NBA Teams
Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer 67d

After Pop talk, Aldridge and Spurs on same page

SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge initially closed his mind to utilizing the open-door policy advertised by coach Gregg Popovich.

But two years in, it turns out the rumors were true regarding Aldridge's unhappiness, despite all the spin.

Having already stomached the uneasy feeling of not being used in San Antonio's system the way he'd envisioned, a disastrous showing in the Western Conference finals took it over the top, along with an offseason in which San Antonio attempted to trade Aldridge. The five-time All-Star decided it was finally time to get it all off his chest, so he asked for a heart-to-heart sitdown over the summer with Popovich.

"It was me kind of being blunt about it, and being kind of forward," Aldridge recently told ESPN during training camp. "He was open to it. I kind of just spilled my heart about how I felt about how things were, and how things had been going.

"I think he was kind of caught off guard. I don't think he really had noticed [that I was unhappy]. But once I said it, he was great about listening, and it was good from there. I felt like I wasn't really fitting into the system as best I could. I wasn't really helping like I felt I could."

Popovich admitted his power forward's frustrations were "all legitimate," and the hope is the opened lines of communication will help light the path to another title run.

"This is a guy who played for nine years, I believe, before he came here," Popovich said, "and it takes time to get used to a program that is not just new. But when you have nine years under your belt, doing something different, his concerns are totally legitimate.

"We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better. But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven't done a very good job of that."


Aldridge averaged postseason career-lows in points (16.5 per game), rebounds (7.4) and blocks (1.0) in 16 games. Those numbers represented a stark contrast to Aldridge's production in his last two postseason appearances with the Portland Trail Blazers, when he averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

In Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, Aldridge sputtered to a career-low four points while surrendering -- according to research from ESPN Stats & Information -- a team-worst 23 points as the primary defender. In fact, Aldridge's plus-minus of minus-36 in Game 1 of that series registered as the worst by a Spur in the postseason under Popovich.

It got uglier in the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, when Leonard limped off the court because of a sprained ankle at the 7:54 mark of the third quarter in Game 1. Already without point guard Tony Parker, who ruptured a quadriceps tendon in the conference semifinals, the team expected Aldridge to step up and fill the scoring void.

It didn't happen.

During the next 43 minutes Aldridge played after Leonard's injury (the rest of Game 1 after the injury and all of Game 2), he contributed more turnovers (eight) than made baskets (seven) and missed all six of his shots outside the paint in Game 2, leading Popovich to single out the power forward in his postgame remarks for being "timid."

"You could definitely see both sides," said point guard Patty Mills, who teamed with Aldridge in Portland from 2009 to 2011. "It's obviously a good thing that everybody's taking ownership for it now because it leaves a bitter taste in our mouths knowing that we couldn't get things right during the playoffs last year, no matter the injuries."

In June, as the draft approached, sources told ESPN that the Spurs had been in contact with at least three teams about a possible trade involving Aldridge. But a deal never materialized. 

"I really don't know how close or not it was," veteran guard Manu Ginobili said of the potential trade. "I just know he's here, he's happy to be here, he's ready to go, and he's going to push as hard as he's been pushing in the last years to help us win."

Aldridge, 32, took the news in stride, too, saying "if it happened, it happened, but it didn't."

"It's a part of the NBA," he added. "Guys move around and guys go from team to team at times. It happens. I'm used to it. I know I can only control what I do, and that's what I did. I worked hard all summer and got better. Maybe in my younger days in Portland, I might have taken it personal. Now, I'm older and I'm used to the game. I know it's a business. I don't take it personal anymore."


All the talk about better utilizing Aldridge offensively sounds promising, but there is a pressing question: How can the Spurs actually do it? 

One way San Antonio plans to unleash Aldridge is to emphasize finding him for early post-ups in possessions.

"One of our things this year is if myself, Pau [Gasol] or if any big is running the floor and we duck in, it's just more emphasis on, 'OK, let's look at the post,' " Aldridge told ESPN. "I think last year, looking at the post wasn't really what we did. It was more, let's do something else. But this year, already, it's about, 'If he runs the floor and he's ducking in, give him the ball.' So it's just more of an emphasis on those types of things."

That, in turn, means Aldridge needs to do a better job of actually running the floor. He admits to not always doing that these past two seasons.

"It was an afterthought [to get me the ball early]. But it was both [probably my fault and the team's] because I didn't feel like I would get it," Aldridge said. "So I probably didn't run the floor as hard, or I didn't seal as good. Then, they didn't look for me. Then, when we both thought about it, it was too late.

"But this year, knowing that it's going to be a point of emphasis, I'm going to run harder. I'm going to duck in harder, and they're going to look for me faster. So it's going to be better."

Now, everybody's eyes -- and the lines of communication -- are wide open.

"We saw in the Golden State series, and even in Houston, it's hard for him to catch the ball outside of the block, and then say, 'Go to work,'" Mills said. "That's tough, and then to be able to do that for 48 minutes, it takes a toll on the body. I think we saw that when we were in Portland, too. It's a different ballgame if you can sit your behind right at the front of the rim, get big, use that weight, then boom, fire it in. ...

"I think just knowing where his range is too around the perimeter, and being able to get the correct spacing will give him the confidence to just light the thing up. It all works together -- us understanding his game and his confidence and vice versa. That's what this time is for, to figure it out now, and get it right."

"We're going to talk to each other more and just build better team chemistry [this season]," said star forward Kawhi Leonard. "But I think everything he did last year was good. I can't complain."

Aldridge plans to incorporate more 3-point shooting into his game this season, too. Before he departed for the summer, Aldridge said Popovich told him to "make sure you shoot [3-pointers] because I want you to get back comfortable doing that because our system fits it," adding that "I'm going to be spread out a little bit more this year, so I definitely tried to focus on that."

In addition, Aldridge spent a good portion of his summer working on his mobility and watching film to improve his decision-making process.

The Spurs provided early evidence of their re-commitment to opening up Aldridge's offense in the preseason opener at Sacramento on Monday. Aldridge rewarded the squad for the extra looks he received in the first half by blistering the Kings for 17 points in just 15 first-half minutes, connecting on 7-of-10 attempts.

After not making the All-Star squad last season for the first time since 2012, Aldridge believes he's ready to have a bounce-back year and refuses to let his struggles linger from last year's Western Conference finals.

"I didn't go into the summer and say, 'Oh, I'm going to try to work hard just because of that series,' " Aldridge said. "I wasn't sick about it. Everybody wants to win and I want to win. It didn't go ideally. But I went home, and I got better. ...

"I think I'm still able to play at [an All-Star] level, and I don't feel like I've declined to not be in the top 10-15 guys in the league. I feel like I can still help teams win, and bring something dominant into the game. I've done my part. I went home, and worked hard. Hopefully, it pays off."

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