Five days in free agency: Inside the courtship of LaMarcus Aldridge

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

LaMarcus Aldridge walked out of the lobby doors of the Montage Beverly Hills in early July and found a familiar face in a most familiar repose: Gregg Popovich busting chops. In the hotel’s valet lane, the emperor of the San Antonio Spurs playfully jabbed Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri for signing Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll to a $60 million free-agent contract. Spurs family is Spurs family, and Ujiri had punctured a protégé’s program in Atlanta.

Sixteen million dollars a year, Popovich proclaimed with Aldridge approaching them. “Hey, Masai ought to pay you $35 million a year!”

“If he could, he would,” Aldridge said with a laugh, a nod of respect toward the relentlessness of Ujiri’s pursuit.

LaMarcus Aldridge was drawn to the Spurs' familial vibe. (Getty Images)
LaMarcus Aldridge was drawn to the Spurs' familial vibe. (Getty Images)

There was an inherent awkwardness to the moment, with Popovich and Aldridge understanding why Toronto’s top executive lingered outside the hotel. From far behind, Toronto still chased the biggest available free agent on the market, the Raptors’ general manager endearing himself to Aldridge, selling the starry free agent on a visit that would never materialize.

Nevertheless, Ujiri stepped aside now. His brief, spirited run was over, and he knew it. Aldridge had come downstairs to accompany Popovich to lunch on July 3. They needed to talk again, and LaMarcus Aldridge needed to find a final connection with the coach, a franchise, to make that final leap of faith.

Aldridge, a 6-foot-11 power forward coming off a season in which he averaged 23.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, had transformed into the most pursued player available on the free-agent market. The Blazers had the third-best record in the NBA when guard Wesley Matthews crumpled with a torn Achilles’ tendon in March, and suddenly Aldridge began to think more and more about leaving Portland. He didn’t love living in the city, had two young children living in his home state of Texas, and Portland was slowly, surely losing a grip on its franchise player.

As much as anything, Aldridge, 30, needed to decide who he wanted to be in the NBA, and where he wanted to become it. Did he want to be the face of a franchise, surrounded with talents who wouldn’t overshadow him? Did he want the glamor market of Los Angeles? Did he want to blend into this generation’s best franchise and chase titles with San Antonio? Did he want to return to Portland, become the franchise’s greatest player, transition back into an outstanding core of talent and accept a fifth year on his contract that would pay him $27 million more than the rest of his suitors were allowed under the collective bargaining rules?

The power structure of the NBA hung in the balance of that lunch meeting on July 3, hung on how Aldridge could connect with Popovich. Together, they walked down the sun-splashed sidewalk on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, and the rest of the league awaited the outcome.

Across five days in June and July, LaMarcus Aldridge’s free-agent recruitment changed the landscape of the Western Conference and the NBA. Aldridge returns to play the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday at the Moda Center, and finally does so as a San Antonio Spur.

NBA free agency commenced at 9 p.m. Pacific Time on June 30, and six suitors had a chance to make a case to Aldridge about leaving the Blazers. Here’s the story of those 120 hours, told through interviews with those who engaged in the process that ultimately delivered LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs.

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Here’s how free agency started: At 9 p.m. Pacific time on June 30, the Los Angeles Lakers’ organization walked into the conference room and the faceless suits kept coming and coming through the doors. Thirteen people marched into the second-floor conference room of the Wasserman Media Group room and surrounded Aldridge and his agents with Wasserman Media Group. Lakers star Kobe Bryant sat down in the chair next to Aldridge.

Aldridge had a number of good seasons in Portland (Getty)
Aldridge had a number of good seasons in Portland (Getty)

The process of meetings appealed to Aldridge, with Portland – the only franchise he had known in his nine NBA seasons – remaining heavily on his mind as his only point of reference. The Lakers were an enigma of the process, a historic franchise in the NBA’s most desirable market torn between the twilight of Bryant’s legendary career and talented but young prospects D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. Aldridge owned a home in nearby Orange County (Calif.) and was intrigued with understanding the Lakers’ murky organizational landscape and plans for bridging its peerless past through its bottomed-out reality.

For most of the first hour, polished business vice presidents and AEG officials and Time Warner television executives and marketers delivered corporate platitudes and clichés. Several times, Aldridge asked questions, pushing for the direction that he wanted to steer the presentation – only the Lakers never veered from the script. What Aldridge wanted out of these meetings was to engage in a high-minded basketball discussion – on his role, on winning and the franchise’s plans. Everyone else seemed to understand that, except the Lakers.

