Let me take you back to May of 2015. The San Antonio Spurs were coming off a disappointing first-round exit in the NBA Playoffs in a seven-game series with the Los Angeles Clippers and many “experts” around the league thought the Tim Duncan era was finally coming to an end in southwest Texas.
After defying Father Time for what seemed like an eternity, it looked as if the “old” Spurs were about to go through a massive overhaul. Face of the franchise Tim Duncan, and long-time guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili looked geriatric compared to the young, more athletic Clippers.
If it wasn’t for (at the time) rising star Kawhi Leonard, the series would have been over in five games but Leonard’s stellar play was able to extend the series another two games.
As San Antonio entered the 2015 offseason, they had some heavy decisions to make. The first decision was, do they begin the transition of a complete roster change and focus on the long-term future or do they and try and sign a big-name free agent and give it one more go with their current personnel.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the big prize on the free agent market that summer as nearly every NBA franchise who had the salary cap space was going after the 6-11 power forward. The Spurs thought they had a good chance to sign Aldridge away from Portland because the big man was from Texas, played his college ball at the University of Texas and he was clear about wanting to go and play for a championship contender.
Aldridge met with the Spurs twice. The meetings included head coach Gregg Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and even Duncan was there try and convince the native Texan to come back home and put on the silver and black.
The two other suitors that had Aldridge’s ear were the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers could offer the chance to live in L.A. and to be the face of the most storied franchise in the NBA and the Cavs offered the best player in the game in Lebron James as a teammate.
Aldridge decided it was time to leave Portland and head back to Texas and join the Spurs. The NBA world went crazy thinking the Spurs had all but locked up another NBA championship. The thought was there was no way any team in the league could match up with what San Antonio had in the paint with Aldridge, Duncan and the other surprise signing of power forward David West.
Aldridge’s contract was the maximum free agent deal at the time worth $84 million over four years. Another reason the NBA world was in such shock was because this was not the normal Spurs’ way.
San Antonio had built its Duncan-era dynasty around Duncan and drafting exceptionally well and signing free agents no one else wanted and turning them into good and even sometimes great players in the Spurs’ system.
However, people still felt like this team was going to be a tough one to beat in May and June. Aging stars Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were going to be rejuvenated, Leonard was going to continue to evolve into one of the game’s best players and role players like Danny Green and Patty Mills were going to have wide open shots from three-point range with all the attention Aldridge and Leonard were going to consume in the paint.
Once the season rolled around, the excitement level was off the charts for Spurs fans, as they couldn’t wait to see what their new star power forward was going to be able to do in this Spurs’ ball-movement offense.
However, it wasn’t the up-tempo, prestigious ball-movement system that the NBA had gotten used to seeing out of San Antonio in the previous four or five years. The Spurs had changed their entire offensive-philosophy and centered their offense around Aldridge and his one-on-one post game.
San Antonio was still winning a lot of games based off pure talent but they struggled against the better teams in the league. They finished the regular season with second-best record in the NBA behind Golden State and drew an easy first-round match up with the beat-up Memphis Grizzlies but they would face the young, super-talented Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
After dismantling the Thunder in the first game of the series, where Aldridge had a career playoff night, Oklahoma City turned the tables on the older, slower Spurs and took down San Antonio in six games.
After game one, Aldridge struggled to find open shots against the younger and more athletic Thunder players. It was another disappointing postseason for the Spurs fans, as they had grown accustomed to watching their team win NBA titles.
Duncan decided to retire the following summer and it was time for San Antonio to go and find Aldridge some help down low going into the 2016-2017 season. The Spurs signed long-time nemesis Pao Gasol and again people around the NBA were excited about what San Antonio might look like in the coming year.
However, with Golden State pulling a fast one and stealing Kevin Durant away from Oklahoma City in the offseason, no one gave the Spurs a chance against the Warriors in a seven-game series, even with Leonard becoming a top-five player in the league.
San Antonio would again finish the regular season with the league’s second-best record behind Golden State but no one expected them to make it out of the West with the Warriors looking almost unbeatable toward the end of the regular season.
The Spurs got by the Grizzlies again in the first round but Aldridge struggled with the physicality of the Memphis big men and San Antonio had to rely on the heroics of Kawhi Leonard to carry them into the second-round.
It was there they met with fellow Texas foe, Houston. The Rockets were an offensive explosion waiting to happen but the Spurs were able to fend off the Rockets attack in six games, as Aldridge and Gasol proved to be too much in Game 6 on the road, even with no Leonard for San Antonio, who was out battling an ankle-injury.
Going into the Western Conference Finals this year, the Spurs were given a zero percent chance at pulling off the upset over the Warriors but in Game 1, San Antonio had the world shocked and was leading by 23 points when Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia stuck his foot under Leonard’s foot on a long-range jumper. Leonard would sprain his left-ankle and be forced to leave the game and here came the Warriors.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Spurs trailed the Warriors 3-0 in the series and it looks like San Antonio will go down in four games barring a miracle on Monday night.
Much of the blame across the NBA is being put on Aldridge and his inability to get the job done in Leonard’s absence.
While Aldridge deserves some of the blame and should be held accountable for his poor play against Golden State, the Spurs organization deserves the majority of the blame.
When they signed Aldridge, the talk was how well their new prize big man was going to fit in their system. With the way the Spurs were moving the ball and the way they got up and down the floor, Aldridge would have numerous wide-open shots from all over the court.
Instead, Popovich went back to the early 2000s when Duncan was a young man and in his prime and decided to try and make Aldridge a new version of what he had with Duncan.
If San Antonio had done their homework and studied the way Aldridge played in Portland, they would understand that Duncan’s style of play in the early 2000s is entirely different from what Aldridge can give you every game.
Aldridge isn’t the all-around player Duncan was. He’s never been a great defender, never been a great rebounder and has never been a great one-on-one post-up player on the low black. Aldridge is at his best in the Spurs system when they go to the pick-and-pop offense but when they throw the rock to him in the low post, he struggles in a big way.
He’s simply too slow and doesn’t have the necessary shooting touch around the basket it takes to be great in the paint.
His overall numbers are around the same as they were in Portland but if the Spurs would go back to their ball-movement system, Aldridge could take off for San Antonio.
So, while Aldridge definitely deserves some of the blame for the Spurs collapse in the WCF, the blame for Aldridge’s demise goes squarely on the shoulders of Popovich and the Spurs organization.
Aldridge came to the Spurs to win a championship because they had the system in place to do it. Instead, they went against the Spurs’ way and it has them on the brink of not just elimination but annihilation.