SAN ANTONIO — LaMarcus Aldridge arrived in Northeast Ohio for Saturday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers as a member of a select group. Of the 24 players who will participate in the All-Star Game in Toronto on Valentine’s Day, the San Antonio Spurs forward-center is one of only eight who have been picked for a fifth consecutive year.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this distinction. Aldridge’s acceptance of the Spurs’ egalitarian approach to the NBA game has been a work in progress all season. His shots per game and scoring average have dropped by about 33 percent. He’s had seven games when he’s scored in single digits.
Aldridge’s pick rubbed some the wrong way. Charles Barkley told the TNT audience Tony Parker should have been the second Spur in Toronto instead of Aldridge. And thousands of Portlandians were incredulous that Damian Lillard was snubbed again.
Of course, the Spurs know better than to react to anything Barkley postulates and likely agree that Lillard deserves to be an All-Star. Ultimately, they're happy for Aldridge and appreciate everything he has brought to San Antonio.
And if he's good enough for Western Conference coaches to vote him an All-Star, then his decision to come to San Antonio and be a role player rather than a franchise figure is validated.
Aldridge is hyper-sensitive to perceived failure. When he struggled with his shooting in a preseason game, he spent nearly two hours working on his shot on the court at AT&T Center afterward.
Then, after his worst showing of the season Monday night against the Golden State Warriors, when he scored only five points in a 120-90 loss, he responded to Twitter and Instagram trolls (and there were plenty) by deleting his accounts on the social media sites.
“I just wanted to lock in,” Aldridge said. “It had nothing to do with that game.”
Cynics weren’t buying that explanation even though Aldridge had proved his earnest desire to “lock in” when he had to be chased from his postgame shooting drills after the exhibition game months earlier.
“I take every game personally,” he said of the embarrassment in Oakland. “I live and learn.”
Aldridge is also learning to live with Gregg Popovich’s obsession with fresh legs. Most of his statistical dips are easily explained by the head coach's reining in his playing time. For the first time since his rookie season, he is averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game (29.5).
Though Popovich has the Spurs back to playing more inside-out offense than any team in the league, Aldridge is getting only 13.4 shots per game in the Spurs’ “good to great” pass-oriented attack. Last season in Portland, Aldridge averaged 19.9 shots per game.
Spurs starters also must adapt to sitting most, or all, of fourth quarters. A 31-point win over the Rockets on Wednesday was their 13th win this season by at least 25 points. Four more have been by at least 20. Their point differential is an amazing plus-13.9 per game, even after the 30-point shellacking they absorbed in Oakland.
So when Aldridge followed his clunker in Oakland with his best game of the season—25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to lead the Spurs to a 29-point lead after three quarters—he sat out the last period with the other starters.
If Aldridge frets about acceptance by the Spurs, it is wasted consternation. He has already won over the most important critic in the NBA. Popovich is satisfied with where he is in the transition process.
“Usually it takes people a season to get used to the system and that sort of thing,” Popovich said. “In that sense, he’s been really quick picking things up and starting to feel comfortable. More than the system, it’s a matter of learning how to play with all new people. He’s learned very quickly where to be on the court with Manu [Ginobili] or Timmy [Duncan], and that takes time when you’ve played some place for nine years.
“All considered, he’s done a really good job.”
The irony of Aldridge’s first season in silver and black is that he has been more valuable at the defensive end than as a scorer. Kawhi Leonard, clearly the Spurs’ MVP and their top point producer, has been even more dynamic defending the perimeter in large part because Aldridge has adapted seamlessly into the Spurs defense.
“He’s fit right in,” Leonard said. “He’s a vet, playing in this league nine or 10 years. He’s very smart, high basketball IQ. Since he’s been playing so long, he knows players’ tendencies, and he’s making a great effort of just being in that help position. If somebody drives by me, he’s there to be in the gap or block a shot. And he’s a great rebounder, and that helps us limit a team to one shot.”
Aldridge knew San Antonio was going to be a different experience. He’d heard plenty about the intricacies of Popovich’s defensive scheme but said it was easier to pick up than he expected and less complicated than the offense.
“Coming to something new is always going to be different,” he said. “It’s brand new to me and for everyone here. Both sides have been great, trying to adjust and just keep moving forward.”
The wins have made the occasional struggles worth the fleeting misery. When the Spurs get to 60 wins sometime in March or April—they enter Saturday’s game on pace for 70—maybe he will even reconsider his social media accounts.
But whether he does or doesn't—just like whether he does or doesn't truly deserve this fifth All-Star nod—the Spurs will appreciate what he brings to the organization in pursuit of a championship.
All quotes obtained firsthand.