“I was trying to ask more basketball-related questions,” Aldridge told Yahoo. “I just had things that I wanted to know, to understand, on the basketball side. I get why they did what they did, coming from a small market, going to L.A., a whole different world, and they just wanted me to know about that world. I did try to bring it back toward basketball a couple times.”

The Lakers were falling flat, squandering the opportunity. Through it all, Bryant and Aldridge were engaged, sitting side-by-side and quietly talking basketball. For Aldridge, the most real, resonating part of the Lakers’ presentation would come when Bryant spoke passionately about what it meant to play for the Lakers, what it was like to play in Los Angeles and how Aldridge’s talent and serious-mindedness made it perfect for him, too.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach Byron Scott offered unspectacular but solid visions, yet nothing had come close to commanding the kind of detail and depth that Aldridge had wanted. The Lakers were pitching faith and history. Aldridge had come hoping that the Lakers would blow him away, but he left with more questions about the franchise than when he walked into the room.

When it was over, Aldridge bristled over reports that somehow Bryant had been to blame for the Lakers’ debacle. “Kobe was the best part of the meeting,” Aldridge told Yahoo. “I’ve known Kobe for years, living out in Newport Beach. He knows my kids. I’ve seen him with his daughters. We’ve always had a cordial relationship. I was kind of mad about how it got spun around that it was him that I had problems with – when he was actually the best part of it.”

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Once Les Alexander stood before LaMarcus Aldridge at 11:10 p.m. PT on the night of June 30, finally it felt like the pursuit for the heart and mind of a free-agent basketball star had begun. All alone, the owner of the Houston Rockets made his entrance and introduced his franchise from the purest of basketball perspectives: Our history spoke to a commitment to winning championships and bonds with his retired players. Clyde Drexler. Hakeem Olajuwon. Yao Ming.

After Alexander, Rockets coach Kevin McHale talked on team building, on how as a Hall of Fame power forward himself he'd be ideal to bring out the best in Aldridge. General manager Daryl Morey and assistant GM Gersson Rosas laid out how Aldridge, James Harden and Dwight Howard could prosper together.

“We think the Big Three is the way to go,” Morey told Aldridge.

Aldridge asked Morey and McHale specific questions about how the Rockets would use him offensively, and Morey returned empirical evidence to show where Howard gets his touches and shots in the system, how they believed it wouldn’t interfere with Aldridge’s offensive productivity.

Houston’s team president, Tad Brown, spent a few minutes explaining how Houston’s television deal in China would make Aldridge one of the globe’s most watched basketball stars – allowing him to tap into that Far Eastern marketing dollar.

The Rockets had been far more impressive than the Lakers, but Aldridge remained uneasy about the prospect of a partnership with Harden and Howard. The Rockets knew that Aldridge wanted to be the face of a franchise, and that would never happen with Harden there. They could share a marquee, but Houston would never belong to Aldridge.

Before they broke for the night, Aldridge huddled with agent Arn Tellem and Wasserman Media’s George David. The Lakers had been unimpressive, and Aldridge couldn’t see himself fitting into a Big Three with the Rockets. In his mind, the Portland Trail Blazers still lingered. A long day of meetings awaited Aldridge in the morning, beginning with San Antonio Spurs, but he told his associates: Hey, I could still return to Portland. The Blazers are still there for me.

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A little more than a week earlier, Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey had traveled to Dallas for a meeting with Aldridge, Tellem and Tellem’s son, Michael, an agent with Wasserman Media Group.

When the rest of the teams would come promising Aldridge everything they would do for him, Olshey had a different advantage: He had done it. And could keep doing it. Under Olshey, Portland’s moves, his upgrades, had delivered Aldridge the best years of his career.

Blazers GM Neil Olshey did all he could to keep Aldridge in Portland. (AP)
Blazers GM Neil Olshey did all he could to keep Aldridge in Portland. (AP)

Above everything, Olshey gave Aldridge what every star power forward ought to want: a dazzling, young point guard, Damian Lillard, with the promise of performing at an All-Star level for years.

“As much as you’ve done for us, we’ve done for you, too,” Olshey told Aldridge.

As much as anything, the Blazers' meeting was a strategy session as opposed to a recruiting presentation. Portland's plan had been to incorporate Aldridge into the franchise's planning prior to his meetings with competitors.

For Olshey and coach Terry Stotts, one of the profound challenges was persuading Aldridge to separate the resounding success of their three-year partnership together versus the hard feelings that Aldridge had over his first six years with the Blazers. Aldridge held grudges on slights – real and perceived – in those seasons before Olshey arrived as the general manager.

