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SAN ANTONIO — When LaMarcus Aldridge had his pick of teams two years ago, the choice was telling.
He didn’t want to go somewhere they’d ask him to play too physically. He didn’t believe in himself enough to think he was going to earn major endorsement deals anyway. He wanted to go home to be near his mother and watch his sons’ soccer games.
He didn’t want to go to a team that needed him to be even better than he had been in order to win…or even be as good as he had been to win.
And when he joined the San Antonio Spurs, they’d already retired the No. 12 he’d worn in Portland in honor of championship defensive stalwart Bruce Bowen, though Bowen was asked if he’d let Aldridge wear it.
When Bowen was willing, Aldridge accepted—which is understandable considering how players are attached to their familiar numbers but absolutely ridiculous for a standout player in his prime to want to blend his individual identity with someone else’s.
With plenty of years as a Spur to come, why wasn’t Aldridge looking to establish his own greatness in San Antonio and get his own number retired by the Spurs? Maybe it was because, as he said in his introductory press conference two years ago, he simply wanted to be in a place where he could see himself “fitting in well,” where “my life is going to be easier.”
So as we sit in judgment of Aldridge here in what might well be the midpoint of a Western Conference Finals sweep if Aldridge’s teammate, Kawhi Leonard, doesn’t return from injury for Game 3 Saturday, no one should be shocked that Aldridge has come up small in a big moment. Indeed, Aldridge all but said it himself: “I’m not looking to try to be David Robinson, to be Tim Duncan. Those guys are rare; they only come around once every 20 years or so.”
Not all max contracts are signed by true max players. (Aldridge has, for the record, played much better than Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe, another prime target in 2015 free agency—and not coincidentally, a guy who kept wearing No. 10 in Detroit even after the Pistons retired it in 2011 for Dennis Rodman.)
It’s just that Aldridge looked more the part of a star as the Lakers, Mavericks, Knicks, Raptors, Spurs and Suns fawned over him—and with a run of five consecutive All-Star berths built on his statistical production in a Portland Trail Blazers offense designed for him to be their flagpole flipping in jumpers from the left elbow.
Given all that, Gregg Popovich’s post-Game 2 comments bemoaning Aldridge’s lack of aggressiveness came off as bit unfair considering the Spurs coach should know better than anyone outside of Portland the limits of Aldridge’s fire, aspiration and dependability.
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Popovich discusses LaMarcus Aldridge after #Spurs Game 2 loss to #Warriors: ‘Can’t be timid, turn down shots’ #KSATnews #KSATsports https://t.co/NJHiqIW0Td
5/17/2017, 4:24:28 AM
He wanted to be somewhere where he was included in the sum of the parts and wouldn’t be exposed as a minus when expected to carry the team every night. That was a choice he earned, and maybe it’s good that he knows his preferences and limitations. He didn’t necessarily want to be Damian Lillard, but he didn’t want his team to be all about Damian Lillard, either.
Only a certain kind of player chooses to go to San Antonio and subordinate himself for a greater cause when he could go anywhere and be anything. Knowing that, the Spurs need to accept him for who he is and help him in ways much different than the ego-boosting other superstars need.
Unfortunately for Aldridge, it just so happened that upon reaching the NBA’s final four for the first time in his career with Popovich’s considerable guidance, Leonard’s ankle injuries thrust him into a starring role.
And that’s just not good for him.
Some would view it as a golden opportunity. But if you look at Aldridge’s track record, you know that he’s not that guy. He wants comfort zone over prime time. Even though he played well in San Antonio’s Game 6 clincher at Houston, that was a uniquely pressure-free run with Leonard’s ankle being saved for a potential Game 7 back home.
With Leonard back in the lineup, Aldridge played well in Game 1 at Golden State before becoming a big part of the turnover-filled collapse after Leonard got hurt. In the Warriors’ Game 2 romp, the story wasn’t that Aldridge was overwhelmed by Golden State’s defensive attention, it was that Aldridge gave up before he even saw it because he skittishly assumed it was coming.
“I kind of threw off the offensive rhythm not taking my shots, and I kind of got lost in the flow of just standing around,” he said.
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The guy does care. You could see his disappointment in himself even before Danny Green shot a couple of mandatory gazes his way when Aldridge failed to provide proper help defense on Stephen Curry’s back-breaking layup late in Game 1. When Aldridge fails to get back in transition defense, it’s often because he’s too deep in his own head making sure he matches up with a shooter on the perimeter, per the scouting report.
Aldridge is the type who will sometimes go through the motions, but he’s also the type who will hurt the team by trying to fit in more than trying to be the best he can be.
His teammates have implored him to be more aggressive all season, not just this week. So as striking as Popovich’s characterization that Aldridge was “timid” in Game 2 was, it’s nothing new to this team.
In truth, he’s a guy who has to get knocked down first (Game 2) before he realizes he has to fight harder (Game 3).
“Last game it definitely worked to their advantage with me getting passive,” Aldridge said Thursday. “Our next game, I won’t do that.”
Yet by being the guy who doesn’t hit first, Aldridge has ensured the Spurs are in this Game 3 predicament that Pau Gasol described as “If you lose, you know you’re pretty much out.”
At least Popovich will have had three days off to craft a slightly more Portland-like offensive structure for Aldridge in case Leonard again doesn’t play. And it should be much easier to stay poised with the support of a home crowd, in front of which Aldridge shot 49.7 percent this season (as opposed to the 46.1 percent he shot in the road.
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Aldridge should play better, but let’s be clear: He’s not going to save this series or this season for the Spurs.
If he was, he wouldn’t be playing in an arena where his uniform number hangs in honor of another player.
If he was, he wouldn’t be in San Antonio in the first place.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.