admirers leaguewide this season for his willingness to delay surgery on his left hand and play through the pain of a torn ligament. But his relative struggles against Memphis only added weight to the notion that he's not entirely comfortable with his current circumstances, which has some Blazers-watchers convinced that Dame's ever-growing profile and stature is among the main triggers here.

4. ‎Can you name three GMs that will be busier than Neil Olshey this summer?

Not sure I can name one.

On top of the whole Aldridge situation that hangs over the franchise ...

  • Lillard is eligible for a contract extension of his own this summer and will surely command a massive five-year offer as soon as the negotiating window (July 1 through Halloween) opens. How massive? According to the league's most recent salary cap projections, Lillard is in line for a five-year deal in the $120 million range. Will the Blazers max him out to ensure that at least one of their two cornerstones is firmly locked in? All the signals we're getting point to yes.

  • Wes Matthews heads to free agency despite losing the season's final 22 games to that nasty Achilles tear, which not only started the slide that would prevent Portland from emerging as a legit factor in the postseason but also naturally hampers his earning potential.

  • Arron Afflalo, I'm told, intends to go ahead with plans to opt out this summer even though a right shoulder injury obviously prevented him from making the post-trade deadline smash in Portland that he'd hoped.

  • Robin Lopez, whose impact as a frontcourt sidekick to Aldridge was so positive last season, is also bound for free agency after enduring his own injury woes. He's one of eight potential free agents on the Blazers' roster.

    The good news?

    Olshey is embracing the heavy lifting that awaits, announcing Thursday to local reporters about the summer challenges ahead: "It's going to be fun."

    5. Is everything in this piece, by contrast, going to be gloomy? Didn't the Blazers actually break Oklahoma City's recent stranglehold on the Northwest ‎Division this season? Are you trying to tell me that the Game 4 rally to beat the Grizz at home did nothing but waste jet fuel to Memphis for Game 5?

    That last line is way too harsh. Game 5 was no waste.

    Not after the show C.J. McCollum put on.

    Fact is Portland might find itself with no choice if Aldridge bolts and be forced to rebuild/reload/pick your adjective around Lillard. Nicolas Batum needs a bounce-back season in a big way in 2015-16 -- I certainly thought he was in store for much, much more after such stellar play at last summer's World Cup for France -- but McCollum's playoff flashes (as well as Meyers Leonard's) suggest that the Blazers would be starting over with more than advertised.