LaMarcus Aldridge Finally Opens Up
In the middle of what might be the most impressive season of his career, the infamously reserved San Antonio Spurs forward gets real about Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and, most importantly, himself.
Illustration by Adam Villacin
It’s All-Star Weekend, and San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge is shepherding giddy children who barely clear his kneecaps through layup lines at a Jr. NBA event in Downtown Los Angeles. He bends his 6’11” frame at a 45-degree angle and is instantly mobbed by dozens of tiny hands that leap for a high five.
We’re in a massive room that fits more than a dozen large basketball courts, each separated by aluminum bleachers. For some reason, an Ed Sheeran song bounces off the walls at an unreasonably high volume.
Aldridge wades through it all at his own pace. He smiles, claps his hands, mimes quick dribbling tutorials for the little ones who don’t know the thing they hold was made to bounce, then whispers words of encouragement as they uncoil their tiny bodies trying to heave a regulation-sized basketball 11 feet in the air. Mascots from the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Clippers randomly slalom on and off the court while Aldridge poses as a very chill traffic cop, directing the kids through various activities as they skip from baseline to baseline.
It’s chaos, but Aldridge is at ease. Wearing a navy blue Jr. NBA t-shirt that's long enough to someday be recycled as a shower curtain, gym shorts, and black and white Jordan XII's, he also looks relieved.
Coming into the season five months ago, Aldridge faced the lowest expectations of his career. Last year his role on the Spurs was volatile, and by its end his clunky output resembled a bug-infested iOS update. He drifted in big spots and struggled to assert himself inside the very same ecosystem that successfully demanded sacrifice from some of the greatest players who ever lived. San Antonio was a better team when Aldridge sat, and his usage percentage dipped to its lowest point since 2010.
But instead of sagging into irreversible decline, the 32-year-old might now be having his best season, taking up the mantle for a team overburdened with injuries to key players. Heading into the break, his 1,209 total points more than doubled the combined output from San Antonio’s second- and third-leading scorers. (The only other player in the league who can make a similar claim is LeBron James.)
When we talk, most of Aldridge’s answers are rambling odysseys through a landscape of ideas and issues he has entertained over weeks, months, and, in some instances, years. He’s thoughtful and exhaustive, but not premeditated. He tries out a phrase, then refines it as if tacking a ship to something slightly closer to his truth.
The very first question I ask doesn’t catch him off guard: Are you surprised to be here?
“I wouldn’t say I had doubt,” Aldridge begins. “I knew I’d have to have some things fall into place and I’d have to refine myself and kind of work with [Gregg Popovich] and the organization on how I could be the player I was in this system.
“I knew some work had to be done. I wouldn’t say I doubted it, but I knew a lot of things had to be worked on and I took my responsibility and I went home and got healthy and worked hard and made sure I came back with the right mentality. Pop and the organization then did their thing to try and let me be myself. So I wouldn’t say I doubted it, but I knew a lot of things had to be done. I knew it was going to be tough.”
In his 12th season, Aldridge’s renaissance has been muffled by several factors, from his unfair standing as an increasingly useless and persistently boring mid-range craftsman to the simple fact that over the past dozen years he hasn’t showed any explicit desire to reveal himself the way most famous people do.
Today, Aldridge deserves to be celebrated for more than his routine 25-point performances or the unprecedented act of bending San Antonio to his will without alienating any of his teammates or coaches. A self-described introvert (a label those who know him well don't argue with), Aldridge had to step outside his comfort zone in some very relatable and difficult ways to get where he’s at. In doing so, he displayed how vulnerable he is.
The capacity to craft one’s own narrative has become an obligatory skill either possessed or learned by almost every relevant star in the NBA. From Steph Curry’s on-brand waltz through a Brita commercial to Kyrie Irving embracing his inner conspiracy theorist, the NBA’s very best know how to distinguish themselves off the court even more so than on. Aldridge—who’s somehow as puzzling as he is grounded as he is brilliant at basketball—doesn’t have/want that power.
