Even accounting for all the talent they were missing — Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green, Rudy Gay — the San Antonio Spurs laid a nationally televised egg on Thursday, losing by a dozen points to a Los Angeles Lakers club that’s needed a three-game winning streak to get clear of the Western Conference basement. Despite what head coach Gregg Popovich lambasted as a “pathetic performance,” though, San Antonio still wakes up Friday third in the West at 28-15, just 2 1/2 games behind the second-place Houston Rockets. They’ve kept pace, even with MVP candidate Leonard limited by injury to just eight games, thanks in large part to LaMarcus Aldridge.
The veteran big man stumbled at times as a lower-tier option in a rough second season in Texas, which sputtered to its conclusion in a quiet sweep during which Popovich plainly called Aldridge out for looking timid in the face of the Golden State Warriors’ defense. Aldridge has looked reborn this year, though, operating as the Spurs’ offensive focal point in Leonard’s absence.
We’ve known for months that the extra spring in Aldridge’s step, the one that’s returned him to being a deserving All-Star candidate, stemmed from a come-to-Jesus offseason chat with Popovich in which he and Aldridge hashed things out over lunch. What we didn’t know, however, was just how far apart player and coach were … until Popovich laid it bare in a chat with reporters on Thursday.
When did things start to turn around for Aldridge’s tenure in San Antonio? When he said, “I want to be traded,” according to Pop. From Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News:
“He said, ‘I want to be traded,'” Popovich said. “And I said, ‘Whoa, nobody has ever said that to me before.’ He said, ‘I’m not enjoying this. I’m not confident. I’m not sure you want me here. I want to be traded.'”
The demand led to some frank but fruitful conversations between the two that laid the foundation for the fine season Aldridge is enjoying.
“I was very candid with him,” Popovich said. “I told him I would be happy to trade him. You get me a talent like Kevin Durant and I will drive you to the airport. I will pack your bags and I will drive you there,’ and he laughed. And I said, ‘Short of that I am your best buddy, and you are here for another year and you ain’t going nowhere because for you talent-wise, we are not going to get what we want, so let’s figure this thing out. And we did.”
“As discussions went on, it became apparent to me it was me,” Popovich said of what was holding Aldridge back. “He’s played in the league nine years, I’m not going to turn him into some other player. I could do some things defensively or rebounding-wise, but on offense I was going to move him everywhere. I was going to make him Jack Sikma off the post, get him on the elbows and he was going to pull it through, and that was just silly on my part.”
This season Aldridge has moved back closer to the basket — 41 percent of his shots this season come off post ups (according to Synergy Sports). He’s spotting up less, and with that he is shooting fewer long-two jumpers that were just not efficient. He’s still setting picks and popping out for some threes, but these are cleaner looks and he is shooting 34.4 percent from deep. Aldridge is getting the rock in his spots.
As a result, Aldridge leads San Antonio in points and rebounds per game. He’s got a higher usage rate (the share of his team’s possessions that he ends by taking a shot, drawing a foul or committing a turnover) than he has since he left Portland, and ranks seventh in the NBA in frontcourt touches per game. He’s been making the most of them, posting the second-highest True Shooting percentage and free-throw rates of his career en route to his most efficient per-possession scoring in 12 seasons. When Aldridge is on the court, the Spurs score at the rate of a top-10 offense. When he sits, they score like the league-worst Sacramento Kings.
“I decided not to play Mr. Coach with him and try to be the smartest man in the room,” Popovich said, according to Helin. “That helped him out — he was already a good player, he didn’t need me to be there. I coach him at the defensive end. At the offensive end, he’s better off without listening to me, and that’s been proven the entire year. Because in the past when he played, I just confused him and tried to make him something he wasn’t. I was going to teach him all these things, and that didn’t work out real well.”
That’s not necessarily an easy thing to admit. A lot of coaches probably wouldn’t. Granted, a lot of coaches probably couldn’t — the unmatched bulletproof job security that comes with five NBA championships and a .682 regular- and postseason winning percentage gives Pop a freedom to acknowledge when he’s screwed up that most bench bosses, forever looking over their shoulders for that impending pink slip, just don’t have. Still, this is a refreshing display of perspective and self-awareness, and one that underscores how the Spurs’ overall approach to workplace management can help keep small problems from going catastrophic.
Coaching seems sort of like an iceberg. The part of the job that we can actually see pales in comparison to the amount of stuff that almost never comes into full view. Sharp-eyed observers can tell when a coach is actively changing things up by doing stuff like designing different sets, juggling lineup combinations, or altering the rotation by sending a starter to the bench a little earlier. But the rest of it — the relationship management, knowing how to maximize a player’s effort and commitment as well as his talents — is arguably more important, and much more difficult to discern. Sometimes, the best and most important thing a coach (and, frankly, the rest of us) can do is listen, consider, and take a step back.
There was a reason the Spurs made a full-court free-agent press to import Aldridge in the summer of 2015, but in the heat of trying to compete for a championship against one of the greatest teams in NBA history, Popovich started to miss the forest for the Sikma-shaped trees. But by virtue of his years of work in creating an organizational environment in which players feel empowered to voice their concerns without fear of retribution, and through his willingness to consider the situation from his player’s perspective rather than simply insisting that his way was the right way, Popovich was able to rehabilitate a relationship with a disgruntled star rather than find himself forced to ship one out for pennies on the dollar.
The result? Aldridge wound up electing to re-up for three more years, he’s playing his best ball in silver-and-black, and the Spurs remain on track for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs even though they’ve been missing their best player for more than 80 percent of the season. Y’know, there might just be something to starting from a position of treating employees like professionals, actually listening to what they have to say, and responding accordingly. Who’d have thunk, right?
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