The San Antonio Spurs were anxious to find out if free agent LaMarcus Aldridge would join their team, knowing his decision could have a potentially devastating domino effect on the franchise.
“It was a little bit like poker, all in,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said of last summer. “Meaning if we get LaMarcus, everybody’s back. If we don’t get him, I guess everybody will retire.”
After the Spurs lost to the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs last spring, sending the reigning NBA champions on vacation much earlier than expected, the team faced many uncertainties. Would Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire? Would free agent guard Danny Green return? And how much longer would Gregg Popovich coach?
It seemingly was all riding on Aldridge, a 6-foot-11 power forward and four-time All-Star who was the most sought after player in free agency. Multiple teams tried to woo him, including the Lakers, Phoenix and Houston.
Everything fell into place — Duncan and Ginobili returned for another season and Green re-signed. With Aldridge on their roster, the Spurs are off to a fast start and have the second-best record in the league, 23-5, behind only 26-1 Golden State.
Still, the 30-year-old Aldridge acknowledges that the transition has been more challenging than he anticipated.
Aldridge went from averaging a career-high 23.4 points with the Portland Trail Blazers last season, to averaging 16.1 points in his first 26 games with the Spurs, his lowest scoring output since his rookie season, 2006-07. His rebounding also took a dip, from 10.2 a game last season to 8.8 with the Spurs.
“For the last seven years [in Portland], I’ve been the guy,” Aldridge said recently, standing by his locker after another Spurs win. “I knew where my shots were going to come from, I had the lay of the team. To try to tone that down, I’ve been frustrated at times with myself, but it’s a process, and I’ve been getting better at it.”
Aldridge has gone from being the face of one franchise to struggling to find his place with a new one.
There’s the formidable group of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, who have appeared in more games together than any other trio in NBA history and have the most wins. And there’s 24-year-old small forward Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, who is leading the Spurs in scoring and is having the best season of his young career.
Alongside those players, some transition pains were expected.
“When you’re playing with a whole group of new players, it takes time to understand where your place is,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “Sometimes I think he’s deferred too much because he’s just trying to fit in. Usually that’s the right thing to do when you enter an organization — any of us who has a new job defers in the beginning and tries to fit. And I think he’s slowly getting over that and going to become more demonstrative.”
Aldridge has overcome more difficult challenges before.
He was born with a heart condition, and late in his rookie season Aldridge felt dizzy during a game in March 2007. He was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a condition that causes the ventricles of the heart to contract prematurely. Aldridge underwent a heart procedure and missed the last month of the 2006-07 season, and had a similar surgery in 2011.
Despite his medical problems, Aldridge kept working on his game and made his first All-Star team in 2012, the first of four consecutive appearances. Along the way, he helped revive the Portland franchise, leading the team to five playoff appearances. The problem was Portland got past the first round only once, in 2014, losing in five games to the Spurs, who went on to win their fifth championship under Popovich.
Since joining the Spurs, Aldridge has pored over film, trying to figure out how to best fit with his new team.
He’s starting to see progress, having three of this best games over the past two weeks. Against Philadelphia on Dec. 7, Aldridge had 26 points on 11-for-15 shooting and nine rebounds in just 21 minutes. Against the Lakers four days later, he had 24 points and 11 rebounds in 27 minutes. Then against the Clippers on Friday, he had 26 points and 11 rebounds.
Aldridge said he’s feeling more comfortable in his role, and he’s proud to be part of a team with title hopes.
“I want to win, and I wanted to be in a first-class organization, and be here and try to learn everything I could learn, and be close to my family,” Aldridge said. “All of those things are going well, so I don’t regret it at all.”
The Spurs don’t have any regrets either.
Parker said he’s extremely grateful for Aldridge, whose decision to come to San Antonio may have kept a legendary core of players intact.
“At the end of last season everybody was very disappointed,” Parker said. “But there was hope because everybody knew that maybe we could get LaMarcus.”