“I feel like everything with me gets blown out of proportion,” he says. “I think it’s because I’m so quiet about things that people just run with anything they hear.”
Aldridge has never worried about injecting himself into a grandiose marketing campaign, or projecting a façade that elevates a perception that’s probably more dispassionate than anything else. The result? He gets called sensitive, jealous, and insecure. He’s accused of skirting leadership duties and distancing himself from teammates.
“I’m probably one of the most misunderstood people in the league.”
Not all of these descriptions are false, but rumors cause reputations to fester in the absence of information. Aldridge has long been a blank canvas, susceptible to speculation about how he really feels on any given topic by fans, reporters, or just anyone loosely connected to the NBA. That reserved persona, combined with a game that’s the antithesis of glamour, have clouded a remarkably consistent career.
“I don’t want this to come off like I’m whining, but if someone else had done the things that I’ve done, it would be talked about more,” Aldridge says. “But since it’s me, and I don’t do a lot of media—I’m not out there on red carpets and things like that—it kind of gets overlooked a little bit.”
Even with the antiquated embrace of a shot profile that’s more VCR than DVR, Aldridge has been selected to four All-NBA teams. (He joins LeBron, Chris Paul, and Curry as the only four players who made an All-NBA team in every season from 2014 to 2016.)
“He doesn’t get the attention that maybe a Blake Griffin gets, or some of the more dynamic players throughout the league,” says Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, who coached Aldridge earlier in his career. “I mean, he doesn’t get the attention that DeAndre Jordan gets, and no disrespect to DeAndre Jordan but LaMarcus is phenomenal in every aspect of the game...I think throughout the league he’s grossly overlooked. Even now. Even at this moment. I don’t think that people really appreciate when you’re able to perform at that level, that often, year after year after year after year.”
Aldridge grew up in Dallas, Texas where he was a McDonald’s High-School All-American who battled Chris Bosh as a teenager. He was skinny and 6’7” when he first enrolled at Seagoville High School. Three years later he was nearly seven feet tall, with physical advantages that allowed him to control the paint, and enough skill to step out and unleash a potent jumper that started on his right and aberrantly followed through across his body (a form that was nicknamed the “Seagoville Shot” in college).
“He was our hardest worker,” Seagoville High School basketball head coach Charles Brooks, who was the team’s JV coach when Aldridge was there, says. “We talk about drills, we talk about running, we talk about doing a lot of things that kids don’t like doing that lead up to playing in the game, LaMarcus was at the forefront. He never was in the middle of the pack or in the back in our drills. He always was at the front.”
During his final season, Seagoville traveled to an out-of-state tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. Brooks remembers one night, as all the players and coaches were milling around in front of their downtown hotel, a car full of kids drove by. The window rolled down and they all shouted “We love you LaMarcus Aldridge!” at him and the team. Not even 18 years old, Aldridge was already getting recognized over 1,000 miles away from his hometown. He was in the spotlight.
Aldridge spent two seasons at the University of Texas before the Chicago Bulls selected him second overall in the 2006 NBA Draft. That same day, he and a 2007 second-round pick were shipped to Portland for Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa. (Thomas had outplayed Aldridge in that year’s NCAA Tournament, leading LSU to a 10-point win over Texas, as Aldridge missed 12 shots and only scored four points.)
That same night, the Blazers also traded for Brandon Roy, who was the sixth overall pick. He and Aldridge instantly became pillars at ground zero for an organization that desperately wanted to distance itself from the Jail Blazers era.
“I was really impressed with how hard [Aldridge] worked when he worked out for us,” says Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, who spent nearly six seasons with Aldridge as Portland’s head coach. “I recall LaMarcus, after an hour and a half, two-hour workout, he stayed and shot afterwards. Most guys, that was unusual for us...Most guys are icing and they’re getting out of the gym. He stayed.”
