• With Kawhi Leonard out, the Spurs desperately need LaMarcus Aldridge to show up. Down 0-2 against the Warriors, both San Antonio and Aldridge's reputation are on life support.
By Ben Golliver
May 17, 2017

OAKLAND, Calif. — Lost in the talk of Kevin Durant’s push for his first title and Kawhi Leonard’s dramatic evolution into a potential Warriors Killer is another ascension that’s been more than a decade in the making.

For the first time during an 11-year career that has produced five All-Star selections and four All-NBA nods, LaMarcus Aldridge has reached the conference finals. To get to this destination, Aldridge rode the bench as a Blazers rookie, endured spiteful nicknames from disgruntled fans, witnessed franchise-altering injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, moved past several heart-related scares, and remained patient during an epic late-season tank job in 2013.

He then chose championship contention and culture over money and stats in 2015, joining the Spurs after nine seasons with the Blazers, only to have his toughness, leadership and ego questioned in the local media on his way out. Last year, when the Thunder sent Tim Duncan into retirement with a convincing second-round series win, some fans chuckled that the Damian Lillard-led Blazers had made it just as far as their former power forward. 

This season has proven to be better validation for Aldridge’s free-agency decision. As the Blazers regressed due to a weak frontcourt, the Spurs ripped off 61 wins without running up Aldridge’s odometer. San Antonio’s 2015 recruiting pitch included the idea that Aldridge wouldn’t shoulder the heavy burden he had carried in Portland, and his modest numbers (17.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG in 32.4 MPG over 72 games) reflect the Spurs’ careful treatment of their players. Kawhi Leonard’s development into an MVP candidate has allowed Aldridge to settle into a comfortable role—perhaps too comfortably—and Gregg Popovich’s ability to create and exploit mismatches has helped Aldridge go deeper this postseason than he ever has before.

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In Portland, his team never would have survived the spotty play he showed against Memphis in the first round and against Houston in the second. The Spurs, though, can compensate for his listless stretches thanks to Leonard’s sensational impact and Popovich’s ability to adjust his way into more favorable lineups and more exploitable matchups. By the end of the second round, Aldridge was feasting on the Rockets’ undersized frontline, helping cover for an injured Leonard.

While the Spurs won those games through collective effort, with contributions coming from up and down the rotation, Aldridge showed both a willingness and the ability to reassert himself as a lead option in pivotal moments. Sure, his inconsistency has provided plenty of ammunition for his critics along the way, but at the end he had played a central role in finally reaching the promised land of the conference finals. After four lottery trips and four first-round exits over the years, this date with the Warriors represents the highwater mark of his career.

All of that backstory—the slow progress and the nagging, never-ending complaints about his alleged shortcomings—made what happened at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night all the more galling. The Warriors ran all over the Spurs 136-100, taking full advantage of Leonard’s absence due to a sprained left ankle he re–aggravated in Game 1. Aldridge, who finished with just 8 points (on 4-of-11 shooting) and four rebounds, wasn’t the reason the Spurs lost. But he was the reason they never stood a chance.

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It feels a bit hacky to draw a contrast between Aldridge and Jonathon Simmons in Game 2, except that’s exactly what Gregg Popovich did afterwards because there was no other choice. Aldridge, the decorated former lottery pick oozing with natural ability and earning $84 million over four years, played “timid” and “turned down shots,” according to his coach. Simmons, the undrafted overachiever earning less than $1 million this year, spent the night in sixth gear as he fearlessly scored a team-high 22 points (on 8-of-17 shooting). "Jon was in a category by himself,” Popovich noted. “Everybody else was in the other category."

To Popovich, the Spurs were dead on arrival because they lacked “belief” without Leonard, who is viewed as “questionable” in advance of Saturday’s Game 3. “I think we felt [Leonard’s absence] too much,” he said. “As a group, they just let themselves down. We didn’t come to play. We felt sorry for ourselves. We need to get slapped and come back and play Game 3 and see who we are.”

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Aldridge embodied that sense of emptiness. He didn’t score in the first half, instead peppering the rim with bricks from the left elbow and deferring too often to teammates that expected him to lead. He finished the night with a single offensive rebound and without any free throw attempts, evidence that the most overused criticism of his game—that he settles too often—was applicable on this night. The points from activity in the paint and from proactivity in isolation that were there in a strong Game 1 performance evaporated in Game 2. Golden State watched its lead balloon as Aldridge kept fading further away.

“I took the wrong approach,” Aldridge told reporters, acknowledging that he overreacted to the extra attention that Golden State threw at him. “I thought I would come out and try to move the ball, but I ended up taking myself out of rhythm and out of the flow of the game. I’ll be better. I took myself out of it, but it won’t happen again.”

This isn’t the time for regrets or leaving business unfinished, not when the 31-year-old Aldridge has spent his entire career building to this and not when his future is starting to look murkier. With each passing year, it gets more difficult to construct ideal lineups around a scoring-minded power forward who can’t shoot three-pointers and who would rather not play center on defense. Out of necessity, Popovich has done an excellent job of making traditional two-big lineups work this year and Aldridge has stepped up to play center in smaller lineups as needed. The Leonard/Aldridge pairing isn’t a perfect match, age-wise or skill-wise, but it has worked well enough that it need not be demolished this summer.

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However, Aldridge is not a Spurs lifer in the Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili mold—and he shouldn’t be regarded as indispensable. In the simplest terms, Aldridge still needs to earn his keep, he needs to hold up his end of their free-agency agreement. In exchange for receiving better coaching, more help, a lighter load and Duncan’s tutoring, Aldridge was expected to complement Leonard and shine when called upon. He was expected to be the type of inside/outside scoring threat that could force a postseason opponent to scramble and the type of experienced star that could help set the tone for an organization that is transitioning away from its aging legends.

Perhaps that’s why Popovich singled out Aldridge after the deflating Game 2 showing and called for more from him on Saturday.

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“LaMarcus has to score for us,” Popovich said, later adding that he didn’t want to “psychoanalyze” Aldridge. “Scoring has to come from some place. He’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it’s for himself or his teammates. He’s got to do it. No doubt about it.”

Make no mistake, this is Golden State’s series to lose. The Warriors’ Game 2 dominance, led again by Stephen Curry (29 points) and Kevin Durant (16 points), made sure of that. But for Aldridge this is less about finding a way to spring a miraculous upset and more about doing right by his coach, his teammates and himself.

Does Aldridge really want to remember his first conference finals trip as the time he was called “timid” by his coach? Does he really want to turn 32 this summer, with the sport downsizing and spreading out around him, wondering whether he will get a shot another shot at postseason redemption? Does he really want to get hit with the “talented, but unreliable” tag yet again without delivering a forceful counter? Does he really want to go down meekly in this series and stumble head first into an off–season filled with trade rumors?

According to Aldridge, the answer is no.

“A part of my game is to take tough shots and I make tough shots,” he told reporters, before veering into a discussion of identity and confidence. “I have to be myself more out there and let the chips fall where they fall.”

That’s the best way, other than Leonard’s full return to form, for the Spurs to recapture their missing belief.