If you had picked, say, a Martian off the planet Remulak at this time last year, sat him in front of a TV, and shown him highlights of the last two seasons of San Antonio Spurs basketball, then asked him which player on the team was the team’s future, the Martian no doubt would have said something like "klak nurdendi qliqui," which translates to “the man in the braids.”
And if you’d then given him links to stories about the Spurs and asked which player was certain not to be here a year from now, the Martian would have no doubt said "glaark vliblin motlovrok," which translates to “LaMarcus Aldridge.”
Funny how Martians think.
But they wouldn’t have been alone; no one believed Aldridge had much of a shelf life in San Antonio. Rumors were plentiful before last June’s Draft that the Spurs were shopping him, and they turned out to be true. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged that, for the first time, a star player of his had asked to be dealt. Even more shockingly, Popovich copped that it was his fault, not Aldridge’s, that things hadn’t worked out since Aldridge had signed with the Spurs in 2014, when he was among the biggest free-agent prizes available.
Popovich vowed to put Aldridge back where he was comfortable, and followed through on it -- not that he had many options, with Leonard missing almost all of the regular season and almost certainly all of the playoffs rehabbing a quad injury. With his back to the basket again, operating on the left block where he’s operated much of his 12 NBA seasons and where he’d played in Portland off Damian Lillard before coming to San Antonio, Aldridge again was an All-Star, putting up some of the most efficient numbers of his career (23.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game) and carrying the Spurs to the playoffs for the 21st straight season.
“Considering the way he’s been playing and our recent success in those games, we are at the point where if LaMarcus gets a cough, a cold, we are in deep trouble,” Manu Ginobili said after Aldridge left a late regular season game in Washington with a knee contusion. The Spurs remain a longshot themselves in the first round of the playoffs, but Aldridge, who got a three-year extension for $72 million at the start of the season, would now seem to be the guy with a long-term future in San Antonio. No translation necessary.
Me: How have you all sustained this season through all the injuries and Kawhi not being here?
LaMarcus Aldridge: Just having the next-man-up kind of mentality, having the system where you can plug in guys and they can understand, or they can help the team in the ways they’re going to be good out there. And not giving in. It would have been easy to say we’ve had all this adversity this year and it’s not our year, but we have a bunch of guys that want to still be here. And we pushed through and guys got better, and the younger guys got some experience, and they’ve gotten better. It’s the whole team coming together.
Me: What did you do to work with Dejounte [Murray] once Pop made it clear he was the guy at point guard?
LA: Just trying to talk to him. That big story came out about Dame and myself, and how we didn’t talk. So I’m trying to re-do that with him. He’s not the same level of player offensively (as Lillard), but I’m trying to talk with him more, mentor more as far as showing him things I’ve learned over the years and showing him things he can do to make us better. And he’s been great about listening, and he wants to get better. He’s always in the gym. I feel like he’s playing the toughest position out there, so it’s going to take time. But he’s definitely grown this year.
It just feels good to be myself again. It wasn’t really about trying to re-invent the wheel or do something I haven’t done. This is who I’ve been."
Me: As a leader on this team, do you think you have to speak more?
LA: I mean, that’s definitely my role. That’s who I’ve grown to be. In the past, maybe not my first two years (in San Antonio), having Tim (Duncan), he’s one of the best leaders in the game. I feel like this year, I’ve definitely grown back to who I was. I’ve been more vocal and tried to be that guy. I think guys have liked it. I’ve had guys tell me at times I’m not talking tonight. I think they’ve gotten used to it. I’ve definitely tried to stay on that and keep talking.
Me: But at the other end of that, you have Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili]. Do you defer to them?
LA: They’re both reserved guys. They talk at times. I think Manu talks more than Tony at times. They’re both not really outspoken. So I try to take that burden of being the guy who’s talking. They both speak when things have to be said.
Me: Your numbers since the All-Star break are a little higher in terms of usage (31.2 after the break; 28.6 before), but your shots are different -- fewer mid-range and more in the paint. Was that by design?