The very next year, Portland won the lottery and selected Greg Oden, a stroke of luck that, in the eyes of many, virtually guaranteed deep playoff runs and possible championship contention for the next decade. Instead, an immediate avalanche of injuries to their prized center forced Aldridge down to the block, where he tirelessly worked after every practice with former Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams—who currently serves in San Antonio as Vice President of Basketball Operations.
“We felt like he could be a Rasheed Wallace type of guy. So after a season of playing [in the post] he really got in the weight room and got stronger and worked on his game down there,” McMillan says. “And that helped him. It’s where he’s still dominating. Down on that left block.” (Aldridge’s 1,907 two-point baskets scored from 2013 to 2015 led the league over that span—LeBron ranked third with 90 fewer makes in over 400 more minutes.)
In an alternate universe, Aldridge spends his prime thriving in a slightly reduced role on a Blazers dynasty flanked by two fellow perennial All-NBA talents. But in this one, a degenerative knee condition forced Roy to retire in 2011, while multiple microfracture surgeries limited Oden to 82 total games in a Blazers uniform. It’s one of the more paralyzing What If’s in recent NBA history. Under McMillan, Portland never made it out of the first round.
“If I’m still there and those guys are still healthy, with Brandon, LaMarcus, and Greg Oden,” McMillan muses, “If we don’t have a title by now, it would be…” his voice trails off. “Injuries to Brandon and Greg almost crippled that organization.” The Blazers moved on from McMillan during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which doubled as Aldridge’s All-Star debut.
A year later, with Aldridge as their lone tentpole, Portland hired Terry Stotts as head coach and drafted Damian Lillard with the sixth pick. They were rebuilding on the fly.
As the Jr. NBA session winds down, I hop up off the bleachers juggling my notebook and a large iced coffee, then walk over to a partitioned area in the back of the room. To my right are roughly 10,000 Jr. NBA t-shirts neatly stacked on top of a long fold out table. Straight ahead and to my left are a dozen more empty tables. I walk over to the corner and pull out two chairs.
As a Spurs employee bends over to ask if I want to do the interview in a quieter space, Aldridge enters with a pair of cell phones cradled in his left hand. He lays both upside down on the white tablecloth and cracks a joke about a promotional video he shot earlier in the morning with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish.
I place my recorder down beside the phones and realize that despite all the research done for this story—articles read, interviews studied, videos watched—there isn't nearly enough available information, relative to every other player at or near his stature, to capture who the man sitting next to me really is.
I don’t know if he’ll be candid with my questions or even if his voice will be loud enough to get picked up over the unrestrained speaker system. I’m neurotic and nudge my recorder a few inches closer, but his slight Texas drawl is more than lively enough to carry us through a conversation that provides real insight into how he feels and thinks about a variety of topics, especially himself.
“[I’m] very, very, very closed off at first,” Aldridge says. “But then as you get to know me and I trust you—because trust isn’t given, it’s earned—as you earn my trust you’ll see I’m a very caring, selfless, overly giving guy. At first I probably come off as cold and uninterested or whatever, but that’s just because I don’t trust easy. But then once you earn my trust I’m a very loyal person. Once I’m on your side, I’m on your side.”
With a new coach and franchise point guard, the Blazers rebounded faster than anyone could have expected. Lillard was an instant spark who won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team as a sophomore, which doubled as the first season Portland advanced out of the first round since 2000.
Aldridge was still their best player—and made more baskets than anyone else in the league during the 2014-15 season—but bad luck and unfortunate timing once again kept the Blazers from reaching their full potential. It was a promising situation, but at that stage of Aldridge’s life, with free agency on the horizon, it ultimately wasn’t one worth fighting for.
I recently sat down with Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez, who was Aldridge’s teammate for a couple years in Portland, to chat about their brief time together. The Blazers won 105 regular-season games with those two as a frontcourt tandem, but injuries derailed the franchise’s high aspirations. I ask Lopez about that particular what if. Could the Blazers have won a championship in 2015?
“Without question,” Lopez says. “Without question. We were really clicking that year.”
