We've spent virtually a whole off-season praising the Spurs office for pulling off the coup of the summer in signing LaMarcus Aldridge, a superduperstar who was coveted by virtually every team in the league with cap space. Even though the Spurs have been contenders just about every season for the last quarter century, they've never been able to attract a free agent remotely in Aldridge's stratosphere. Heck, they've had difficulty even getting minimum-salary veterans chasing rings, a la David West. Those guys always, always, always follow LeBron James.
It's a brave new world, Spurs fans.
By now we've discussed just about every conceivable positive Aldridge's signing may have wrought or could wreak in the future. I thought of ten cool things, right off the bat. Jesus Gomez explained how LMA can help Tony Parker look like Tony Parker again. We kicked around possible rotations. Gomez contributed pieces about Aldridge's small-ball deadliness and defensive potential.
It's been a veritable LaMarcus Aldridge love-fest around these parts, and he hasn't played a single minute in a Spurs uniform yet. I'm certainly as guilty as anyone of hyping him up. It's hard to not be excited about the Spurs next season, and I'm not even a fan anymore (ahem).
I bring this up in order to prepare in case everything doesn't go according to plan.
As you're likely aware, Sam Amick of USA Today had a story Monday about Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka's important role in Aldridge's recruitment. Udoka was teammates with Aldridge in Portland back in 2006 and was something of a mentor to the rookie second overall pick out of the University of Texas, helping him get adjusted to life in the NBA and acclimated to the a brand new city.
The money quotes from Aldridge, as told to Amick:
Everybody was making this big fuss about how I'm not going to be able to take shots anymore, or be the scorer that I am, and he was just telling me, ‘We need a guy to score down there. Tim (Duncan) is older, and we need a guy to command a double team down there.' 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."
That was what I was weighing: Go to Phoenix, be the face and the guy, or go to San Antonio and probably win sooner and be more blended in. That was my issue. And I was like, ‘If y'all want me to come here and average 12 or 13 points, that's not who I am. I like scoring.' They were like, ‘No, we want you to play in the system, but you scoring is needed here.' Once I heard that, I was fine."
Think about what Aldridge is saying here. Forget about money, he was going to make the max wherever he went. He's saying he struggled over the choice between averaging 23 for a mediocre Suns team, or "12 or 13" for a well-balanced San Antonio squad -- that he'd have picked Phoenix, essentially leaving Portland for a similar situation in another city, to be the "Alpha Dog" on a team with a limited ceiling (and a far worse ownership situation than the Blazers).
If the story is accurate, then Aldridge's motivations are a red flag to say the least. The great Buck Harvey of the Express-News certainly noticed the disparity between the free agent's values and those of the Spurs and arrived at a perfectly sound conclusion: Given time, Pop and the veterans will enlighten the newcomer about what truly matters and what doesn't.
Harvey may prove to be right -- he usually is -- but I wouldn't blame Spurs fans for feeling just a bit queasy about this Aldridge thing.
But Aldridge's arrival wasn't the only Spurs-related news this off-season. There was the signing of West, the trade for Ray McCallum, Kyle Anderson's development in the Las Vegas Summer League, Jonathon Simmons' emergence, and getting reasonable contracts in place so Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green could return.
The thing that has made the best Spurs teams great wasn't that they had the best rosters on paper, but that the pieces fit together so well. The role players complemented the stars and people knew what their strengths and weaknesses were and stayed in their respective lanes. The 2013-14 Spurs had "The Big Four," but they wouldn't have won without the contributions of Green, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph.
The 2002-03 Spurs were, on paper, probably the most talented team they ever had. They were loaded from top to bottom. Duncan was the best player in the league, Parker could zip anywhere he wanted, Manu Ginobili was a young athletic freak with boundless energy and there was Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Steve Kerr, Steve Smith, Malik Rose, Speedy Claxton, Danny Ferry and Kevin Willis in supporting roles. Oh yeah, and David Robinson, who in his final season was still one of the best defensive anchors in the league.
Even though they wound up winning it all, they never meshed and it was a struggle all season long. There were times when everything clicked, most notably Game 6 at Los Angeles, but most of the time they were left relying on Kerr, Claxton or Jackson to save them.
Forming a team that plays well with each other and for each other is not easy. The Spurs didn't just sacrifice a lot of their continuity this past off-season but a lot of their unselfishness too. They lost players who understood and accepted their roles. They don't have that now.
There's Aldridge, concerned about his points. There's Kawhi Leonard, who told David Zink of the Press-Enterprise that he wants to be league MVP. There's Parker, who'll be looking to show that he's not in decline. There's West, who made an unfathomable financial sacrifice to be a Spur but will likely look to gobble up Diaw's minutes. Mills will be eager to prove last season was just an off-year and McCallum will be looking to unseat him. The young pups, Anderson and Simmons, will be out to prove they belong in the league.
The only ones who don't figure to be looking to do "more," will be Diaw and Ginobili, and that's a negative for both. Diaw is passive by nature and has to be cajoled into playing hard. Ginobili has never existed comfortably in situations where he's not relied upon. His confidence wanes and his focus wanders. It's always been a fine line with the Argentine because he gives his absolute best when he's most needed.
Even if individual players' motivations aren't selfish and come from a place of feeling sincere responsibility to their teammates, they're individual motivations nonetheless. Pulling this off without a hitch will be the biggest challenge of Gregg Popovich's career and certainly the ultimate test for the NBA's most recent "Teammate of the Year."
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Now my theory all along has been that the Aldridge signing was in the works for weeks if not months before pen was put to paper and that the Spurs wouldn't have cavalierly shipped out Tiago Splitter if there wasn't a wink-wink agreement in place between the two parties. I don't know if it's pride or just faulty wiring in my logic center, but a part of me still thinks that this interview from the usually private and media-phobic Aldridge was a red herring just to avoid any uncomfortable conversations with the league office.
The point is this: for any Spurs fans who think this is too conspiracy-theorist for you, it's preferable to believing that Aldridge will come to San Antonio more concerned about getting his points than working to make the team the best it can be.