SAN ANTONIO — When the Spurs first kicked around the idea of a free agent run at LaMarcus Aldridge, Gregg Popovich did his homework. He recalled his personal experiences with Aldridge, largely limited to San Antonio's battles with Portland over the years. “He’s a good teammate,” says Popovich. “He wins well and he loses well.” He checked in with backup guard Patty Mills and assistant coach Ime Udoka, two ex-teammates of Aldridge in Portland. “Patty made me feel confident about his work ethic,” says Popovich. “Ime has had a relationship with him, he’s known him for quite awhile and he also made me feel comfortable this guy was the kind of person that I like to coach and that fits well with the team.”
He thought about how Aldridge, a midrange, volume shooting forward for most of his career, would fit in with the Spurs system. This was, of course, a fun exercise. Any team, regardless of system, would love to line up a player like Aldridge, a 20-point per game scorer in each of the last five seasons. Still, Popovich didn’t think it would be a seamless transition. He still doesn’t. But as he prepares to begin his first season with Aldridge, he looks back on how he once united a talented young big with a veteran center nearly two decades ago. The young player was Tim Duncan. The veteran was David Robinson. And Popovich believes the lessons learned developing chemistry between Duncan and Robinson will be useful in blending the talents of Duncan and Aldridge.
“The thing that’s similar is that when Timmy came in we didn’t coach him,” says Popovich. “Our first priority was to watch him and to see what he did naturally and what his comfort levels were, rather than try to be Mr. Coach and say, ‘Well, I’m going to teach you this drop-step middle and this drop-step baseline and this pump fake.’ Then all of a sudden you’re trying to etch something in stone. I don’t think that method works anymore these day, but if you’re dealing with a neophyte and a young kid who doesn’t know anything well, OK, you can start with that stuff and give him the building blocks. But with somebody as talented as a Duncan or an Aldridge, I think it’s better to sit back and watch them play a bit and see what their comfort levels are. Then you can make suggestions, then you can add something to the game when you know what they already have as their base.
“Now with LaMarcus we obviously know more about him than I did when we got Timmy. So the things that you saw him do in Portland, he’ll continue to do those things, but we’ll try to mesh him into the way we do things and try to sort of like make him a hybrid.”
It’s easy to pinpoint why incorporating Aldridge will have its challenges: It’s been a long time since San Antonio has had anyone like him. Tiago Splitter, shipped to Atlanta in the off-season, was a rim-running, second-chance bucket-collecting sidekick who didn’t need touches. Boris Diaw is at his best drawing defenses out around the three-point line and driving around them, opening up the Spurs' three-point shooters. Aldridge? He makes his living on the left block and was one of the NBA’s most prolific midrange jump shooters last season.
Aldridge is keen on continuing to take some of those shots, too. Sacrifice is the price of signing with San Antonio; the Spurs rarely have players averaging north of 20 points, largely because the system is designed to spread the ball around. Aldridge gets that. But this is a player who eliminated Houston in part because he believed he and Dwight Howard would have a hard time sharing shots from the left block. It’s a player who, while weighing his free agent decision, admittedly struggled with reconciling personal achievement with team success. The Spurs won’t feel compelled to force feed Aldridge the way Portland did, but they will have to find a way to get him shots.
For his part, Popovich isn’t worried about Aldridge not getting enough touches. In fact, he’s not convinced Aldridge’s production will dip much at all.
“It depends on how the season goes,” says Popovich. “I want him to shoot the shots he has always shot. I don’t know if [the numbers] are going to go down or not. I think in some ways you can make a case they could go up. But I’m honestly not going to worry about that. If that’s the major concern then we’re probably going to not have the success we would like to have.”
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Indeed, the Spurs have more pressing issues beyond finding a comfort level with Aldridge. Tony Parker averaged his fewest points (14.4) since his rookie season and scouts have remarked that Parker’s burst off the dribble seemed a half a step slower last season. The departure of Cory Joseph means the Spurs will lean heavily on Patty Mills, who struggled last season after missing most of the first half of it recovering from shoulder surgery. Mills has looked good (and healthy) early in camp, and it will be important for Mills to help keep Parker’s minutes down. San Antonio is also scrambling to replace the floor spacing provided by Marco Bellineli, another off-season casualty. The Spurs cut Jimmer Fredette last week (more on that below) and will look to second-year guard Kyle Anderson (more of a playmaker) and summer league standout Jonathan Simmons (more of a slasher) to pick up the slack.
