How an offseason meeting with Gregg Popovich re-energized LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge is putting up career numbers for the San Antonio Spurs. (AP)
LaMarcus Aldridge is putting up career numbers for the San Antonio Spurs. (AP)

BOSTON — It’s late Monday, and LaMarcus Aldridge dresses dutifully in his corner locker. It was a rough night for San Antonio, for Aldridge. The San Antonio Spurs were drilled by the Boston Celtics on the last stop of a four-game Eastern Conference road trip, with Aldridge (11 points) little more than a bystander for much of it. Yet as Aldridge fielded questions from reporters, there was a breezy confidence in his voice.

“We couldn’t throw a rock in a lake,” Aldridge said, smiling. “No excuses — we have got to keep grinding.”

Keep grinding — words Aldridge told himself last season, when his dream of becoming a franchise tent pole in San Antonio seemed to be crumbling around him. By now, the story is familiar. After signing a four-year, $80 million deal with the Spurs in 2015 — a free-agency coup at the time for San Antonio — Aldridge never quite found a groove. The numbers dipped. A string of five consecutive All-Star appearances ended last season. When the year ended, Aldridge didn’t know where he was going to be at the start of the next one.

He could have moped. Instead, he was proactive. He called Gregg Popovich. Over lunch on a sweltering hot day in San Antonio, Aldridge and Popovich hashed things out. Popovich took responsibility for trying to change Aldridge (“98.75 percent [was] on me,” Popovich said) and vowed to emphasize more early action in the post; Aldridge committed to run the floor more aggressively. A rift — if you can call it that — was healed, so well that the Spurs, who dangled Aldridge in trade talks before June’s draft, signed him to a two-year, $50 million extension that, coupled with Aldridge opting into the final year of his deal next season, keeps him under contract in San Antonio through the 2020-21 season.

“I didn’t know [what would happen after last season],” Aldridge told Yahoo Sports. “After that talk, and how well Pop took it, I thought things would get better. And they have. He’s very smart. I told him how I felt, I knew he would listen, and he did. He’s the guru. He figured out how to make some tweaks and it has been great so far.”

Indeed. With Leonard out, Aldridge has become the offensive focal point. True to his word, Popovich has emphasized early post offense — the first play against Boston was a post-up for Aldridge — and Aldridge has delivered, averaging a career-high 23.6 points over the first two weeks of the season.

“I feel like they are putting me in different positions, that they are looking for me more,” Aldridge said. “So I feel a little more into it. My confidence is there.”

Pau Gasol shared the frontcourt with Aldridge last season. At times, he felt the uncertainty in Aldridge’s game. He doesn’t anymore.

“LaMarcus has been outstanding,” Gasol told Yahoo Sports. “He has a great mindset. He’s been dominating almost every single game. He’s been very aggressive. From the first day of training camp he looked very sharp, in rhythm. He came in ready to dominate and take a step forward. It’s been really impressive.”

Early in the game against Boston, Aldridge backed down Celtics forward Al Horford, spun and tossed in a fadeaway jumper. “Soft!” shouted a fan in the lower bowl. Aldridge’s game has never fit in a familiar box. He’s not a stretch four — he made 41.1 percent of his threes last season, but he only attempted 56 of them — and he’s not a bruiser in the post. He’s comfortable from midrange (7.9 attempts from there last season, third in the NBA and first among power forwards) because he is pretty good from midrange (41.2 percent). His high release makes his shot virtually unblockable. And when his jumper is going, it creates opportunities for Aldridge to score off the dribble, which he did when the less mobile Aron Baynes pressured him on Monday.

“How I am now is how I thought it would be in the first couple of years,” Aldridge told Yahoo Sports. “I’m a different player than [anyone] they have had in the past. I understand it takes time to mesh me into their system. I feel like we have kind of learned each other.”

Spurs officials have lavished praise on Aldridge this season. But they understand the true test comes when Kawhi Leonard returns. Leonard — who is sidelined with a leg injury — and Aldridge have yet to forge the kind of cohesive partnership San Antonio envisioned when Aldridge came aboard. In interviews — including one with Yahoo Sports — Aldridge is deferential to Leonard, referring to him as “our main guy.”

“I have to figure out how to keep being myself when he is back,” Aldridge said. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

We’ll see. What we do know is Aldridge is happier than at any point in the last three years. And we know that San Antonio — a little older, but largely the same team from last season — took two out of three from Golden State during the 2016-17 season and held a 25-point lead in Game 1 of the conference finals before Leonard went down with a series-ending ankle injury. If Aldridge and Leonard jell, the Spurs could once again be the Warriors’ stiffest test.

