Since LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs agreed to join their houses in the summer of 2015, the marriage has been on the rocks.
Rumblings persisted for over a year that neither side was thrilled with the arrangement, and the Spurs openly tried to ship Aldridge elsewhere this summer.
That’s what made last week’s news that Aldridge and the Spurs had agreed to a contract extension that keeps him in San Antonio for the next two years surprising to many around the league. If both sides wanted to move on for so long, why did they agree to stay together?
But as Aldridge has gotten off to a torrid start to this season, lifting the Spurs to three straight wins even as Kawhi Leonard remains sidelined, the five-time all-star believes the reason is simple: He’s back to being himself.
“I’m more confident,” Aldridge said in an interview after San Antonio’s win in Chicago Saturday. “I’m myself. I feel like I’m back to who I was before I came here.
“I feel like I’m getting different looks and I feel like I’m in the flow and I’m involved so I’m always feeling like I can make a read and take my shots. I feel like at first I was trying to fit in and trying what [Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich] wanted me to be so bad that I wasn’t being myself.”
Much has been made of the sit down between Aldridge and Popovich this summer, a much-needed clearing of the air after an uncomfortable first two years in San Antonio. Since then, Popovich has said that he regrets trying to change Aldridge’s game after the native Texan arrived in San Antonio as a free agent, blaming himself for Aldridge feeling ostracized since becoming a Spur.
But whether the good vibes on both sides are truth, lip service or somewhere in between, the results on the court speak volumes. Aldridge has looked terrific, carrying San Antonio offensively and allowing the Spurs to remain the same old Spurs even as their No. 1 option sits out.
In doing so, however, one thing has significantly changed: Aldridge’s shot attempts. After averaging fewer than 15 per game each of the past two seasons — something that hadn’t happened since his rookie season 10 years ago — Aldridge is averaging more than 20 shots per game through San Antonio’s first three contests.
It’s no surprise that has coincided with Aldridge’s renewed confidence level.
“He’s been sharp and in rhythm,” Spurs center Pau Gasol said. “It’s kind of what he’s used to.
“It’s the way he’s played his entire career, knowing he’s going to get 20-plus shots. That’s always comforting.”
This is what many — likely including Aldridge — expected when he arrived in San Antonio two years ago. Up until that point, Leonard had been a nice complementary piece offensively, steadily increasing his output but never operating as anything like the first option in an NBA offense.
The expectation was that that would continue — particularly given that Aldridge had already established himself as one of the premier scoring bigs in the league during his first nine seasons in Portland, where he’d averaged more than 20 points per game five consecutive seasons. Pairing him with a defensive-minded forward who has never seemed interested in having the spotlight on him felt like a perfect fit.
But Leonard surprised the team by graduating to its No. 1 choice on offense two years ago, then morphing into an MVP candidate last season. In both seasons, his shot attempts surpassed those of Aldridge.
So, with a revived Aldridge, what will happen when Leonard, who remains out indefinitely with tendinopathy in his right quad, eventually returns?
“I don’t know,” Aldridge admitted. “Right now it’s how it’s going, so we’ll see. But I would imagine that some of the things we’re doing will continue, [but] of course it’s going to tweak, because he’s our main guy.”
Leonard doesn’t seem to be on the verge of coming back soon. When asked about his star’s status Saturday, Popovich said, “I think it’s going to be weeks, more than months. So that’s all I know right now.” Whenever Leonard does come back, he’s unlikely to immediately return to where he was the past two seasons.
Still, even if Aldridge’s shot attempts drop when Leonard comes back, the confidence Aldridge has regained appears to be here to stay. He brought up both the idea of being himself and playing with confidence multiple times during the interview, reflecting a newfound comfort level with his place in San Antonio.
Part of that undoubtedly comes from where his relationship appears to be with Popovich. Whether out of desire, necessity or a combination of both, the conversations the two men had this summer seem to have changed things.
“Just being myself,” Aldridge said. “He’s a great coach, and I was trying to listen because I’m not a bad guy. So I was listening to what he said, but I was sort of second-guessing myself and not really playing my confident game.
“Now he’s saying, “Go be yourself.” Of course, I might take one shot that’s bad, but I’m not a guy that’s going to keep doing it, so I do one shot that I know was bad and I fixed it, so I think just knowing I have the freedom to be myself has been great so far.”
That newfound freedom has Aldridge playing like his former self. It also should help him continue to thrive in San Antonio.