This story appears in the Oct. 26, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
As the private jet lifted off the sun-scorched Los Angeles runway, Ime Udoka fidgeted in a plush leather seat, determined to change the NBA landscape by the time the plane landed. It was July 3, three days into the league's free-agency frenzy, and the then 37-year-old former Spurs forward and current assistant coach was San Antonio's strongest connection to the off-season's biggest prize: Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs' recruitment of Aldridge had already been strong. Two days earlier a San Antonio contingent, headlined by Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, had left a powerful impression on Aldridge during their first meeting. There was no elaborate presentation and no empty promises—just an honest conversation about how Aldridge would fit in.
When Aldridge asked how the team planned to use him, Popovich pointed to Duncan, the franchise's 39-year-old, 6'11", 248-pound veteran stalwart. In Duncan's prime the Spurs ran a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and post-ups. Pop said he envisioned using the 6'11", 240-pound Aldridge the same way. Aldridge inquired about his production. San Antonio has had only one 20-point-per-game scorer in the last six seasons. Aldridge, a four-time All-Star as a Blazer, has averaged at least 21 points in each of the last five. While he made no promises, Pop assured him that he would have every opportunity to get his numbers. Aldridge, who had surgery on his left thumb in May, then asked about the Spurs' medical team. At 30, he was beginning to think about his NBA mortality. That's when Spurs point guard Patty Mills, who also made the trip, jumped in. A teammate of Aldridge's for two years in Portland, Mills—twice surgically repaired while with San Antonio—raved about his experiences with the team's medical staff. "You never want to get an injury," said Mills. "But if you do, what we have here is very good."
Everything was on the table. Well, almost everything. A question about past championships was met with a collective shrug. The Spurs didn't want to talk about the past, they wanted to talk about the future. "They were very straightforward," says Aldridge. "It wasn't—and excuse my language—a circle jerk."
Still, as well as the meeting had gone, no one with San Antonio felt that landing Aldridge was a done deal. The competition for him was fierce. The Suns had dazzled Aldridge with a brilliant marketing presentation reinforced by their aggressive recruitment of 7'1" Tyson Chandler (who signed a four-year, $52 million contract with Phoenix on July 9). And then there was Portland. Across the league, anyone who knows Aldridge knows that he doesn't like change. Even with all of their warts—Portland had won only one playoff series since 2009—the Blazers still had a shot.
So there was Udoka, hopping on a flight with Aldridge from L.A. to Dallas to make one last San Antonio sales pitch. For three hours the two men, friends and teammates since Udoka's lone season with the Blazers in 2006--07, talked basketball. Popovich was a frequent topic: In the days after his initial meeting with the Spurs' contingent, Aldridge was uneasy and grappled with the idea of playing for a coach whose teams rarely featured one primary scorer and who pledged allegiance to the pass. He struggled to reconcile personal achievement with team success. His meetings with other teams further clouded his head. A common thread in those discussions was a bad-mouthing of how the Spurs would use Aldridge in their offense.
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Aldridge called his then agent Arn Tellem (who has since joined the Pistons as vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment). Tellem's solution? Meet with Pop again. So on July 3, Aldridge sat down with Popovich for lunch (later joined by Udoka and Spurs executive Sean Marks) in Beverly Hills. After more reassurances, Aldridge left this meeting feeling better. Later, on the plane back to Dallas, Udoka reinforced the Spurs' agenda. "I told him, If you want to be coached, if you want to be challenged, Pop is the guy for you."
As the plane descended toward Dallas, Udoka still didn't know which way Aldridge was leaning. "I had a good feeling," says Udoka. "But you never know." As the two disembarked, Aldridge finally turned to Udoka. "I'm coming," he said.
"Just the best feeling," says Udoka. Hours later Aldridge tweeted the news to everyone. The Spurs signed Aldridge to a four-year, $80 million contract ($30 million less than what Portland offered for the five-year maximum). San Antonio remained a title contender.
Burying the Spurs: It's a time-honored tradition for critics. Swept by the Suns in the conference semis in 2010? It's over. Bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Grizzlies in '11? Time to rebuild. When the Clippers ousted San Antonio in a brutal seven-game first-round series last spring, the vultures again circled. Duncan was pushing 40 and at the end of his contract; a nicked-up Manu Ginóbili, then 37, was too. Parker, now 33, was also battling injuries and looking a step slow. If a franchise reboot ever looked necessary, it was now.
Publicly, the Spurs are often nonchalant about the future of its aging core. Questions put to Popovich about rebuilding after a titleless season are usually met with a blank stare or a snarky, YouTube-worthy response. But privately, the months that followed the first-round loss to L.A. were anxious ones. Strategies, lots of them, were hatched for every possible scenario. Plan A was for everyone to come back, with a coveted free agent injected into the mix. But there were also Plans B, C and D. "We had a lot of different scenarios," said president and general manager R.C. Buford. "We really didn't know what was going to happen."