But that’s a long way off. For now, Aldridge is content to live in the moment. As he dressed on Monday, Aldridge continued to praise Popovich for being willing to listen — and being open to salvaging the relationship.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for him for listening to me and not taking it personal and not saying eff you or whatever,” Aldridge said. “He [was] very positive after the talk, and that’s shown. I’ve never felt a bad way toward him. He really didn’t understand how I felt. Me talking to him, that gave him a different perspective that he didn’t understand. After the talk he has been great and that has translated into how I play.”

Three Points

LeBron James and the Cavs have been a mess this season. (AP)
LeBron James and the Cavs have been a mess this season. (AP)

Trouble brewing in Cleveland?
I know — declaring a state of emergency in Cleveland is an annual rite of passage, including last season, when the Cavs kicked away the No. 1 seed in the final week, only to rattle off a 12-1 record in the conference playoffs en route to a third straight Finals appearance. “I’m not being sucked into the same movie again,” ex-Cav Brendan Haywood told Yahoo Sports this week. “It happens every year — there is an 8-to-10 game [bad] stretch, this team goes through it, we all wonder if they can represent the East, the playoffs come and the Cavs beat the breaks out of everybody. They are going to right the ’ship.”

Perhaps. But this year just feels … different. Three straight losses to Brooklyn, New Orleans and New York have been embarrassing. The defense has been porous (27th in efficiency) and the Cavs have used four different starting lineups in seven games this season. Said a veteran scout, “That team is a mess right now.”

Will it get better? Probably. LeBron James is still LeBron James and early-season conditioning issues have hit Cleveland as hard as everyone else. Plus, the Cavs are optimistic that Isaiah Thomas will return some time after the first of the year. But this team is old and unathletic with a backcourt that, without Thomas, ranks among the worst-shooting units in the league. J.R. Smith, who regressed to a 35.1 percent 3-point shooter last season, is shooting 17.1 percent from deep. Derrick Rose is at 20 percent — a career low. And as great as Thomas can be, he does nothing to solve Cleveland’s defensive issues.

Maybe the Cavs will get it together — the lack of a true peer keeps the door open — but this is the most vulnerable Cleveland team since LeBron’s return.

The curious case of Markelle Fultz
So what’s going on with Markelle Fultz? Depends on who you ask. He’s got shoulder problems, he’s changed his shot, he’s got shoulder problems because he changed his shot. He’s having stuff removed from the shoulder, he’s having painkillers put in, there’s nothing structurally wrong with the shoulder, but, oh yeah, he’s sidelined indefinitely.

Got all that? Me neither. I’m going to stick with what I’ve been consistently told: Fultz, the No. 1 pick last June, tinkered with his shot before the draft and made some substantial changes to it before training camp, changes that have caused some pain in his shoulder. But don’t dismiss this theory, one several league executives floated to me over the last week: Fultz could have the yips. The Rick Ankiel, can’t-find-home-plate yips. The Tiger Woods, can’t-chip yips. Fultz — who has not attempted a 3-pointer and has connected on just 50 percent of his free throws — could be experiencing a crisis of confidence that has snowballed since the start of the season.

The Sixers are in no rush to bring Fultz back, and they shouldn’t be. As giddy as some were about this season, Philly is, at best, a 40-win playoff team. And while the “No. 1 pick hurt again” cracks flood social media, force-feeding Fultz minutes just to prove the Sixers can keep a rookie on the floor is counterproductive. What the Sixers have to hope is that the time off — Fultz is set to be re-evaluated in a few weeks — will resolve any physical issues, and the extra practice time will clear any mental roadblock for the talented playmaker.

A solid start in Brooklyn
While it’s been something of an early-season roller coaster in Brooklyn — wins over Orlando and Cleveland, losses to Indiana and New York, all while majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov put in motion an exit strategy — the Nets have been far better than expected. They have weathered the loss of Jeremy Lin and have been buoyed by resurgent play from Lakers castoff D’Angelo Russell (19.8 points per game) and Toronto cap casualty DeMarre Carroll (14.2 points per game).

Can the Nets keep it up? There are signs they can. It’s a balanced lineup, with seven players averaging double figures. The majority of the team is young, which plays into Kenny Atkinson’s strengths. Brooklyn’s coach made his bones as a player-development guy in Atlanta — Al Horford, among others, swore by him — and he has a promising crop of prospects to work with. Confidence will be a season-long issue; after back-to-back losses to New York and Denver, the Nets held a clear-the-air meeting on Monday to discuss the team’s recent struggles. But Atkinson believes he has a resilient group that welcomes coaching — and will be better than many think.

“Even the new guys, Allen [Crabbe] and D’Angelo, it’s like, ‘Coach us,’” Atkinson said. “They want it, and that’s part of our culture. I’ve been in the NBA a long time, and there are some guys that are resistant. We don’t have that. We have guys who want to be coached and get better. We had a good back and forth. I think they feel a part of the process.”

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