The Blazers were 41-19 when Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles at the tail end of a five-game winning streak. They had just traded for Arron Afflalo. Aldridge would go on to finish the season averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds per game, playing through a thumb injury that would later require surgery.
Reminiscing at his locker, Lopez stares at a nearby TV and is still. “[Matthews’ injury] was rough,” he says. “It was an excellent season up to that point. Even afterwards it was still a great season, but I thought that squad was something special.”
As special as they were, the Blazers still had to reckon with Aldridge’s contract, and how trying it could be to deal with a franchise player who rarely vocalized exactly how he felt about every other issue. Team employees in Portland were forced to read his facial expressions or react off how he responded to something else. It was a guessing game.
“I’m not Nostradamus by any stretch of the imagination, and nobody else that I know is,” Vanterpool says. “Nostradamus has been wrong a bunch of times, so you can imagine how wrong we could be if we think ‘OK this is how he feels, this is what he’s thinking about,’ and it could be completely wrong.” (Vanterpool spent the surrounding 25 minutes of our interview gushing about how awesome Aldridge was to coach; they still text each other from time to time.)
After the 2014-15 season ended with a first-round exit, Aldridge entered free agency. He took meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Spurs, and Trail Blazers. In the aftermath of his eventual move to San Antonio, a new narrative took hold: Somewhere along the way, Aldridge’s relationship with Lillard had curdled.
The choice to leave Portland and sign with the Spurs was, to any unbiased observer, understandable and benign. Free agents have the right to choose where they want to play. It’s their life, their bank account, their happiness. It’s a life-altering decision made with countless factors coming from multiple directions, and, as unfair as it is, there’s also pressure knowing what you do will impact other people’s lives, too (Lopez, whose free agency coincided with Aldridge’s, tells me he would’ve stayed in Portland had Aldridge never left).
The whispers that followed Aldridge out of town weren’t the result of his choice to leave, but the environment he helped create before he left. In a workplace that requires constant connection, Aldridge and Lillard didn’t always have it. Earlier this season, Lillard spoke to the media about mentoring Portland’s 23-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic. The conversation expanded into a regretful one about Aldridge. “As a younger player, I came into the league wishing…and thinking [LaMarcus] was going to take me under his wing, like his lil’ bro,” Lillard said.
I ask Aldridge if he agrees with Lillard’s view—a question he says nobody’s ever asked him before. He quickly takes ownership for his part in letting their alliance crumble, while also acknowledging just how complicated the dynamic between two alphas at different points in their career, trying to co-exist on one NBA roster, can be.
“It’s always tough for me to find that balance where I want to tell [Damian] not to do this or this is better,” Aldridge says. “But I don’t want him to feel like I’m trying to hold him back from being who he wants to be. I do regret not talking to him at times, but also I feel like he was trying to find himself.
“I would say him and I have learned more about each other since I left that would’ve helped us when I was there, so I’ve learned from that and I’m trying to be better and not worry if I come off a certain way, because I feel like when people know who I am as a person, they know I have no ill will. I’m more reserved, so I didn’t want to come off as trying to stifle his shine. I just got back in the corner and let him do his thing...I feel like if him and I communicated as much then as we do now, then things would’ve been totally different.”
From Aldridge’s initial glimmer in the Pacific Northwest as the ostensible third wheel beside Roy and Oden, to a productive albeit abrasive partnership with Lillard, to an instantly infamous exchange last summer with Popovich, wherein Aldridge expressed frustration over his role on a 61-win team, every major period of his career has been undermined by some kind of disappointment—at least that’s how it looks from the outside.
After years as the first and sometimes only option on a pretty good team, in Aldridge’s first year in San Antonio he suddenly had Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard as teammates, with Popovich instructing him from the sideline. The system changed, shots fluctuated, and responsibilities shrunk.
He was still an All-Star and the Spurs won 67 games, but they unexpectedly blew a 2-1 series lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals. Aldridge only needed 44 shots to score 79 points in the first two games of that series, but barely converted 40 percent of his field goal attempts in the final three, which were all lost by the Spurs.
