If there ever was a hint that Gregg Popovich was going to remain a presence on the San Antonio Spurs’ bench after Tim Duncan’s impeccable career reaches it’s expiration date, it arrived Saturday when LaMarcus Aldridge — the best free agent available on the open market — decided that he will spend the next four years of his career in his native Texas.
Popovich stated before last season that his running joke about leaving with the greatest player in franchise history was probably going to end up being a hilarious quip as opposed to the actual truth. Winning a fifth NBA championship was incredibly intoxicating and the promise of Kawhi Leonard was alluring enough for Popovich to commit to a five-year extension last summer. Then came this past week, when Aldridge and Leonard committed to long-term deals in San Antonio, under the assumption that the NBA’s most respected and successful active coach wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Spurs haven’t often been in position to recruit marquee free agents and haven’t had to work hard to attract high-priced talent to come to San Antonio since Jason Kidd in 2003. Kidd wound up snubbing the Spurs to remain in New Jersey, but the winning culture Popovich has continued to establish in the subsequent 12 years — which have included three titles — was enough to convince Aldridge to turn his back on Portland and the extra year and $28 million the Trail Blazers were able to offer. Aldridge’s four-year deal with San Antonio is worth $80 million. He can’t sign it until Thursday, when teams and players can begin to announce and reach official agreements.
Phoenix, Houston, Toronto, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers made their pitches — Aldridge decided to scratch a meeting with New York — for the 30-year-old, four-time all-star who had grown frustrated by the lack of wins and attention he received in nine seasons with the Trail Blazers. Aldridge now joins an organization that has won at least 60 percent of its games since Duncan arrived through the luck of lottery balls in 1997.
Always evolving, the Spurs have been able to remain relevant even as the advantages they once held have become mimicked, and eventually, the league-wide norm. But what other teams have not been able to duplicate — and why they either fall in and out of contention or stay at the bottom — is the presence of Duncan, Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford.
In their latest iteration, the Spurs have swapped their trademark depth to land franchise-caliber talent. Losing Tiago Splitter in a salary-dumping trade to Atlanta and Marco Bellineli to Sacramento were a workable trade-off for winning free agency. Leonard waited a year to get his maximum extension, risking injury in the process, so that the Spurs would have the salary cap room needed to engage in the Aldridge chase. That move, which required Popovich’s persuasive tongue, continues an environment of sacrificing for the sake of success that extends back to David Robinson.
Robinson was league MVP two years before the Spurs got Duncan and let the newcomer shine without complaint. Duncan kept the tradition going as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker took their turns as primary scoring options. And now, the future has been squarely placed in the hands of 2014 Finals MVP Leonard and Aldridge, with Duncan returning for at least one more year to show the way — and possibly grab another ring or two.
But with Aldridge coming, Duncan will apparently make the biggest concession of his Hall of Fame career — yes, even bigger than the millions he has forfeited in the past decade to make the team better — and play center so that the team’s new star can play his preferred position of power forward (That is, unless Popovich can somehow scratch out “C” and have two “PFs” on his pregame lineups).
In return, Aldridge will have to adjust to a defensive system that will require him to step out of what once made him comfortable and an offense that is much different from the isolation-heavy schemes with which he has grown accustomed. But Popovich has the demanding, get-over-yourself influence that has made the Spurs an envied franchise that Aldridge chose to marry. Aldridge long admired and idolized Duncan and can now call him a teammate.
A seven-game first-round loss in the immensely unfair Western Conference forced the Spurs to take a different, bolder approach to extended Duncan’s career. All five teams from the Southwest Division reached the playoffs last season and continue to improve. Anthony Davis, whom many expected to soon be the best player in the NBA, committed to New Orleans through 2021. Dallas has stole DeAndre Jordan away from the Los Angeles Clippers and Wesley Matthews from Portland. Memphis added athletic big man Brandan Wright and is expected to retain first-team all-NBA center Marc Gasol. And conference finalist Houston brought back Patrick Beverly and Corey Brewer at reasonable contracts.
The Spurs couldn’t stay the course if they wanted to keep winning in an ultra-competitive conference. Aldridge’s arrival makes the Spurs the early championship favorites, strengthening the foundation and Popovich’s incentive to keep going, even after Duncan makes his likely quiet farewell. Then again, Duncan might outlast them all.