Olshey is one of the NBA’s true self-made executives, a gym rat out with New York roots who made his way to Los Angeles as an actor. He never did get basketball out of his heart and worked his way to Clippers general manager after starting out as a pro workout coach and high school assistant at Artesia High School in Southern California. As Clippers GM, he drafted DeAndre Jordan at No. 35 and Eric Bledsoe at No. 17. He orchestrated the franchise-changing trade for Chris Paul and played a part in the drafting of Blake Griffin. Olshey reshaped the Clippers and had done so again with the Blazers.

Yes, Olshey drafted Aldridge an All-Star point guard, traded for a rim-protecting center in Robin Lopez, and hired a coach, Stotts, who brought offensive innovation and hellacious player development to complementary players surrounding Aldridge.

Off the floor, Olshey consulted Aldridge on every move the franchise made – the practice facility, the travel, the charter meals, everything. Aldridge had made the All-Star team once in six years; and now had done so three straight times under Olshey’s regime. Aldridge made second-team All-NBA – something else he had never done. He had gone to the playoffs two straight years, including the Western Conference semifinals.

“Neil was great,” Aldridge told Yahoo. “I’m thankful for everything he did. The organization wasn’t really bad [before him], but it wasn’t player-oriented. He came and really made it about the players. He re-did the practice facility, re-did the arena. He wanted to make the focus about the players being happy. He finally listened to my voice and made me feel like I was the franchise player.”

After the 2012-13 season, Olshey tried to honor a private request of Aldridge’s that the Blazers find out what existed for him on the trade market. Rival teams tell the story of turning down the Blazers for Aldridge in the summer of 2012 for packages that included Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka. Three years ago, the Blazers were flatly rejected for every borderline and genuine All-Star forward in the NBA. Three years later, Aldridge had turned into the No. 1 free agent on the market. This was the case the Blazers had been making to him for over a year, framing themselves as the franchise and regime of irrefutable action with Aldridge. Everyone else, they only had promises.

Whatever Aldridge wanted, the Blazers were prepared to do: Bring back Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews? Tyson Chandler over Lopez? Greg Monroe to pair with Aldridge? The Blazers were flush with salary cap space and a ravenous fan base that loved him, and top-tier Western Conference contention awaited Aldridge’s willingness to tell them he wanted to return.

Throughout the final, formal meeting in late June, it became clear that Aldridge hadn’t completely let go of years-old issues with the way he believed ex-Blazers Brandon Roy and Greg Oden had overshadowed him in the early part of his career. This was part of Aldridge’s personality that everyone surrounding him understood – that the teams recruiting him had researched and debated internally on how to navigate in the recruiting process.

Leaving that meeting in Dallas in late June, perhaps little was more telling than the fact Aldridge never raised one particular name: Damian Lillard. Ultimately, this was the enigma of LaMarcus Aldridge. He wanted talent around him, but never too much that it might cast a shadow on his own marquee. Pleasing Aldridge was never easy, and nobody knew that better than the Portland Trail Blazers.

Olshey would keep talking to Aldridge on the phone every few days, running trade scenarios past him and possible free-agent signings. Olshey deftly walked the line with the acquisition of young players who could fit two purposes: surrounding Aldridge for a deep playoff push, or moving forward in a rebuild without him. C.J. McCollum. Meyers Leonard. Mason Plumlee. Ed Davis. Al-Farouq Aminu.

Never did Olshey get a commitment that Aldridge would return – nor a definitive declaration that he was gone for good.

Privately, Aldridge never made much of a secret about his dislike for the lifestyle and climate of Portland and the Pacific Northwest. As an organization, the Blazers could do nothing about it.

In the end, Paul Allen and Neil Olshey walked out of that room in Dallas and wondered whether anything they had done the past three years had resonated with him. As Aldridge prepared to meet with several NBA teams in Los Angeles, they wondered: Does he acknowledge that we have built equity with him? Does any of it matter?

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Two things were missing in the San Antonio Spurs’ meeting on July 1: Cell phones and championship rings.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs were straightforward and honest with Aldridge. (Getty)
Gregg Popovich and the Spurs were straightforward and honest with Aldridge. (Getty)

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford met LaMarcus Aldridge, Wasserman Media’s Arn Tellem and George David in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Wednesday morning and walked them upstairs to a suite. By design, they weren’t bringing him into a cold, sterile conference room. Popovich, Buford and Kawhi Leonard sat on one couch; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Patty Mills across the way. Popovich wore a T-shirt and jeans. Some of the players wore sweat suits.

There were no corporate Chips or Chets, no marketing gurus, no one spitting out platitudes on synergies. No one stole glances to iPhones, checked emails and texts. All eyes were on Aldridge. These were the Spurs, and, Gregg Popovich told him, these are the people who’ll dictate your happiness and fulfillment every day. The Spurs surrounded LaMarcus Aldridge and it felt like a family conversation in the living room.

