SAN ANTONIO — Until a few days ago it was widely assumed the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty had reached its end after five championships in 16 years. The Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were wearing out.
And there was not enough room under the salary cap to bring in a new superstar.
But somehow the Spurs’ obscure but ingenious general manager, R.C. Buford, found a way to acquire the most dominating power forward in the NBA, LaMarcus Aldridge, formerly of Portland.
Buford widened the cap space by trading center Tiago Splitter and his two-year, $17 million contract to Atlanta. This was nothing more than a salary dump. Splitter is a strong defender who will help the Hawks, but he averages about a third as many points and half as many rebounds as Aldridge.
Because he’s quiet and he shunned the spotlight on a moderately successful team in the dark Pacific Northwest, Aldridge is underrated.
Blake Griffin and Kevin Love are more publicized, but compare these stats for the 2014-15 season: Aldridge 23.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, Griffin, 21.9 and 7.6, Love 16.4 and 9.7. The much admired Zach Randolph of Memphis was 16.1 and 10.5.
Aldridge is 6-11 but with exceptionally long arms, giving him the reach of a true 7-footer. Analytics show him as the fourth-best post-up player in the league.
With Duncan, also 6-11, the Spurs have a Twin Towers alignment more threatening than any the sport has seen. Aldridge can join Duncan in the low post but has the range (35% on 3’s) to play outside. According to The Washington Post, Aldridge shot 46.2 percent from the perimeter, while the players he defended shot 45.1 percent.
With small forward Kawhi Leonard, whose 16.5-point average led them in scoring, the Spurs now are utterly impossible to defend by any Western Conference team. Their frontcourt will win all matchups small or big.
The Aldridge addition means Duncan shifts to center, which will be easier for him at age 39. No more trying to keep up with fast young forwards such as the Clippers’ Griffin, who ran the Spurs out of the postseason in the first round.
Aldridge could have gotten a 5-year contract with Portland, LA, New York or another city. But Buford limited him to four years ($80 million total) and showed why the dynasty endures. No max salaries to players in their twilight.
Aldridge is coming off his best season, at 29. Like Duncan he’s so sturdily built, at 240 pounds, and has such a complete skill set that he projects to be effective at 32 and 33.
The Spurs are able to persuade veteran stars, such as Duncan and Aldridge, to play for less than market value in a city with low cost of living, no state income tax and the world’s best basketball coach, Gregg Popovich. Yes, they have to accept a dull night life – as Charles Barkley is happy to publicize – but maybe that’s conductive to titles.
In Aldridge’s case, there’s also sentimentality for his home state. He was born in Dallas. In announcing his decision to hook up with the Spurs, he tweeted: “I’m happy to say I’m going home to Texas and will be a Spur! I’m excited to join the team and be close to my family and friends.”
The Blazers were not good sports in losing Aldridge. They fired assistant coach Kim Hughes a few days after he told an Indiana television station, WTHI, that Aldridge would not be returning, that “we’re going to go young.” His comments contradicted general manager Neil Olshey, who was hoping to sell a few season tickets before word got out that Aldridge was heading out.
Though he said nothing publicly, Aldridge was disappointed that Olshey did not do more to promote him while he was in Portland. Point guard Damian Lillard was anointed leader of that team. Aldridge was said to be miffed when Lillard was given a 5-year contract worth $129 million, compared to the $110 million he was offered.
But the truth is that Aldridge does little to promote his brand. He rarely grants interviews – again, much like the taciturn Duncan. That’s not a problem here, in an easygoing city (much like Portland) that makes few demands of players on its only big-time sports team.
Without the Spurs, San Antonio as a sports town would rate behind Waco and Lubbock. You can be sure the Spurs and their coach and players will never be taken for granted.
In the Alamo city Aldridge can claim his first ring and be a marquee star, without the media responsibilities that usually accompany such a designation. He can be as bland as Duncan usually is, and no one, not even local sports reporters, will complain.
In Portland he was faulted for not being more assertive with his game. But his unselfish playing style is prototype Spurs. Last season Aldridge averaged 37.6 passes per game, a higher figure than achieved by all but four Spurs: Parker, Duncan, Boris Diaw and Danny Green.
Popovich wants the ball passed from point to each perfectly spaced point, until someone has an open shot. Players must sacrifice their glory for the success of the team. Pop doesn’t want a show, he wants a win.
Leonard, the small-forward who was NBA Defensive Player of the Year after being Finals MVP the year before, is signed for five more seasons, at $90 million. Parker is also back and will continue to be a fine field general at 33, if he can avoid the Achilles and hamstring issues that dogged him throughout the spring.
After securing Duncan, sharp-shooter Green and Aldridge (and keeping the clutch benchman Diaw), the Spurs did not have enough cap space for their promising backup center, Australian Aron Baynes, who committed to Detroit.
But when Ginobili heard of the Aldridge acquisition he tweeted from Argentina that he would play another season. He can pass and shoot as long as his 37-year-old legs allow him to stand.
Then, as a surprising finishing touch, Buford lured 6-9, 250-pound forward David West to a veteran-minimum salary of $1.5 million — $11 million less than he could have made by staying with the Indiana Pacers. West is all in for his first ring, and he comes off a solid season averaging 11.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 28.7 minutes.
Irascible as he can be with media, Popovich communicates constantly with the players. He even works out with them. Years ago he had to “sell” them on the viability of his system which eschews isolation plays and extensive dribbling.
He no longer has to persuade anybody. The championship trophies speak for themselves. And there could be another one next season.