In this six-degrees-of-Golden-State world in which every other team is now forced to operate, there is immense pressure to bridge the competitive gap that exists between the league’s new champions and the rest of the pack.
Yet that space is smaller for the San Antonio Spurs than any other squad, with just a six-win difference in their latest regular seasons (67 to 61) and the reality that the Spurs put a scare into the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury changed it all. Now with the Thursday draft approaching, and with free agency coming fast on July 1, the Spurs are faced with all sorts of uncertainty that could lead to them surging ahead or falling behind.
The first front and center issue to be resolved? LaMarcus Aldridge.
According to a person with knowledge of the Spurs forward’s situation, it’s the 31-year-old’s unhappiness in San Antonio that is the driving force behind the Spurs’ trade talks on Thursday. The five-time All-Star, according to the person, is hopeful that San Antonio can find a better fit for his talents.
The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.
The Spurs are known to be talking to several teams about the possibility of trading Aldridge, with their hope of landing a high first-round pick in the Thursday draft. ESPN first reported the Spurs' trade talks relating to Aldridge, who has one more guaranteed season on his contract worth $21.4 million and a player option for the 2018-19 season worth $22.3 million.
When Aldridge signed in San Antonio two summers ago, he had to be sold on the idea that his skills were a good fit for the Spurs’ system. He came close to signing with the Phoenix Suns, having seen their young core and been drawn to the idea that he would be a featured part of their offense.
According to a person with knowledge of the Suns’ situation, it appears unlikely that Aldridge is Phoenix-bound anytime soon. While the Suns have the No. 4 pick and could likely put a package together to appease the Spurs, the person said there was “nothing there.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
But the Spurs’ way is different, with coach Gregg Popovich less inclined to feature individual talents and Leonard’s emergence these past two seasons ensuring that he’s their epicenter. The track record is impeccable, of course, what with the Spurs having won five championships since 1999.
But this last postseason was the latest downward turn between Aldridge and the Spurs, as the Leonard injury in Game 1 opened the kind of door that, conceivably, he had been wishing was there all along. Except for one thing: Not only had he been he battling knee tendinitis in the weeks leading up to that point, but the Spurs were facing a Warriors defense that wasn’t about to let Aldridge get loose like he did for all those years in Portland. What's more, the Spurs were already without point guard Tony Parker after he tore a tendon in his left quadriceps in the second round against the Houston Rockets.
With the Warriors' Draymond Green leading the way, they double-teamed Aldridge. They swiped his way every time he touched the ball. Aldridge quickly became the goat of that series, with Popovich saying of Aldridge after the Warriors’ 136-100 win in Game 2 in which he had just eight points and four rebounds, “He can't be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can't do it. You've got to score. Scoring has to come from someplace. I think he's got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done. Whether it's for himself or teammates. They come after him, to find somebody, turn it over, take good shots. He's got to do it. No doubt about it.”
It didn’t get much better from there, with Aldridge shooting just 38.4% in those three games without Leonard against the Warriors (15 of 39) while averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds. And now, with the Spurs already trying to free up salary cap space for the forthcoming pursuits of free agents like the Clippers’ Chris Paul this summer, Aldridge’s situation is simmering because it all left a bad taste in his mouth.
But as the Spurs try upgrade their roster and keep coming at the Warriors, this much is clear: Aldridge finds himself in a frustrating place.