LaMarcus Aldridge is officially no longer a Spur following a mutual decision to part ways, then a buyout just after the trade deadline. As he prepares to suit up in Brooklyn, you may have found yourself reflecting on his last five and a half seasons in San Antonio—or maybe you didn’t.
While Aldridge’s Spurs resume has its share of highlights—per-game averages of 19.5 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.3 blocks; a 255-155 record through the end of last season; three All-Star Games; two All-NBA Teams; a 56-piece on Oklahoma City; routinely giving back to the community—it’s hard to get overly sentimental about his bygone era. The aesthetics of his game rarely captivated the imagination, his demeanor didn’t court fandom, and his accomplishments fell somewhere in the chasm between objectively remarkable and subjectively substandard for a Spurs star. More than that, his tenure felt consistently at odds with circumstance, obstinance, abysmal timing, and sea changes big and small.
A good portion of Aldridge’s career will be framed by the three-point shot and his reluctant adoption of it. Its explosion coincided with his arrival in 2015 and conspired to render his back-to-the-basket style of play nearly obsolete. Suddenly any appreciation of the footwork, balance and strength of the post-up game gave way to the simple calculation that 3 is greater than 2. Aldridge, and the Spurs by proxy, represented a resistance to analytics, one 19-foot turnaround at a time. Old habits, especially those that propped up a borderline-Hall of Fame career, die hard.
(Eventually both parties gave in, at least a little. Aldridge began taking a few steps back on his jumpshots and shifted up to full-time center, as the power forward position evolved beneath him. If things break right for him with the contending Nets, it’ll be because he made the decision to do so in these twilight years.)
As Aldridge’s strengths diminished in value, he and the Spurs continued to pivot: from Tim Duncan’s retirement and Aldridge’s early struggles adapting to Gregg Popovich’s system; from an unsavory ankle turn that transformed a promising 2017 playoff run to a lone Aldridge facing swarms of double and triple teams from the superteam Warriors; from the stability of a Parker-run offense to the pace and education of Dejounte Murray and today’s ongoing youth movement. It’s easy to forget a heart arrhythmia in 2017 sidelined Aldridge indefinitely and, at least briefly, put a lot of things up in the air.
Aldridge shared his early dissatisfaction with the front office and it eventually became a matter of public knowledge, leading to the rare moment in which the Gregg Popovich peeled the curtain back on family business. Here’s Pop ahead of the 2017-18 season and shortly after Aldridge signed a three-year extension to remain in SA:
“I did talk with him several times over the summer. He just didn’t feel comfortable — and it was 98.75% on me. But I tried to change him. I thought back to when Timmy came and people asked me ‘What are you gonna do with Tim Duncan?’ I said, nothing. I’m just gonna watch him for 6 months and see what he does. He’s a pretty good player. LaMarcus, he got here on day one. I said OK you’re gonna do this; you’re gonna do this pump fake — I tried to change him. I tried to make him a different player. I think that really affected his ability to feel comfortable and confident on the court. And we took care of that, basically by me, letting him know that we’re gonna do it differently and that it was on me, and not on him.”
Ironically that story represented just the beginning of the drama that year. But as Kawhi Leonard’s unhappiness and refusal to take the court played on in the background of the franchise’s most turbulent season, Aldridge steadied and powered the Spurs en route to a 47-35 record and well-deserved All-NBA Second Team honors. While the roster was still ostensibly built around the mostly absent Leonard, the reworked system now flowed cosmically around him on the left block; cross-screens were set under the rim to spring him, and shooters shifted, cut and relocated like satellites.
What was Aldridge’s reward after a banner year? More roster turnover and the arrival of the only player in the league who valued the 2-point shot as much as he did.
Year one of Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan produced another playoff berth, but they were never an ideal fit. That had as much to do with their joint defensive limitations as a disinterest in 3-pointers, although the latter didn’t help Pop’s lineup building. The net of two ho-hum seasons together, in addition to Aldridge’s age and the team’s revelatory play without him in the Orlando bubble, suggested some kind of shift would be required. For the big man who developed a close and fluid relationship with change throughout his time in San Antonio, it was time. He gave back somewhere between $5 and 7.25 million as part of the buyout that allowed him to join the Nets, one last compromise between player and club.
It’s hard to say if Aldridge was ever an ideal primary or secondary piece in San Antonio. His signing in 2015 came with much fanfare because of the injection of starpower and counterpunch to Leonard’s emerging talents, but his style was always going to demand some movement away from the beautiful game era. That said, who knows how we look back on his era with slightly more amenable circumstances.
You’re afforded headspace to dwell on this stuff while idling around the Spurs locker room, and Aldridge generally obliged by being the last player to address media after games. Other lockers would shutter, players would exit, newspaper writers would file their first runs of the game story, and Aldridge would be out back getting his postgame cooldown work done. Eventually he’d appear in street clothes, provided people didn’t decide to call it a day, and give adequate and occasionally thoughtful answers about his 22 and 8 that night. After a few moments of silence he’d informally end the scrum by saying, “Cool,” and head off. It was all completely reasonable but also a peek into the Aldridge experience as a man of routine and habits, an athlete who fulfilled the transactional duties of a franchise player without the hangups of trying to please the crowd.