LA: I mean, it’s just what teams are giving you right now. I’m a mid-range guy and most teams give that up, but that’s what I do. So teams are not giving me that shot, so we do a lot of high-low stuff where I’m at the rim or I’m running the floor and trying to get something easy. And if I’m out at the three and I’m open, I shoot it, but that’s not really what I want to do. For this team to be good I have to be mid-range and in, and let the other guys shoot threes.
Me: Who is good for you in the high-low game? I know Pau [Gasol] has always been really good at it.
As I’ve told people, to have a Hall of Fame coach tell you that it was his fault, that he shouldn’t have tried to change me, that was surreal to me. ‘Cause I thought he was going to tell me ‘go F yourself; I’m Pop, you’re wrong, I’m right.’ "
LA: Pau’s a great passer, a really skilled big. I think with him I’m definitely better out there, because teams play me high or trap or whatever, and he’s really good at putting that pass over the top. He’s always looking for me. I think as any other big out there, he’s the one that’s always looking for me.
Me: How rewarding has this season been for you?
LA: It just feels good to be myself again. It wasn’t really about trying to re-invent the wheel or do something I haven’t done. This is who I’ve been. So it felt good to be myself again and play my game again and get back to the level that I was at. It wasn’t a surprise or anything new. This is just what I’ve done.
Me: But were you surprised when Pop said ‘my fault?’
LA: Yeah, for sure. As I’ve told people, to have a Hall of Fame coach tell you that it was his fault, that he shouldn’t have tried to change me, that was surreal to me. ‘Cause I thought he was going to tell me ‘go F yourself; I’m Pop, you’re wrong, I’m right.’ That’s what you expect from someone of his caliber. It was the total opposite. He was like, you’re right. I did try to change you and make you into my vision. You’ve been in the league long enough; you’ve done this. So I’m going to leave you alone.
Me: Do you have any expectation you’re going to see Kawhi?
LA: No, we’re just playing. If you go day to day wondering when he’s going to be back, then you’re not in the moment and you’re not going to do your job. You have to do your job and put your best foot forward and focus on what you have to do to win. If he comes back, great. But this is us right now, that’s the attitude we have to have.
Me: Any idea why it’s been so hard for you to win on the road this year?
LA: We shoot better at home as a group, so that’s a part of it. I don’t know. I just feel like we have to lock in. I feel (when) guys are at home they have the crowd behind them, and it’s just better ju-ju and mojo, whatever it is. It’s always better at home. But we have to figure it out, because in order to win it, you have to win on the road. We have guys that are definitely good enough to play home and away. We’ve just got to lock in.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
Choppin it up with Unc ☘️ pic.twitter.com/a9fkeCBaRZ— Jabari Bird (@Jabari_Bird) April 12, 2018
-- Celtics rookie Jabari Bird (@Jabari_Bird), Thursday, 4:44 p.m., supposedly on FaceTime with Hall of Famer Larry Bird, also a Celtic, though one of slightly more renown.
THEY SAID IT
“He kept Stephen Jackson from beating me up.”
-- Gregg Popovich, before Game 1 of the Golden State-San Antonio series, on the role assistant coach Mike Brown, now with the Warriors, played while he was an assistant with the Spurs.
“It would be great to have a coach I could have for more than two years, you know. It’s been tough throughout my career having different coaches and different philosophies, different style of plays throughout this entire time. So with that being said, I hope whomever he is, the next coach can come in here and make a statement and let everyone know he’s all-in and we can get the show on the road.”
-- Knicks guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., after the team fired Jeff Hornacek as coach last week.
“I never really got that -- why would you go hard after someone, like me and my brother, we grew up together, took showers together, slept in the same bed, spent 18 years of your life together -- for us, 21 years before we even got to the NBA. Why would you even? For an outsider, I’d want to cut his neck off. For my brother, no.”
-- Wizards forward Markieff Morris, asked if he would give a hard foul against his twin brother Marcus, the Celtics’ forward, in a hypothetical playoff matchup between Washington and Boston to ease the awkwardness of competing against him. Both Markieff and Marcus said separately that they had no desire to play against one another in the playoffs, which was possible until the Wizards lost their last regular season game and finished eighth in the Eastern Conference, setting up their first-round series with top-seeded Toronto.
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