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LaMarcus Aldridge chose winning, above all else, when he decided two summers ago to play for the San Antonio Spurs. As the most coveted free agent at the time, Aldridge could’ve gone somewhere else – or stayed in Portland – where he would’ve likely been afforded an offense catered to him and more pampering and adulation. Few situations, however, would’ve placed Aldridge in a better position to possibly win a ring.
Going from a leading man to part of a super ensemble comes with its challenges, but Aldridge continues to adjust and has finally settled into a role in a share-the-wealth system that is foreign to what he had known his first nine seasons in the league. That championship still eludes him after the first season in his home-state return ended with a second-round thud. But the Spurs have been racking up regular-season wins at a record-breaking pace for the storied franchise, going 108-28 since luring Aldridge in a rare free-agent coup.
Aldridge has done his part, sacrificing the chase for gaudy statistics to be part of a machine that again has the league’s second-best record. That success warrants greater consideration for Kawhi Leonard as MVP but certainly doesn’t come on the back of a one-man show. And as one of four players who have made an All-NBA team in each of the past three seasons – along with LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul – Aldridge would’ve liked for his reputation as a five-time All-Star, along with the Spurs’ stellar record, to have led to him joining Leonard in New Orleans for the All-Star Game.
“I’m older, so I’m not going to come home and be mad or anything,” Aldridge, 31, told The Vertical. “But I do think that it was wrong for Golden State to have four [All-Stars] and we’re a few games behind and only have one. It is what it is. I’m in this position and I’m going to enjoy my break and just come back fresh.”
Aldridge will use his rare in-season vacation relaxing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he can clear his mind. When he gets back to work, the focus will be on completing what he came to accomplish in San Antonio and finding a way to not let self-doubt or second-guessing impede his progress.
Since he wasn’t a homegrown talent indoctrinated into Gregg Popovich’s demanding ways from the start, a journeyman seeking to restore his standing in the league, or a past-his-prime ring-chaser, Aldridge had arguably the most difficult adjustment of any player welcomed into the Spurs franchise. Aldridge was an established star, trained to get buckets on call, surrounded by teammates looking to get him the ball rather than working for the best shot within the offense. For many years in Portland – particularly the final five seasons when he averaged at least 20 points per game – Aldridge, more often than not, represented the best shot.
In his first season in San Antonio, Aldridge struggled trying to find the balance between blending and being assertive. Popovich and Aldridge’s teammates urged him to stop being gun-shy and to demand the ball more, but the confusion led Aldridge to too often get in his own head – a place Tim Duncan encouraged him to avoid lest he overthink. Aldridge still has his moments now, but not nearly as frequently.
“It was very difficult, because I couldn’t be the guy that I’ve been my whole career. It was very difficult to adjust from being who I was to who I am now,” Aldridge told The Vertical. “Now, I’m fine. I do what I’m asked to do. I rebound, take shots every now and then. I’m not really asked to be that guy that I was, so I just the play the role that they want me to play. Play defense. Do pick-and-pop when they need it, and other than that just play off Kawhi.”
Leonard’s ascension from being a star reluctant to step on toes to a top-10 scorer has been paramount to that success, especially with Duncan off detailing cars and being a doting father in his post-basketball career. But so has a selfless, supportive culture in which players take turns having their nights instead of wrestling for shots.
With the entire organization adjusting to Duncan’s retirement, this season has forced Aldridge to shift again. He had to figure out how to play with a more offensive-minded frontcourt partner in Pau Gasol, only to have Gasol go down with a broken hand. Aldridge’s scoring and rebounding (17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game) are almost identical to his numbers from last season but he has had to do more of the dirty work and become more of a defensive anchor. And when his number isn’t called, Aldridge has found other ways to remain engaged, leading to the occasional, angry putback dunk.
“I’ve grown as far as learning to do other things than score,” Aldridge told The Vertical. “That’s what I do, that’s who I am, but here, not so much. I’m trying to learn other ways to be involved in the game, whether that’s crashing the boards or getting guys open. Doing things other than what I naturally do. I think it’s just shown that I can do other things, too. I should feel more comfortable this year. I do at times.”
Aldridge’s production is down considerably from his days with the Trail Blazers but in turn he is winning more. And last postseason, the Spurs showed Aldridge that they won’t hesitate to lean on him as he scored 38 points and 41 points, respectively, in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against Oklahoma City. The Spurs lost to the Thunder in six games, overwhelmed by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and their young, athletic supporting cast. That Aldridge’s former team advanced just as far in his absence last season also cannot be ignored. But San Antonio’s inability to reach the NBA Finals, let alone the conference finals, didn’t change how Aldridge approached the summer.
“I work hard every offseason, so I’m not going to lie and say, ‘I went home and killed it because of that,'” Aldridge told The Vertical with a laugh. “But I think as a whole, we’re definitely motivated to be better this year.”
Golden State had three All-Stars last season and added one of the game’s three-best players during the offseason, so becoming the fourth team in the past 20 years to send four players to the league’s annual showcase doesn’t sound all that ridiculous. But San Antonio is also the only team in the league that is unbeaten against the Warriors and defending NBA champion Cleveland, which has three All-Stars.
The Spurs smashed the Warriors on opening night, snuck out of Cleveland with an overtime win and will face both teams a combined three times in March. With Durant eliminating one challenger in the West with his departure from Oklahoma City, Houston exciting but unproven, and the Los Angeles Clippers needing better luck and/or a significant roster upgrade (hello, Melo?), San Antonio again looks like the one team standing in the way of the Warriors making a third straight Finals appearance. But Aldridge learned after last season’s 67 wins that some other team could always interrupt what appears to be a foregone conclusion.
“We’ll see,” Aldridge told The Vertical. “We have to keep getting better every night, get better defensively and get more sharp and try to make [fewer] mistakes. But if we keep getting better and focus on the little things, we have a chance.”
The Warriors are once again capturing the league’s imagination, upstaged only by a Westbrook triple-double, a James Harden statistical marvel, or a LeBron James angry-dad venting session. But the Spurs – as they have through multiple iterations over the past two decades – are still there, lurking. The All-Star break is arriving and they have already secured their 20th consecutive non-losing season. Aldridge sought a higher profile that comes from deep playoff runs as opposed to market size and he appreciates having to earn the recognition.
“I always love not being in the spotlight, because to me, it’s better to be quiet and focus on things to be better at, and have guys not be praised and have all that hoopla around them, so guys don’t start feeling themselves,” Aldridge told The Vertical. “I’m happy with us being under radar and having Pop always being unsatisfied with everything we do. It definitely keeps us humble and working hard.”
Not that Aldridge believes he needs additional prodding. “I don’t ever get comfortable,” Aldridge told The Vertical. “I never have in my career. It’s just about trying to be better every night. So, my goal is just to learn to be myself in this system as much as I can and try to do what they want me to do. Play my role.”
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