By Jameson White
Nearly 27 months ago, the San Antonio Spurs did something that they rarely, if ever, do. On the morning of Independence Day 2015, the Spurs signed what was probably the biggest free agency acquisition in franchise history when LaMarcus Aldridge, a career 20 PPG scorer, tweeted out “I’m happy to say I’m going home to Texas and will be a Spur!!” He seemed to have grown tired of the years of not going deep into the playoffs as a Trailblazer, and the Spurs year in and year out were contending for an NBA title. Many fans, including myself, were simply ecstatic that he was coming to play in the Alamo city. Having been an All-Star and one of the best Power Forwards in the game for the last several years in Portland preceding free agency, it seemed that the Spurs had found a star in his prime to pair with the young, up-and-coming Kawhi Leonard. He was going to be a go-to player in San Antonio.
It all seemed to be a perfect scenario. The legendary Tim Duncan’s career dwindling down and no longer as mobile as he once was. This meant that head coach Gregg Popovich could slide Timmy into his more natural Center position and give Aldridge a chance to play alongside and learn from one of the games all time greatest players. This is where Duncan could spend more time hitting his patented bank shot from the low post on offense and defensively be more strictly a rim protector, which at nearly 40 years old, was still something that he was among the best in the league at. Aldridge had always been known for his deadly mid-range game, and with the Spurs having players alongside Duncan and Aldridge such as 3-point deadeye Danny Green, an aging but still serviceable Tony Parker, and a defensive stud whose offensive game was beginning to blossom, Kawhi Leonard, they seemed to have a deadly lineup that looked to push the Spurs to an almost guaranteed Finals appearance. Note, this is before the Warriors’ vaunted “Death Lineup” had begun to reach it’s peak, and still a year away from Kevin Durant’s near internet breaking decision to join Golden State. This was a match made in heaven, or so it seemed.
In the first year of this newly signed $80 million contract, the Spurs looked as dominant as advertised. LaMarcus seemed to have dropped in production a bit in this first season with San Antonio, as he averaged 18 PPG and 8.5 RPG compared to the 23 points and 10 rebounds averaged per contest in Portland, but this was said to be the Spurs’ system and not having to use him as much. Aldridge was still awarded with an All-Star selection, Kawhi Leonard won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year along with career highs in points and assists, San Antonio won a franchise record 67 games, and had one of the most dominant defenses in NBA history. Yet because of another historic team, the previously mentioned Golden State Warriors, the Spurs ended the regular season as the #2 seeded team in the Western Conference. It seemed as though these two teams were on a collision course to meet in the Western Conference Finals. In the second round of the NBA playoffs however, the Oklahoma City Thunder had other plans.
In games 1 and 2, LaMarcus was the team’s leading scorer, with 38 and 41 points per game in those contests, respectively. The series was tied 1-1 after the first 2 games, and then LaMarcus’ production seemed to have suffered a deep drop off. The Spurs eventually lost in six games to this Thunder team. In the months following this series, criticism had been placed on LaMarcus for his lack of consistency throughout the regular season and playoffs. In July, Tim Duncan decided to hang up his sneakers and knee brace and call it a career. With the Spurs’ players only getting older, it was even more crucial for Aldridge to be the guy he was in Portland.
The 2016-2017 season was LaMarcus’ second with the team. The Spurs again were among the league’s best teams, winning 61 games, and finishing with the number two seed in the West. Kawhi Leonard once again improved his points per game numbers and is now a full-blown superstar. He finished in the top 3 in both the DPOY and MVP voting, and earned selections onto the All-NBA 1st team and All-NBA Defensive first team. However, his “sidekick” LaMarcus Aldridge yet again watched his points per game and rebounds per game numbers shrink, along with now his shooting efficiency taking a hit. Aldridge would be solid every now and again with 20 or more points in a game, but these types of scoring games were supposed to be expected night in and night out, not just whenever he “felt” like it. This inconsistency carried over into the playoffs, and although the Spurs won their first series against the Memphis Grizzlies, LaMarcus was still not a factor. In their next series against the Houston Rockets, he was again really a non-factor, with the exception of a dominant game 6 in which he scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Throughout this inconsistent play, they still had Kawhi Leonard to lean on who was dominating in the playoffs.
San Antonio then advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Kawhi, LaMarcus, and San Antonio were impressing with more than a 20 point lead in game one against a Warriors team that had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and now Kevin Durant. Then, Zaza Pachulia happened, and the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard for the rest of the series. All eyes were on LaMarcus Aldridge to lead the team and take the brunt of the load to try and still beat this team, but yet again, he shrunk in the spotlight, and he averaged a measly 15.5 points per game in the series, and the Spurs were swept 4-0 to the eventual champions.
Just before the 2017 NBA Draft in June, reports surfaced the LaMarcus Aldridge was seeking a trade to leave San Antonio. He claimed that the “Spurs System” had hurt his stats and him as a player. It’s funny how this system has worked for every other player except for LaMarcus. It improves even a bench player’s efficiency and statistics, except for LaMarcus. It works for everybody, except for him. And that brings us to today.
We can now see that Aldridge never wanted to be the go-to guy on a team. Being “that guy” in Portland got him nowhere except for constant first round playoff exits. If he wanted to be that go-to guy, he wouldn’t have joined the Spurs organization in the first place, where Gregg Popovich deploys a “team first” mentality. He would’ve picked his own jersey number rather than requesting to wear the retired number 12 jersey from Spurs legend Bruce Bowen. He doesn’t like to be the featured player because he knows this pressure makes him shrink in the spotlight. This is all fine, as San Antonio has a guy to lean on with Kawhi Leonard. Now, all they need out of LaMarcus is efficient shooting and rebounding to be “second fiddle” to Kawhi. Looking at the guy who was so great as a Trailblazer, that’s not too much to ask for the Spurs, I mean this guy was a stud. Maybe age has begun to take its toll. Maybe it is the pressure of winning. Maybe some 6’11” Power Forward wearing the number 12 has been impersonating Aldridge on these off nights. Whatever it is, will the real LaMarcus, the player who was so terrific in Portland, will he please stand up?