The San An­to­nio way

Michael Lee writes a win­ning tra­di­tion and Gregg Popovich were enough to lure LaMar­cus Aldridge to the Spurs.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - MICHAEL LEE michael.lee@wash­post.com

If there ever was a hint that Gregg Popovich was go­ing to re­main a pres­ence on the San An­to­nio Spurs’ bench af­ter Tim Dun­can’s im­pec­ca­ble ca­reer reaches its ex­pi­ra­tion date, it ar­rived Satur­day when LaMar­cus Aldridge— the best free agent avail­able on the open mar­ket— de­cided he will spend the next four years of his ca­reer in his na­tive Texas.

Popovich stated be­fore last sea­son that his run­ning joke about leav­ing with the great­est player in fran­chise history was prob­a­bly go­ing to end up be­ing a hi­lar­i­ous quip as op­posed to the ac­tual truth. Win­ning a fifth NBA cham­pi­onship was in­cred­i­bly in­tox­i­cat­ing, and the prom­ise of Kawhi Leonard was al­lur­ing enough for Popovich to com­mit to a five-year ex­ten­sion last sum­mer. Then came this past week, when Aldridge and Leonard com­mit­ted to longterm deals in San An­to­nio, un­der the as­sump­tion that the NBA’s most re­spected and suc­cess­ful ac­tive coach wasn’t go­ing any­where any­time soon.

The Spurs haven’t of­ten been in po­si­tion to re­cruit mar­quee free agents and haven’t had to work hard to at­tract high-priced tal­ent to come to San An­to­nio since Jason Kidd in 2003. Kidd wound up snub­bing the Spurs to re­main in New Jersey, but the win­ning cul­ture Popovich has con­tin­ued to es­tab­lish in the sub­se­quent 12 years— which have in­cluded three ti­tles— was enough to con­vince Aldridge to turn his back on Port­land and the ex­tra year and $28 mil­lion the Trail Blaz­ers were able to of­fer. Aldridge’s four-year deal with San An­to­nio is worth $80 mil­lion. He can’t sign it un­til Thurs­day, when teams and play­ers can be­gin to an­nounce and reach of­fi­cial agree­ments.

Phoenix, Hous­ton, Toronto, Mi­ami and the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers made their pitches— Aldridge de­cided to scratch a meet­ing with New York— for the 30-year-old, four-time all-star who had grown frus­trated by the lack of wins and at­ten­tion he re­ceived in nine sea­sons with the Trail Blaz­ers. Aldridge now joins an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has­wonat least 60 per­cent of its games since Dun­can ar­rived through the luck of lottery balls in 1997.

Al­ways evolv­ing, the Spurs have been able to re­main rel­e­vant even as the ad­van­tages they once held have be­come mim­icked and, even­tu­ally, the league-wide norm. But what other teams have not been able to du­pli­cate— and why they ei­ther fall in and out of con­tention or stay at the bot­tom — is the pres­ence of Dun­can, Popovich and Gen­eral Man­ager R.C. Bu­ford.

In their latest it­er­a­tion, the Spurs have swapped their trade­mark depth to land fran­chise-cal­iber tal­ent. Los­ing Ti­ago Split­ter in a salary dump­ing trade to At­lanta and Marco Bellineli to Sacra­mento was a work­able trade-off for win­ning free agency. Leonard waited a year to get his max­i­mum ex­ten­sion, risk­ing in­jury in the process, so that the Spurs would have the salary cap room needed to en­gage in the Aldridge chase. That move, which re­quired Popovich’s per­sua­sive tongue, con­tin­ues an en­vi­ron­ment of sac­ri­fic­ing for the sake of suc­cess that ex­tends back to David Robin­son.

Robin­son was league MVP two years be­fore the Spurs got Dun­can and let the new­comer shine with­out com­plaint. Dun­can kept the tra­di­tion go­ing as Manu Gi­no­bili and Tony Parker took their turns as pri­mary scor­ing op­tions. And now the fu­ture has been squarely placed in the hands of 2014 Fi­nals MVP Leonard and Aldridge, with Dun­can re­turn­ing for at least one more year to show the­way— and pos­si­bly grab another ring or two.

But with Aldridge com­ing, Dun­can ap­par­ently will­make the big­gest con­ces­sion of his Hall of Fame ca­reer— yes, even big­ger than the mil­lions he has for­feited in the past decade tomake the team bet­ter— and play cen­ter so that the team’s new­star can play his pre­ferred po­si­tion of power for­ward (that is, un­less Popovich can some­how scratch out “C” and have two “PFs” on his pregame line­ups).

In re­turn, Aldridge will have to ad­just to a de­fen­sive sys­tem that will re­quire him to step out of what once made him com­fort­able and an of­fense that is much dif­fer­ent from the iso­la­tion-heavy schemes with which he has grown ac­cus­tomed. But Popovich has the de­mand­ing, get-over your­self in­flu­ence that has made the Spurs an en­vied fran­chise that Aldridge chose to marry. Aldridge long ad­mired and idol­ized Dun­can and can now call him a team­mate.

A seven-game first-round loss in the im­mensely un­fair Western Con­fer­ence forced the Spurs to take a dif­fer­ent, bolder ap­proach to ex­tend Dun­can’s ca­reer. All five teams from the South­west Di­vi­sion reached the play­offs last sea­son and con­tinue to im­prove. An­thony Davis, whom many ex­pect soon to be the best player in the NBA, com­mit­ted to New Or­leans through 2021. Dal­las stole DeAn­dre Jor­dan from the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers and Wes­ley Mat thews from Port­land. Mem­phis added ath­letic big­man Bran­dan Wright and is ex­pected to re­tain first­team all-NBA cen­ter Marc Ga­sol. And con­fer­ence fi­nal­ist Hous­ton brought back Pa­trick Bev­erly and Corey Brewer at rea­son­able con­tracts.

The Spurs couldn’t stay the course if they wanted to keep win­ning in an ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive con­fer­ence. Aldridge’s ar­rival makes the Spurs the early cham­pi­onship fa­vorites, strength­en­ing the foun­da­tion and Popovich’s in­cen­tive to keep go­ing, even af­ter Dun­can makes his likely quiet farewell. Then again, Dun­can might out­last them all.

STEVE DYKES/GETTY IM­AGES

LaMar­cus Aldridge, the free agent mar­ket’s top prize, and San An­to­nio have reached a four-year deal.

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