LaMarcus Aldridge started his best season in San Antonio, and possibly the best season of his career, by asking Gregg Popovich to trade him.
“I’m not enjoying this. I’m not confident. I’m not sure you want me here. I want to be traded,” Pop nonchalantly recounted to the media last week.
Popovich had never heard that before. The conversation made him look inward, and he realized that it was a mistake to try to alter the proven offensive game of a 30-year-old All-Star.
“He just didn’t feel comfortable and it’s 98.75 percent on me, and whatever is left because I can’t subtract that well,” Popovich said after Aldridge and the Spurs agreed to a three-year contract extension before the season opener. “I tried to change him.”
Taking full responsibility for two of Aldridge’s worst seasons is no small thing, and it restored his confidence. It made him feel welcome and comfortable, and this year he has re-established himself as one of the league’s top big men.
Aldridge has never scored more points per 36 minutes, and his true shooting percentage of 56.2% is near a career high. He’s pulling down 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, which is just shy of his career best, and good enough for sixth best in the league this year behind only the best glass-cleaning centers in the game.
It’s not just confidence. After their heart to heart, Popovich has tweaked his offensive system to allow Aldridge to get back to what he did best in Portland: working off the left block. Pop wanted to get him going from different spots in his first two years on the Spurs, a decision that he now admits was a mistake.
“I could do some things defensively or rebounding-wise, but on offense, I was going to move him everywhere.” Popovich said. “That was just silly on my part — total overcoaching. So we took care of it, and he’s been fantastic.”
In Portland, most of Aldridge’s mid-range attempts came from the left wing where he is most comfortable. Setting up on the left side of the floor gives him one of his favorite moves: a quick dribble into the paint with his left elbow in the defender’s chest for a hook shot or layup near the rim.
That doesn’t work nearly as well on the right side of the floor, where a dribble to his right would only set up a tough baseline look, or he would need to shoot that hook shot in the paint with his left hand. Popovich moved Aldridge around to try to give him more options, but he wound up taking him away from his best options.
Aldridge is a special big man because of that patented turnaround jumper, and he’s most comfortable shooting it from the left side of the floor. The threat of the drive keeps his defender off balance, and opens up that fadeaway jumper. Now that he’s back to where he’s most comfortable, he’s more dangerous than ever. It all goes back to those offseason conversations with Pop.
“I thought back to Timmy, and people said, ‘Oh, what are you going to do with Tim Duncan,'” Popovich recalled. “And I said, ‘Nothing, I’m just going to watch him for six months and see what he does. He’s a pretty good player. And if there’s something that I think I can add, then I’ll do it.’ With LaMarcus, he got here and on day one I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this. And (Jack) Sikma did this. And you’re going to do this pump fake.’ I tried to change him. I tried to make him a different player.'”
After Pop tweaked his system to get Aldridge back in his comfort zone, he has led the Spurs to the third-best record in the West. He’s been the top dog on a team on pace for 54 wins, and he absolutely deserves to be an All-Star for the first time in his career in San Antonio.
One obvious question remains: is this all just a product of his increased role in the absence of Kawhi Leonard?
The answer is absolutely not.
Aldridge’s numbers before and after Leonard’s return on 12/12 are nearly identical. He’s still making 8.7 shots per game, and he’s actually averaging slightly more attempts since Kawhi came back. He’s also grabbing one more rebound per game, and his usage rate has remained virtually the same.
Popovich has clearly focused on keeping Aldridge in this groove that he has found by making sure he gets enough touches and staggering minutes with Leonard so that LaMarcus can still have parts of the game that revolve around him as the number one offensive option.
This might change when Rudy Gay returns and Kawhi gets back to full strength, but only a bit. Aldridge will likely shoot slightly fewer attempts at a higher efficiency, and he’ll probably continue to increase his effort on the boards. The man who Pop singled out as “timid” last year has been playing with a fire that Spurs fans hadn’t seen from him yet.
For his first two years in silver and black, Aldridge was crammed in Kawhi Leonard’s back seat. He finally got a chance to drive this year, and now he’s riding shotgun. The most important thing is that he has the legroom he needed, and he’s finally comfortable.