LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't even dribbled a ball in earnest for the Spurs yet, and he's already paid huge dividends. Not only did Gregg Popovich reportedly promise to coach until at least 2019 to get Aldridge to commit, but Aldridge also played a role in convincing Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to put off retirement for another year. Heck, it even convinced David West to pick the Spurs when he had offers elsewhere.
Duncan doesn't come across as the cynical, pessimistic type, but he admitted that he was the last one to buy into the idea that Aldridge was actually going to pick the Spurs in free agency. (I guess losing a championship when up five with fewer than 25 seconds to go steels one about counting chickens before they hatch.)
"Over the years we've missed out on a bunch of people," Duncan said. "We've always done it through free agency that was on a different level and the draft and everything else. This was kind of the first time that, I don't to miss anybody, this was the first time we got someone of this caliber. Honestly, I was kind of betting ‘Oh, he'll choose to go somewhere else,' right up until the end. I was floored by it."
The Spurs can spend a day or two to pinch themselves, or even Aldridge --though that would be weird-- to make sure this isn't some dream, but both Pop and Duncan insisted that they didn't sell the perennial Blazers All-Star a bill of goods to get him to sign in San Antonio.
"What am I gonna tell him?" asked Pop, rhetorically, before planting tongue firmly in cheek. "I'm not going to promise him anything. We might start him, we might not. He might play more than 10 minutes, he might not. We might give him a play or two... but what am I gonna do, promise him the world? This is who we are, you know we are, do you want to come or not? Fortunately he said yes. I tried to talk more but the players wouldn't let me, they shut me up. They said ‘Pop that's okay, just sit over there,' so I did."
Duncan, ever Popovich's soulmate, goofed around at first when the question was put to him, saying "I don't call anybody, nobody listens to me, I just show up for the games," before giving a serious answer.
"I didn't try to convince him, he had questions so we answered what he asked," he said of Aldridge. "There wasn't anything to convince him about, it was about going in there and show him who we are, and what we are and allow him to make the decision for himself."
"He wanted to sit in front of us and listen to us talk about the Spurs and about how we do things and what the plans would be, from the team aspect, from mine, Pop, Manu's, how we're going to play things," Duncan continued. "More than anything he just wanted to know what he was going to walk into before he decided to come."
Now that Aldridge has committed to the Spurs, the real work begins. They have to figure out how to play together.
"Sure, it's going to be one of our main concerns, if not the main concern: How do people come together, both on and off the court, how do they play together, how they fit together, how they accept each other, role-wise and that sort of thing, that's what it's all about," Popovich confirmed. "It's a lot more about that than O's and X's."
The Spurs skipper is expected to be in teaching mode early in camp with so many new faces on board, but he said that he plans on being more of an observer than anything else, even into the regular season. And even if some unorthodox lineup decisions costs the team some early games.
"When you bring in a lot of people it's not just bringing in new people but losing people also, players you're used to playing with, so we want to win right off the bat like everyone else but we don't want to do it at the expense of skipping steps and that sort of thing, so I'll sit back and see how people play together, put different combinations on the court, but the way the season is, there are so many good teams that you don't want to get in a hole right off the bat," Popovich said.
For his part Aldridge is content to keep as low a profile as he possibly can and show that he can fit into the team's no-nonsense culture. He's been playing pickup with Duncan and others off and on the past few weeks, or hanging out with his family in Dallas.
"I'm just coming in, trying to get better every day, trying to learn the system, trying to fit in as much as I can and go from there," Aldridge said. "This is a whole new thing for me, so I'm trying to figure it out."
He's already got the basic concept down about what makes the offense work, and it's contrary to reports that he was worried about maintaining the high scoring average that he had with Portland.
"They play with just one goal and that's to win," Aldridge noted. "It's not about individual guys or things like that, so when you think about Spurs basketball you think about that extra, extra pass."
Aldridge is on the right track, but the next step will be to start referring to the Spurs as "we" instead of "they."
Maybe he needs to pinch himself, too.