LOS ANGELES — The renaissance in LaMarcus’ Aldridge’s game this season — back to an All-Star level — began last summer when he said something to Gregg Popovich nobody else ever had.
“When he said ‘I want to be traded,’” Popovich said when asked what started the conversations about how to better use Aldridge. “It’s as simple as that. I said, ‘Whoa. Nobody has said that to me before. It’s been 20 or whatever years and nobody had said that to me.
“(Aldridge said) ‘I’m not enjoying this, I’m not confident, I’m not sure you want me here. I want to be traded.’”
Aldridge had previously called it a “come to Jesus” meeting between the two. Leaving was Aldridge’s answer to his frustration with how he was used in a Kawhi Leonard-centric offense. Aldridge’s shot attempts dropped to the lowest level since his rookie season, and with that his points per game declined along with his efficiency. Aldridge was still good, but he was not being put in positions where he was comfortable, spots where he could thrive, and he wanted out.
That was not going to happen.
“I was very candid with him. I told him, ‘you get me a talent like Kevin Durant and I’ll drive you to the airport. I’ll pack your bags, I’ll drive you there, I’ll get you on the plane and I’ll get you seated,’” Popovich said with a smile. “And he laughed at that.
“But short of that, I’m your best buddy, because you’re here for another year and you’re not going nowhere. Because we’re not going to get, for you, talent-wise what we would want. So let’s figure this thing out.”
Dinners and meeting ensued, where Popovich and Aldridge talked hoops and life (as one does with Pop, it’s never just about basketball). Through it all, Popovich said he came to a realization.
“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.
It’s worked. Aldridge is averaging 22.6 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, and has a PER of 24.4 that would be a career high. He’s going to be an All-Star (not a starter, based on the fan vote where he is 10th among Western Conference frontcourt players, but no way the coaches leave him off the team). He very well could be an All-NBA player again at the end of the season.
It all came about because Popovich, to use a favorite phrase of his, is “over himself.” He just got out of the way and let a great player play.
“I decided not to play Mr. Coach with him and try to be the smartest man in the room,” Popovich said. “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.
“Obviously we’ve figured it out because we’ve extended him and he’s staying and all that sort of things.”