Popovich did not speak of the five NBA championships, the six trips to the NBA Finals. Never once. They didn’t play the part of Pat Riley with LeBron James and drop championship rings on the table; in fact, they never acknowledged winning titles. The Spurs never assured him that together they would win championships, only that he’d enjoy the pursuit, the experience.

The Spurs chase tomorrow, never living in yesterday. One by one, the players took turns describing what it was like to play for the franchise, and live in the community. Parker described growing up in Paris, but thought now of how it’s pretty amazing that he plans to spend the rest of his life living in South Texas. Every coach was welcome into the front office’s player personnel meetings, Popovich told him, and every scout could come into his coaching staff meetings. That’s the embodiment of one organization, free of factions and agendas. When other free-agency suitors sold Aldridge on what they believed he wanted to hear – all the shots, all the billboards, all the credit – the Spurs told him: We have never been about one player, and never will.

Aldridge loathed driving around Portland and seeing those Lillard billboards that adidas had mounted for him – even when the Blazers made Aldridge the centerpiece of every franchise marketing investment. Here’s how it worked in San Antonio, they told him: No Spurs player is ever alone on a billboard.

“It was like a family, like a bunch of guys who love basketball sitting around and just talking basketball,” Aldridge told Yahoo.

The Spurs resonated with Aldridge. There was power in the simplicity and seeming sincerity of it all. Nevertheless, there still were uncertainties about what Aldridge wanted, about how much Aldridge wanted to sacrifice for something far bigger than himself.

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Even so, Aldridge hadn’t found a compelling case outside of the Spurs – until he walked back into the lobby of WMG’s building on July 1 and found a surprising presence awaiting him: Tyson Chandler.

As Aldridge met with the Lakers on the night of June 30, Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough huddled with the Dallas free agent at the Hotel Palomar. Soon, the Suns secured Chandler with a four-year, $53-million deal.

The plan was simple: Overnight, the Suns would keep the news quiet and promptly march Chandler into a presentation with Aldridge on the afternoon of July 1. The Spurs meeting had come and gone, and now McDonough hatched a plan to deliver drama to the process.

Tyson Chandler was a surprise factor in Phoenix's recruitment of Aldridge. (Getty)
Tyson Chandler was a surprise factor in Phoenix's recruitment of Aldridge. (Getty)

The Suns brought coaches and players, including assistant Earl Watson, an ex-Blazers teammate who had a strong bond with Aldridge. Before moving into a conference room, everyone was saying hello, shaking hands and suddenly: There was one of the centers that Aldridge had requested.

“I could tell LaMarcus was confused, sort of like, ‘What’s he doing here? What’s going on?’ ” McDonough told Yahoo. “And then he realized what was happening.”

This changed everything in the process. Aldridge met with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. He studied the Suns’ roster, the salary cap space, and understood that a young center, Alex Len, would be the understudy to eventually replace the 33-year-old Chandler. McDonough made a convincing case to Aldridge about turning him into the face of the franchise, transforming the Valley of the Sun into his marketing platform.

“I get to the meeting, walk in and they have [Chandler] there,” Aldridge told Yahoo. “That spoke volumes about how serious they were about signing me – and how much they wanted to win.

“They went from just being an option to being at the top of my list.”

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From Mark Cuban to Rick Carlisle, the Dallas Mavericks were a powerful presence in the room on the morning of July 1 – and nothing moved Aldridge and his reps as profoundly as Dallas using the voice of Aldridge’s high school coach to narrate a moving video about what it would mean for a son of the city to return and sign with the Mavericks.

Aldridge was raised around Dallas and matriculated at the University of Texas, and the possibility of joining the Mavericks intrigued him. Aldridge had told teams with significant cap space – including Dallas and Phoenix – that luring Clippers free agent DeAndre Jordan or Chandler to play center with him would be optimal.

Once the Mavericks had a commitment 24 hours later from Jordan – one that eventually would be reversed – Dallas did something that surprised Aldridge and his reps: The Mavericks agreed to a deal with the recovering Matthews, which ended Dallas’ pursuit of Aldridge.

Had the Mavericks waited, they had a chance, although owner Mark Cuban still didn’t have enough cap space available to award Aldridge a full max offer. Nevertheless, the Mavericks had a sure thing with Matthews and secured his commitment. For Dallas, it made sense: The Mavericks couldn’t risk waiting on a great player with whom they weren’t a frontrunner – only to lose out on a good one ready to join.