“There are a lot of things we have to look at,” says Popovoch. “When Tony or Patty Mills isn’t there who’s going to be the point guard? Is Kyle Anderson going to play behind Kawh [Leonard] or is he going to sit? You know, what are we going to do? All those things have to be answered which is kind of exciting to me. It’s kind of a good challenge and fun to look at.”
All these questions mean that San Antonio is unlikely to storm out of the gate like the 2007–2008 Celtics, who won 30 of the first 34 games. And there is a danger to that. The Spurs saw firsthand what a difference one game can make. An end of the season loss to New Orleans dropped San Antonio from the No. 2 seed to No. 6, earning the Spurs a date with the Clippers (as the lower seed) instead of Dallas (as the higher one). With the Pelicans expected to be better under Alvin Gentry and Memphis always lurking as a first round beast of a matchup, the value of the No. 1 seed—and a potential matchup with whoever comes out of the Utah/Phoenix/Dallas scrum—couldn’t be higher.
The Spurs, though, seem happy to adhere to a longstanding philosophy of being better at the end of the season than the start, of being willing to sacrifice regular season success if it means ensuring a healthy, rested team for the playoffs. Five championships is as good an argument as any for that.
Kristaps Porzingis Era begins
When the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall last June, few expected him to contribute right away. At 20, Porzingis is raw, and though he has played pro ball since his mid-teens—including a successful stint in the highly competitive ACB League—it was expected the Knicks would ease the lanky, 7’3” Latvian into the lineup slowly. At best, Porzingis would find his way into the regular rotation by the end of the season; at worst, he would get to know Westchester—home of the Knicks D-League affiliate—really well. Which is why it was so surprising when Derek Fisher indicated that Porzingis would be part of New York’s starting lineup on opening night.
“The size, the strength, length up front, they can score. [The starters] are a veteran group other than Kris,” Fisher told reporters last week. “That group is going to be more about execution, working together. I think the defense has to respect each of those guys for who they are and what they can do on the floor. It’s potentially a group of guys who can be comfortable at the end of games as well. It’s important to find five guys comfortable with endgame situations also.”
Fisher’s trial-by-fire approach with Porzingis—which likely came with Phil Jackson’s stamp of approval—is an interesting decision. Porzingis has been decent in the preseason, averaging 7.5 points on 37.1% from the floor and 37.5% from three. His play against Boston in the preseason finale last week highlighted the good and still developing parts of his game. Matched up with David Lee and Jared Sullinger, Porzingis showcased a Dirk Nowitzki-like ability to face up and use his length to get a clean look (and make) at a midrange jump shot. On the other end though, he showed limited lateral quickness and an inability to stop stronger players from creating space. On back to back possessions in the fourth quarter Sullinger, practically salivating at the site of Porzingis, banged in midrange jump shots after creating space off the dribble.
Count ex-Warriors coach Mark Jackson among the Porzingis fans. Said Jackson, “Porzingis is a guy that can play. You can tease with his talent, his size, his ability to shoot, his athleticism. You can see what they liked coming into the draft and I think he’s going to be a very good basketball player for a long time to come. I would lean toward him starting because Carmelo Anthony’s presence on the floor will simply make him better because of his ability to score. They’re going to double team Melo and create opportunities for him.”
Porzingis has been better than expected as a rebounder (six per game) and he undoubtedly will benefit from playing alongside a bruiser like Robin Lopez and a physical small forward in Carmelo Anthony. But expecting any type of consistency from him in his first season may be asking too much. Fortunately, the Knicks have depth at his position. Derrick Williams has been one of training camp’s biggest surprises, Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin were signed in the off-season and Anthony is capable—and at times perhaps best suited—of shifting to the power forward spot. The Knicks can start Porzingis and build his confidence while having NBA-ready replacements prepared to step in.
Scout’s Take: Jimmer Fredette
Fredette, 26, the tenth pick in the 2011 draft, was cut by San Antonio last week. The ex-BYU star, attempting to latch on with his fourth NBA team, now faces an uncertain future. A Western Conference scout weighed in on why Fredette has not panned out as a pro.
