It was an interesting quip and an ironic one. The Spurs have dominated the NBA for the better part of two decades, winning over 50 games (or the prorated equivalent in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign) in each of Duncan's 18 seasons. Their rosters have seldom been regarded as among the league's most talented, Duncan aside, but they've earned a reputation for diligently outworking and outsmarting the competition. The Spurs win more than other top-notch teams because they take fewer games off physically, mentally or emotionally during the Bataan death march that is the NBA regular season. They keep pounding that rock.
Given that, it's paradoxical that the league's sharpest franchise has also cultivated a reputation for loafing, by virtue of Popovich's progressive attitude toward rest. The kerfuffle started in late 2012 when Pop sent Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green home early prior to the finale of their six-game road trip in Miami. It was the team's fourth game in five nights and, more importantly, a nationally-televised TNT broadcast. Former commissioner David Stern was not amused that the Spurs would be starless (Kawhi Leonard was already injured) for such a marquee match-up and fined the Spurs $250,000 for doing a "disservice to the league and our fans."
The thing is, Pop had been doing this for years, especially on the second night of road back-to-backs. The year before, he sat Duncan against the 76ers and had the P.R. staff list the reason for his absence as "DND - Old." Sitting his regulars only became an issue when he did it against the league's glamour team and took the further step of not even having his guys in the arena.
Popovich kept right on giving his players games off here and there, but after the fine, he at least let the league know in advance. Of course with the Spurs it's not just the matter of how many games Duncan and Co. are given off but also how little they play in the ones they suit up for. Once a contest seems decided, win or lose, the stars get pulled, regardless of how they're performing. The 2013-14 Spurs became the first team in NBA history without a single player averaging even 30 minutes. He sheepishly admitted after they won their fifth championship that he's "killed" his stars' stats.
It's only natural to wonder how this ethos will work in the short and long term with Aldridge, who has averaged between 34.9 and 39.6 minutes in each of his last eight seasons in Portland and at least 17 field goal attempts every season since 2010-11 (and 20 shots a night the last two years, for what it's worth). The Blazers star shared his concerns with Sam Amick of USA Today, recalling a conversation he had with Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka, a teammate and mentor to him in his early years at Portland.
"So I was like, ‘Maybe I'm not a Spur, because I've been averaging 23 (points per game) for the last three to four years, and maybe I don't fit into y'all's system of let's all average 17 (points per game).' And he was like, ‘No, we're not trying to change who you are and make you average 16 or 17. We want you to be you, because you're going to help us be better and vice versa.' He kind of reaffirmed that they didn't want to change me, and that who I am is ok."
Aldridge is okay, but one of the main reasons he signed with the Spurs is there are a bunch of other guys on the team who are okay too. He doesn't have to do it all for the Spurs to win. Furthermore, the expectation in San Antonio is for seasons to last well into May if not June. It only makes sense for everyone to ration their energy.
Consider this: Aldridge, who's been relatively durable since entering the league in 2006-07, has played in 682 games over his career, regular season and playoffs combined. In that same span Duncan, who supposedly is being rested so much, has played in 688 games.
And that's in addition to the mere 884 he logged before Aldridge was drafted.
It's well-documented by now that one stipulation the Spurs newest star had for committing to San Antonio was that Popovich had to agree to put off retirement for the duration of his four-year contract. Pop's the one Aldridge put his trust in. What Aldridge will come to realize, if he doesn't know it already, is that Popovich has earned that level of respect in part because his guys know he has their best interests at heart, on and off the floor. Often, that pragmatism has meant saving players from themselves.
There's no better example of this than Duncan in 2000. The Spurs were coming off their first championship when their young centerpiece hurt his knee. There was debate among the team's medical staff about whether Duncan could gut it out during the playoffs but Popovich swiftly shut Duncan down for the season, ending any chances the Spurs had of repeating. From that moment on, Pop had Duncan's unflinching loyalty and trust, to the point where he never questioned being benched down the stretch of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.
Regardless of what Udoka said to reassure Aldridge during a recruiting pitch, Popovich told the media before a recent preseason game at Miami that he wants the Spurs offense to continue to be, "equal opportunity," and that his squad will have to realize that "Somebody is going to get less shots."
Does that somebody refer to Aldridge? Leonard? Parker? It's probably a combination of all three, as far as averages go, but on a night-to-night basis it will be much less of a mystery.
Who's getting the ball for the Spurs? Whoever's open. Okay, who then? Whoever's more open.
The goal will be to make Aldridge feel comfortable about this, and that's where Popovich has no rival in the history of the coaching profession. The future Hall-of-Famer was asked in a recent interview why his teams have such good chemistry:
I like to think about respect and camaraderie and empathy more than chemistry. It's weird, I hated chemistry in high school and college. You want players to feel responsible to each other, to respect each other, and that allows them to play for one another, though a lot of that depends on their character coming in, initially, what kind of people they are. And then I think as coaches we can do things, create an environment on the court, off the court, the things we do away from basketball to help them to get them to know each other better. And we all know, you know somebody better, it's hard to be angry, or to hate someone. Most hate comes out of fear or ignorance, so the more familiar they are with each other, the more likely they are to get along.
The Spurs lead the league in team dinners on the road year after year, after wins or losses, and rarely is basketball discussed when they're "breaking bread," in Pop parlance. The bonds they develop are so deep that former Spurs are welcomed with open arms and treated like they never left. One of the first congratulatory texts Warriors coach Steve Kerr got after winning the championship was from Duncan, and it's been a dozen years since they were teammates.
Ten years ago, Brent Barry explained to former ESPN.com writer Ric Bucher what makes playing for Popovich so unique, and not much has changed.
During each practice, a coach puts an arm around or pats the back of every man on the roster. In film sessions, half the time is spent on breaking down well-run plays and doling out praise. "In most places, you just try to survive a film session, because it's all about how bad you are," Barry says. "I've never seen a coach who has the pulse of a team the way Pop does."
Only Pop can get away with making his team relive those last two Finals losses in 2013 during the first day of the subsequent training camp and then follow that up by putting them through an Air Force boot camp. (Perhaps the players found it so enjoyable because compared to that film session, it was.)
"The sergeants issued them all a rifle and gave them a little talk, and they went in twos onto the obstacle course. We had guys on the ropes. We had Tony Parker falling in the water. Tim Duncan's going over every obstacle, and I was scared to death because I envisioned a reporter asking me, 'When Timmy broke his back falling off the log, what were you thinking? How smart were you to do this?'
But that's him. He wanted to do it, and one of his legs doesn't even work. He still did it, every single deal. That was the greatest thing. When it was over, they said it was the most fun and the most interesting thing they had done in their careers. For me, the camaraderie of it, seeing each other in those circumstances, rooting and cheering for each other, it was worth a million dollars."
Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford are seldom wrong when it comes to judging the character of the people they bring in. It's a safe bet that whatever concerns or misgivings Aldridge has about his numbers will recede quickly, once he absorbs the team's culture. Sooner than he realizes, he won't care much at all about his stats but rather whether they won or lost.
Then one day it'll click that even that doesn't matter, that the relationships are far more important to him than the scoreboard.
And that's when LaMarcus Aldridge will truly be a Spur.