He was the biggest name in the 2014-15 NBA free agency battle. After nine years with an up and down Portland Trail Blazers team, LaMarcus Aldridge finally left the Oregon franchise behind in the search of something new.
New York came knocking, L.A. was ringing the doorbell – even his hometown Dallas Mavericks were tapping at his window. But instead of the bright lights of NYC or L.A., or the home comforts of Dallas, Aldridge eventually opted for San Antonio.
Despite two meetings with the Lakers, a tempting Phoenix Suns pitch and even a sit-down meal with Miami Heat honcho, Pat Riley, Aldridge gambled on the Spurs. That gamble seems to be paying off.
“I was there. I spoke. I begged. I got on my knees. I offered my children. Things like that.” A classic Gregg Popovich sarcasm-infused quote, originally uttered to Jeff McDonald of the Express-News.
Look past the candid nature of the Spurs’ head coach, and it’s likely that there is some shred of truth to that statement – not about offering infants for basketball services, but the effort to bring a talent like Aldridge to the AT&T Centre.
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2015 and you’d remember it being a very busy one for LaMarcus Aldridge. After a 51-31 season with Portland and a career-high in scoring, Aldridge was a free agent, giving his time to numerous teams eager to secure his services.
He was a man in demand.
Meetings were scheduled with a number of teams in the league. The Lakers had Kobe lead the charge for the University of Texas alumni. They got the first bite at the cherry, and it failed to persuade Aldridge – focusing on history and legacy more than basketball, what he really cared about.
“Kobe was the best part of the meeting,” Aldridge said, speaking to Yahoo.
Bryant was reportedly the only person in the pitch who even came close to talking about how many shots Aldridge would get, the number of minutes he’d be playing, even what position he’d be starting in.
The other attendees were instead trying to sell the franchise to him, throwing talk of previous championships and what it means to be a Laker his way. It wasn’t convincing enough, and it was disappointing.
“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.” Aldridge claimed.
Next up was the Houston Rockets – a team coming off a Conference Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, hunting for a big three candidate. Aldridge was the ultimate option.
But despite doing a better job than the Lakers, describing how Aldridge would be scoring and in what positions he’d be doing so, things didn’t sit right.
He didn’t fancy being a secondary option to James Harden, having to pick up any offensive leftovers alongside Dwight Howard.
Less than a year later, the discourse is blatant in the Toyota Centre, with a new head coach and a first round playoff elimination beckoning. Aldridge dodged a bullet.
It was the third meeting which really resonated with the then-Portland star, however, one without a salesy push, flaunting championship rings and historic significance. The team that nailed it was the San Antonio Spurs, fronted by Gregg Popovich.
“It was like a family, like a bunch of guys who love basketball sitting around and just talking basketball,” Aldridge claimed.
“We just decided to be who we are — ‘This is us, you know who we are, do you want to come or not?’” Popovich said, speaking to NESN.com.
“We didn’t hire any bands. We didn’t do any of that stuff.”
Aldridge was sold. He liked the idea of joining a family, a team of players who rely on one another, with a coaching system that exudes excellence and togetherness. Despite meeting with a collection of other franchises, Aldridge had effectively made up his mind.
Even a convincing chat with his hometown Dallas Mavericks fell short of what the Spurs were offering the power forward.
However, he didn’t realise just what that meant for the Spurs as well.
"Everybody knew maybe we could get LaMarcus," Tony Parker said to San Antonio News-Express.
"It was like playing poker. Meaning, if we get LaMarcus, everybody’s back. If we don’t, I guess everyone will retire."
Simply put, whilst Aldridge had gambled on joining the Spurs, they’d actually gambled a lot more on him joining them. If he decided on another destination, it was much more likely that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would be hanging up their sneakers before the year began…
Preaching non-stop ball movement, the Spurs' brand of basketball was an obvious appeal for Aldridge. However, with an up and down pre-season and a mixed start to the regular season, some fans weren’t quite sold on whether he has settled in Texas.
One much more important on-looker felt otherwise.
“All considered, he’s done a really good job.” Gregg Popovich said, via Bleacher Report.
“Usually it takes people a season to get used to the system and that sort of thing, in that sense, he’s been really quick picking things up and starting to feel comfortable.”
“He’s learned very quickly where to be on the court with Manu [Ginobili] or Timmy [Duncan], and that takes time when you’ve played some place for nine years.”
What’s more, it wasn’t only his coach that was singing Aldridge’s praises despite his up and down scoring either. Even Kawhi Leonard was willing to back his new teammate’s case as he continued to acclimatise to his new surroundings, claiming that he’d ‘fit right in’ – praising his defensive qualities.
By the end of the regular season, it was clear to see that Aldridge had made a serious impact on an ageing roster.
He’d willingly taken the burden off Tim Duncan’s shoulders, with the assistance of David West, who also headed to the Spurs in free agency. However, in spite of his assistance, Duncan still felt that Aldridge could offer even more.
“I think it took him longer to adjust to us than it did us to get used to him," Duncan claimed, speaking with the Houston Chronicle.
"He continued to try to defer to us for a long time while we were trying to push him to take over."
Of course, many would feel that this was a smart route for the new Spur to go down. Let’s face it, with one of the best power forwards ever to play the game on your team; you’d be right to learn from him.
This was proven with Aldridge’s production levels throughout the regular season as well.
Following his best scoring season during his final year in Portland, Aldridge averaged his lowest points per game rating since 2010 (18ppg). On top of this, he was also taking fewer shots per game as well, averaging only 14.1 attempts per game – the lowest number since his rookie season.
"He did the smart thing - he deferred," Gregg Popovich said.
"He bided his time and tried to feel comfortable with people and gain people's respect and trust."
Despite the drop in shots, Aldridge still managed to get selected as an All-Star reserve, one of only two Spurs to make the roster. Following this, he has quickly become one of the ‘go-to’ options for San Antonio, right beside Leonard.
It seems that the two of them have begun forging a partnership that could be the basis for the Spurs for several years to come.
Has the LaMarcus Aldridge Experiment Worked?
Following only one regular season, it can’t be said whether Aldridge has made the right move heading to the Spurs. This postseason will no doubt dictate whether this campaign has been a success, with anything but a Finals appearance a clear shortfall for the Spurs.
The biggest hurdle for Aldridge and the Spurs will no doubt be that of the reigning champions, the Golden State Warriors.
Beating them over seven games will be an Everest-like challenge, and one which will require Aldridge to meet his potential in a San Antonio uniform to accomplish.
Only then will we know whether the Aldridge experiment has worked to the level which Popovich and the Spurs were hoping…