“He’s a short two guard to begin with. That’s first. His agent has been trying to sell him as a point guard, but he can’t handle the ball well enough against pressure. Defensively guys would go at him and he didn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of them. He’s pretty one-dimensional and he wasn’t very good at that one dimension. I’ve seen a lot of shooters. The really good shooters, when they shoot, they look like they know it’s going in. I didn’t feel that watching Jimmer. He just didn’t have the confidence a shooter has to have. Part of it was that he had trouble getting his shot off, but part of it was he never looked like the confident player he was in college.
“I don’t know if another team takes a flyer on him. San Antonio would have been the one spot where they would embrace a role player like him. They need a shooter. They didn’t see him as a fit. Being in Sacramento probably hurt his confidence. He should never have been picked that high, but because he was, he became a target for everyone to go at him. I wonder what might have happened if he had been drafted later, if he didn’t have the hype. But his future is probably overseas. He could play there for a long time. He can make a lot of money and he can score a lot of points. If he can keep his confidence up, he might be able to do what Trajan Langdon did.”
Five Questions with ... Caron Butler
Butler’s new book, “Tuff Juice,” written with veteran columnist Steve Springer, was released earlier this month. In it the Kings forward looks back on the day a police officer changed his life and how Gilbert Arenas’s decision to bring guns into the Wizards locker room ended a once promising era in Washington.
SI.com: You are 35 now, going into your 14th year in the NBA. You are a success. How close were you to going the other direction?
Caron Butler: I was a decision away from being everything I wish I would never become. The man that made that decision that changed my life, that kept my life going in a positive direction was Sgt. [Rick] Geller. It was 1998. The police did a drug raid at my house. They came in and found drugs at my house. They found a little over an ounce of cocaine. They had enough to convict me. I believe I was facing 15 years. They wanted to charge me. Geller, he said, ‘I don’t think this stuff is his.’ He didn’t watch basketball, he didn’t know who I was. He just thought he had a good pulse on this situation and he said, ‘This is not his stuff.’
Any situation, if there are drugs involved, everybody gets it. There’s a points system. You are slotted in, if you are a felon, if it’s your second go-round, you got to face 10-15 years. That’s how it is. That’s what I was facing. He showed me favor. I am so thankful and blessed that he did that. That changed my life because I was able to proceed with my dream. We have a great relationship. I can’t thank him enough.
SI.com: Did your life experiences make it easier or harder to transition to the life of a millionaire playing in the NBA?
CB: If I didn’t go through what I went through, I could not handle everything I was blessed with. It’s funny, I was the tenth pick and I was projected to go even higher. The questions about me weren’t about my basketball ability, they were about whether I could function as a person. They were about whether I could handle millions of dollars. I knew I could. A lot of dudes, in sports, in different walks of life, they get rich and they go out and try to get street cred. I went the other way.
That stuff happened early in my life, so when I got to the NBA I was stable, I was functional. I wasn’t throwing away money. I had fun, but I did it in moderation. I respected the dollar because I knew how hard it was to get this. I appreciated every cent of it. I was ducking and dodging bullets, shooting at folks, selling poison on the streets. Now, I’m an entertainer. I play basketball. I do photo appearances. This was a dream come true. I loved it. That’s why when guys in the locker room complain about [public appearances] being too long, I tell them you know what’s real, this is what’s real. What I did is what is real. That’s part of why I feel I’ve been in this game so long.
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SI.com: Is there a story you tell in the book that is still hard to relive?
CB: The death of Black Rob [Editor's Note: In 2006, Robert Nellom, Butler’s childhood friend, was murdered in Racine, Wisc., just a week after being released from prison]. Every time I talk about him...it’s hard. That was my right, right hand man. Just talking about him, about being with him in D.C. for a concert and then getting a phone call that he was murdered and then having to go back and bury him, that was one of the hardest things to continue to reflect on because now I’m at a point where I’m doing great things, I’m doing everything I always dreamed of and doing it the right way.
I want to say to him, ‘Man, we made it,’ but I’m not able to share that with him. I’m not able to share that with a guy I grew up with and I want to celebrate with. I’ve got my wife and I’ve got my kids and that’s great, but I don’t have genuine friends that I have been around since grade school. That’s an asset like no other, having people that know you since Day 1.
SI.com: How wild was the end in Washington?