In June, Duncan called: "I'm coming back." The Spurs were already planning an aggressive pursuit of Aldridge. Now they could promise he'd play alongside a future Hall of Fame center. "Having Tim may have a big impact with LaMarcus," says Buford. "But it wouldn't have impacted our pursuit of LaMarcus."
For as much success as the Spurs have had—five championships since 1999, the highest winning percentage of any team in the four major sports since '97—free agents have been hard to come by. Maybe it's a Texas thing. The Mavericks have whiffed year after year trying to find a superstar sidekick for Dirk Nowitzki. The Rockets landed Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013, but they have Howard's poisonous relationship with Kobe Bryant to thank for that. In 2003, San Antonio's very public pursuit of Jason Kidd failed. And while the Spurs' superior drafting strategy often compromises its cap space, you are more likely to see Pop & Co. outsmart teams for cheap talent such as Mills or guard Danny Green, or resuscitate fading ones like power forward Boris Diaw, rather than land a player of Aldridge's caliber.
By contrast, for Aldridge, a Dallas native who played at Texas from 2004 to '06, the Lone Star State was what put San Antonio in the mix. "The appeal of Texas was something we had to recognize and, hopefully, take advantage of," says Buford. The Western Conference is a minefield. Reigning NBA champion Golden State is loaded with 20-somethings who are only going to get better. With 2014 MVP Kevin Durant missing the majority of the season due to injuries to his right foot, the Thunder quietly restocked its roster. Houston added point guard Ty Lawson, the Clippers retained center DeAndre Jordan at the 11th hour, and the baby-faced, playoff-hopeful Pelicans and Jazz get better by the day.
Although Popovich (predictably) hates recruiting, he recognized the need to add a player like Aldridge. "This is a guy we really wanted," says Popovich. "He's shown he's a consistent scorer. He's a good teammate. He wins well, and he loses well. Both as a fiber guy and a talent guy, we thought he fit the bill."
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Still, for a team that treasures its chemistry, Aldridge comes with some risks. To Aldridge, the Spurs were unequivocal: They want you to score, but they want you to do it without disrupting the team's successful ball-sharing system. Last season Aldridge's usage rate—defined as the percentage of a team's offensive possessions a player uses while on the court—was 30%, 11th highest of any starter, per NBA.com. The top Spur: Parker (24.7%), who checked in at 51st. "He's used to getting the ball a lot," says Popovich. "So what happens if we start running isolations? Timmy is going to fall asleep on the block. Kawhi is going to lose interest. Tony is going to say, 'What about me?' Manu is going to wonder why he is even on the court. I'm exaggerating, obviously, but they all have to find a way to fit together."
It's been suggested that Popovich should prepare for life with Aldridge by dusting off the old David Robinson--Duncan playbook. "It's been tried there before," says Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a Spurs assistant from 1996 to 2013. "It's hard. David was a special player." Instead the Spurs will continue to develop Aldridge's three-point shooting—he connected on a career-high 35.2% of his threes last season—while allowing the offense to develop organically. "With guys as talented as Duncan and Aldridge, it's better to sit back and watch them play a little bit and see what their comfort levels are," says Popovich. "With LaMarcus, the things you saw him do in Portland, he will continue to do. We'll just try to mesh him into the way we do things and make him a hybrid."
It's mid-September, and Aldridge is settling into a chair in a lounge on the ground floor of the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills. He's relaxed, far more so than he was a few months earlier when the weight of his decision was often overwhelming. "It was not fun," says Aldridge. "It was really stressful. It's not something I want to do again." Nevertheless, questions about his choice to leave Portland still linger. Why, after declaring his loyalty to the Trail Blazers in 2014, did he defect? Why, after forgoing thumb surgery last January, a decision interpreted by many as a sign of Aldridge's commitment to the Blazers, did he leave town six months later? Was it because of point guard Damian Lillard? The two teammates had never been chummy. Was it the organization? In nine years with the Blazers, Aldridge had never escaped the second round of the playoffs. Was it Texas? Aldridge's mother, Georgia, a breast cancer survivor, lives in Dallas. His sons, Jaylen and LaMarcus Jr., also live in Texas.
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The answer: all of the above. Aldridge admits that his relationship with Lillard could have been better. "The issue you have with two competitive guys being brought up the same way is that you don't have one person who goes out of his way to make a relationship," says Aldridge. Portland's postseason woes were also a factor. In the end, Aldridge says there was no negativity, no ill will, no bleep-you moment that had him running for the door. He just decided that both sides would benefit from a fresh start. "They did everything they could," says Aldridge.
The Spurs won't overwhelm Aldridge with expectations. He's not a savior, and the Spurs don't need him to be one. San Antonio will ask Aldridge to be Aldridge. Score. Rebound. Defend the rim ... with an added twist. After a recent practice, Aldridge stayed on the floor to shoot threes from several spots. Just another Spur channeling Pop, doing what's needed to win.