An undercurrent of disrespect permeated LaMarcus Aldridge's 2015 free agency. For a week that July, he was the center of the NBA universe, the lone championship-altering force on a market accustomed to players just a hair greater. Aldridge was never LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but for that one week, he was treated like it, and it was a feeling he seemingly wanted to replicate in perpetuity. Despite winning 105 games in his last two seasons in Portland, reports indicated that his desire to compete for championships was matched or perhaps exceeded by his longing for validation. Adrian Wojnarowski even reported at the time that Aldridge "loathed" driving around Portland and seeing the many billboards Adidas had posted featuring teammate Damian Lillard. Free agency was an opportunity to win, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to do so on his own terms.
It's something he never really got to do in 15 NBA seasons. He started his career as the third wheel to a preordained Brandon Roy-Greg Oden dynasty, and by the time injuries ruined it, Lillard's ascent rendered him a sidekick on the only team he'd ever known. The egalitarian theory of the Spurs offered an alternative that Kawhi Leonard's brilliance swallowed in practice. Aldridge asked for a trade after his second season in San Antonio and rescinded it only after Leonard's injury granted him the spotlight he so craved but never quite deserved. The Aldridge-led Spurs were good. They made the playoffs. But without a Leonard-caliber leading man, Aldridge was never going to win a championship.
It makes his career an interesting case study in compromise. Sidekicking is notoriously tedious. Stars routinely grumble about the sacrifices it takes to win alongside superior teammates, but Aldridge never got the chance. He reached the conference finals only once, and by the time he was willing to sacrifice enough of the trappings of stardom to reach the absolute highest levels of winning, it was too late. Aldridge played only five games on the contending Nets before a heart condition ended his career. It was the least satisfying possible outcome for Aldridge's career: he never held the keys to a franchise as Lillard does now, nor did he have the chance to ride shotgun on the way to someone else's championship.
It was ultimately a case of poor luck on both fronts, and it dates back to the very beginning of his career. The Toronto Raptors held the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, and despite the pleas of fellow Texan Chris Bosh, opted for Andrea Bargnani as their top choice. That robbed Aldridge of an ideal long-term frontcourt partner, a modern mismatch machine of a duo that would have drawn opposing bigs out of the paint a full decade before they were ready to. One pick later, the Chicago Bulls drafted him at No. 2, and for a moment, the chance to serve as Michael Jordan's long-awaited successor could have made Aldridge one of the league's brightest young stars. That pick's original owner offered similar marketability. Had they not traded for Eddy Curry, Aldridge may well have begun his career as the face of the New York Knicks.