CB: It was sad. We had Gilbert in the prime of his career, playing great basketball. And you had another kid [Javaris Crittenton] who was just starting and you have a situation with guns that had never been seen before in the NBA. You knew when that happened, there was going to be a firesale. Everyone must go. We were all going to court, going to grand juries. It was never seen before in the NBA. I think about the potential of that team all the time. I think about if Gilbert didn’t get injured, if we had stayed together and if that incident didn’t happen.
We were the highest scoring trio in basketball. We complemented each other so well. I always wonder what-if. It’s a big what-if. I love Gilbert, though. I think he learned his lesson way beyond that experience because he lost so much. Shoe deals, a lot of money. He was a figure like Washington D.C. like no other. He had his own wax statue. For him to have gone through that and all that adversity, all I can do as a brother is support him. I think he suffered way more than enough. I just hate that we could not have seen what that team could do.
SI.com: Gilbert was a funny guy. Great practical joker. What’s the wackiest thing you saw him do?
CB: We had a teammate—and I’m not going to say his name—that had a new truck. And he really loved that truck. Gilbert, he took one of the tires off the truck and brought it into the locker room, rims and all. That was one of the funniest things. When the tire came in everyone knew it was his tire. That was just Gilbert’s personality.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Cleveland: Oh, look, the Cavs got Tristan Thompson back. Cleveland is almost at the point where a major injury to a (non-LeBron) starter wouldn’t change its title-favorite status.
2. Golden State: The Dubs will be without Steve Kerr, who is still recovering from back surgery, for the season opener and have not put a timetable on Kerr’s return. Luke Walton is an untested interim coach, but at this point a seasoned Golden State team is pretty self sustaining.
3. Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant is healthy. Repeat, Kevin Durant is healthy. If it stays that way, OKC could be a juggernaut.
4. San Antonio: The Spurs open against Oklahoma City and play six of the first eight on the road. Just saying, don’t be surprised if they don’t burst out of the gate.
5. Houston: Little worried about Donatas Montiejunas, who is still out with a back injury. Montiejunas—my choice for Most Improved Player this season—looks like the best fit to fill the void created by the departure of Josh Smith.
6. L.A. Clippers: First, Doc Rivers implied that the Warriors were lucky to avoid the Clippers and Spurs in the last postseason; then, last week, Rivers got into it with Blazers coach Terry Stotts during the game. Hey, at least he has made the preseason interesting.
7. New Orleans: Charles Barkley said recently the Pelicans would have a tough time making the playoffs in the West. Due respect to The Chuckster, but I’m not seeing it. New Orleans is primed for a 50-plus win season and should compete for the 5–6 spot in the conference.
9. Memphis: Grizz coach Dave Joerger said recently he will take a game-by-game approach with his wing players this season. I want to buy in on Memphis—Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are so damn fun to watch—but the lack of a reliable perimeter threat at the small forward spot is truly terrifying.
10. Chicago: Staring to look like Joakim Noah will begin the season coming off the bench, with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic in the starting lineup. That’s a pretty dynamic offensive tandem—and a pretty pedestrian one defensively.
11. Atlanta: As expected, Kent Bazemore will get the first crack at replacing DeMarre Carroll in the starting lineup. Bazemore is a freakish athlete, but he will be measured by what he can do defensively.
13. Milwaukee: Four double digit scoring games for Greg Monroe in the preseason and two double doubles. I like this signing more and more every day.
14. Washington: So far, so good for the Wizards' new uptempo offense. Washington finished the preseason with the NBA’s highest offensive rating and was fourth in pace. Can it carry over into the regular season?
15. Boston: Brad Stevens seems to have settled on a frontcourt rotation, with David Lee and Tyler Zeller getting the start and Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk as the primary backups. A casualty could be Jared Sullinger, who after a slow start to the preseason finished with back-to-back strong outings against New York and Philadelphia.
Quote of the Week
"It is with tremendous difficulty and deep sadness that the Timberwolves acknowledge the passing of our President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, Flip Saunders. Flip was a symbol of strength, compassion, and dignity for our organization. He was a shining example of what a true leader should be, defined by his integrity and kindness to all he encountered.
"Today is not a day to reflect on Flip's accomplishments in basketball or what he brought to us as an organization on the court, but rather to indicate what he meant to us as a co-worker, friend, member of the community and the basketball world at large. We as an organization are devastated by his passing, and our hearts and prayers go out to Debbie and the entire Saunders family as they endure this extraordinary loss."
— Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on the passing of president/head coach Flip Saunders, who died on Sunday following a short battle with Hodgkin lymphoma. Saunders was 60 years old. I knew Saunders only casually, but every interaction was a pleasant one, and he ranked right up there with the people I enjoyed talking the game with. Saunders was a well-liked and well-respected member of the NBA community, a fact evidenced by the outpouring of sympathetic statements from teams after his passing. He will be missed.
“It’s just tough. You lose a colleague, but not only a colleague, a great friend. He’s been there for me many times to pick me up when I’d been fired or something in my family has gone wrong. It’s a tough day.”
— Wizards coach Randy Wittman on the passing of Saunders. Wittman served as an assistant coach under Saunders in Minnesota and Washington.
Mention of the Week
Kevin Garnett posted a powerful photo paying respects to his first coach, a man whose presence played a significant role in Garnett’s decision to return to Minnesota. Another ex-Wolves player, Stephon Marbury, also paid tribute to his former coach.
Open Floor Podcast: Kyle Lowry
In the second episode of SI.com's NBA podcast Open Floor, I chat with Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry about the upcoming season. Later in the podcast, I talk with Bleacher Report Senior NBA writer Howard Beck about Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and the New York Knicks.
14 on the clock
14. Count me among those surprised to hear that Mavericks close Rick Carlisle is nearing a contract extension with the Mavericks. According to ESPN, the Mavs are in “advanced discussions” with Carlisle on a new deal. Carlisle is an elite head coach, but there was a growing sentiment around the league that with the Mavericks potentially looking at a rebuild in the next few years, Carlisle could be on the way out. With several high profile coaching jobs potentially available next spring, Carlisle would be a sought after commodity. It appears the Mavericks think so, too.
12. The 76ers are bad. They are very, very bad.
11. I like Billy Donovan and I think he has a great chance to be the increasingly rare successful college-to-pro coach. But some of the shots taken at ex-Thunder coach Scott Brooks are ridiculous. Let’s not forget it’s Brooks who led OKC to a Finals in 2012 and never got the chance to make a playoff run with a completely healthy team anytime after. And it was Brooks who oversaw the development of one of the best young rosters in the NBA. It’s possible to be a fan of Donovan without slamming Brooks.
10. The Kings are either going to be a playoff team or they are going to implode in the kind of way we have rarely seen an NBA team implode before. I’m convinced there is no middle ground.
9. It’s the preseason, but a 6-2 effort by Orlando is eye-opening. Scott Skiles has engineered quick turnarounds with teams before, and the Magic have enough talent to surprise everyone by making a run at a playoff spot in the East--if they defend at a something close to a Skiles-like level.
8. Gregg Popovich is a terrific choice to take the reigns of USA Basketball from Mike Krzyzewski next year. Pop has proven to be skilled at coaching stars and has a deep level of understanding of the international game. It will be interesting to see if Pop adds any young NBA coaches to his staff to potentially groom for the job down the road. My picks: Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Boston’s Brad Stevens. Pop’s pick: Might be Hawks coach--and ex-Pop assistant--Mike Budenholzer.
7. Danny Granger a roster casualty in Detroit. Granger never fully recovered from the knee problems that began in Indiana.
6. Don’t expect a flurry of extensions before the NBA’s November 2nd deadline to offer new deals to extension eligible players. Several bigger names (Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal) are expected to hold off on signing to help their teams cap flexibility next summer, a la Kawhi Leonard this year. Two names to watch, per sources: OKC’s Dion Waiters and Boston’s Tyler Zeller.
5. New season, same potential problems for Michael Carter-Williams, who didn’t show signs of a more consistent perimeter game and is still struggling with turnovers. Jury’s still out, but MCW needs to play a lot better.
4. Samuel Dalembert waived by Dallas. No shock there. Dalembert was a non-factory his last year in New York and failed to seize on a big opportunity offered by the Tyson Chandler-less Mavs. At 34, his career is probably over.
3. Paul George may not love playing power forward, but he sure was effective at the position during the preseason. Indiana is going to put some fun lineups on the floor this year.
2. Markieff Morris seems to have gotten over the offseason trade of his brother, Marcus. That’s good news for Phoenix, which has a great chance of snagging the eighth playoff spot in the West this season.
1. If you haven’t already, give a subscribe/download to the SI NBA Podcast. This week’s guests: Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Bleacher Report’s NBA writer Howard Beck.