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The New York Knicks canceled a meeting with Aldridge on July 2, conceding that their plan of using him at center was useless. Aldridge had no desire but to play power forward.

Aldridge met with the Toronto Raptors, whose general manager, Masai Ujiri, had Aldridge enraptured. He found himself intrigued with Ujiri’s vision of the entire country of Canada behind him, telling Yahoo, “There was a genuine spirit about [Ujiri] that made me more interested in Toronto.”

Ujiri lurked in the halls of the Montage for the next 48 hours, carefully crafting text messages to Aldridge, trying desperately to get him on a plane and come visit the city. Ujiri imagined the rapper Drake, a Raptors fan, summoning other fervent fans, packing Jurassic Park outside the Air Canada Centre and somehow willing themselves to a free-agent upset of upsets.

Aldridge is averaging 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds with the Spurs. (Getty)
Aldridge is averaging 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds with the Spurs. (Getty)

In the end though, Aldridge had to eliminate teams, and Toronto didn’t make the cut. As Aldridge moved to shorten his list and make a final decision, the Lakers called Arn Tellem and asked for a second chance. Kupchak and Scott wanted to have a short, streamlined, basketball-driven conversation. Aldridge agreed as a gesture of goodwill, but the Lakers had fallen out of consideration.

As that Spurs learned of the Lakers’ second meeting, Popovich asked R.C. Buford: Should I go back to Los Angeles, too? Popovich was fully engaged in the process, had talked with Aldridge on the phone since the formal meeting. As Aldridge told Yahoo, “Pop being the guy that he is, he wanted to meet face-to-face. He didn’t want to have any miscommunication.”

So, Popovich climbed on a flight and headed back to Los Angeles. But before Popovich and Aldridge would meet on July 3, the greatest recruiter of them all, Miami president Pat Riley, had persuaded Aldridge to take a dinner with him on the evening of July 2. How could Aldridge resist? Who didn’t want to be wooed by Riley? If nothing else, he had to hear him out.

The Heat didn’t have the salary cap space to sign Aldridge, and Riley’s wish for Aldridge to sign a one-year deal with Portland and wait for the Heat’s space in 2016 was a most unappealing proposition. Nevertheless, Riley made a case to Aldridge that turned out to be an immense blessing for the franchise that had obliterated the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. As the idea of joining the Suns gained real momentum, Riley’s message would go a long, long way toward validating the Spurs’ cause. Truth be told, Riley’s words resonated as deeply with Aldridge as anyone’s in the process.

“He told me, ‘You’re a good player, but you can be great,’ ” Aldridge told Yahoo. “I’ve had good seasons on my own, but to win, you’ve got to have other big-time guys with you. When you have other guys who are willing to take that sacrifice with you – maybe you all go from averaging 23-24 points to 18-19 points – and you can all do it together.

“He was saying, ‘Hey, you might have to take a lesser role, but at the end of the day, you want to be known as a champion. Champions have to do different things.’ He brought up Chris Bosh, how he was averaging 21 in Toronto, and came to Miami, and people tried to say he wasn’t important. He told me, ‘We don’t win any of those championships rings without him,’ [and] that [Bosh] wouldn’t trade those rings for anything.

“Eventually, it becomes a road in your career, whether you have to decide whether you want to keep having these crazy stats, or do you want to win a championship?”

On the night of July 2, with Popovich returning for a lunch meeting the next day, Riley had delivered an unintended assist to the Spurs. He had turned Aldridge’s mind back toward San Antonio, setting the stage for Popovich to close the deal. “Yeah, the things [Riley] said were definitely more positive for me coming to San Antonio,” Aldridge told Yahoo.

Soon, Aldridge called Olshey and told him that he had narrowed his decision to San Antonio and Phoenix. Aldridge and Popovich then walked down North Canon in Beverly Hills to a lunch of hard questions and firm answers.

Aldridge planned to take the holiday weekend to make a decision, but awoke on July 4 and texted Arn Tellem these words: “I want to be a Spur.”

Tellem called Aldridge and made sure that he was resolute in his decision. Yes, Aldridge told him, I am sure. “You call Pop, and I’ll call RC,” Tellem said. Within hours, Aldridge agreed to a four-year, $80 million contract with the San Antonio Spurs.

Three months later, alone in the Spurs’ practice facility, Aldridge said: “Anybody in my position – to have a chance to play with the best power forward ever, to learn and still be close to your family who you haven’t been close to in 10 years, that’s hard to turn down.

“I’m pretty simple, and I think that’s what this organization is about. At the end of the day, I thought my personality and my style of play would fit into here.

“In the end, I just think this was where I was supposed to be.”

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