After Duncan retired and a few new pieces entered the mix, Aldridge’s comfort in San Antonio didn’t improve. Tendinitis in his knees flared up. Despite the team’s absurd success (they qualified for the freaking conference finals), the fit just wasn’t ideal.
“You’re going to have to run things for him,” McMillan says. “You know, last year I think he was a little unhappy because he’s a player where you have to run offense through him. He’s not one of those guys who moves and plays. It kind of has to be structured.”
As the response to a limiting situation, Aldridge could have easily committed the same mistakes that were made in Portland. Instead, he took it upon himself to initiate change.
Unprompted, Aldridge brings up the initial talk he had with Popovich after last season ended, one that was followed up by several phone calls. It was over lunch at one of Pop’s favorite restaurants in San Antonio. (With a smirk, Aldridge won’t reveal the exact location because “he goes there all the time, so if I say it people are gonna stalk him.”) It’s a meeting now viewed as a necessary catalyst for Aldridge’s success, a sit-down chat designed to send him and the organization down one of two possible roads: Either they identify the problem and adapt, or one side refuses to hear the other and a different kind of adjustment is made.
I ask if he was tense walking through the restaurant's door, knowing just how uncomfortable the encounter could be as someone about to kick through the shell he mostly stayed inside while in Portland.
“To have a heart-to-heart with a coach about me not being able to be myself, I’m not anxious at that point because I’ve never done that before,” he says. “I felt like I had to have that conversation. It was like this has to happen. It wasn’t about being nervous, it was about going about it the right way, making sure it was professional. Making sure I respected everything about him and the organization. I feel like the way I went about it and how I communicated my feelings, he listened to me. It was about figuring out how to do it in the right way so he doesn’t think I’m some arrogant punk just trying to cause problems.”
“I think it’s because I’m so quiet about things that people just run with anything they hear.”
In early January, Popovich shed some light on those talks. The primary takeaway being that Aldridge was the first player Pop ever coached who requested a trade. Not that it’s the most meaningful detail, but Aldridge’s version of what happened is a little different.
“I think a lot got lost in translation. I didn’t go and say ‘Hey, I want out.’ It was like ‘I can’t be the player you want me to be, so let me help you get that person because I respect you and the organization so much.’ That’s how it really went, but people took it and twisted it.”
In today’s NBA, where front offices construct their rosters like analytically-supported dioramas, populated by predictable pieces who are more replaceable than indispensable (ideally, when one catch-and-shoot wing defender goes down, another can slide right in), Aldridge is the opposite of plug-and-play.
He instead needs to be orbited by others, with skills best served in a bygone time. He’s not the ideal illustration of a contemporary first option or even a vital second fiddle, but Aldridge has demonstrated that it’s possible to find success through adaptation and rigidity at the exact same time. He might also be the first Spur to bend San Antonio’s style to his own will. This is because Popovich was willing to listen.
"In the past, I just confused him,” Popovich said earlier this season. “Tried to make him somebody he wasn't. On offense, I was going to move him everywhere. I was gonna make him Jack Sikma off the post, or get him on the elbows, or he was gonna pull it through, do this or that. That was just silly on my part. Total overcoaching."
The on- and off-court tranquility that led to this year’s All-Star appearance is not because Aldridge is suddenly accustomed to his surroundings. It’s a product of expanding self-awareness, personal growth, and a genuine effort by him and his employer to make their relationship work.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Spurs perform like a 55-win team when Aldridge is on the court. When he sits, their Expected Wins drop to 34. They function as the NBA's seventh-best offense with him in the game and rank 29th when he's not. Forget about how Aldridge’s strengths personify a strategy that’s been bleached from the modern game—one that calls for the bulk of San Antonio’s attack to funnel through the low post. The Spurs disintegrate without him.
Aldridge has willingly etched his name onto an endangered species list but it doesn’t even matter. He’s a bull wearing ballerina slippers against single coverage down low. According to Synergy Sports, post-ups accounted for roughly one third of his total possessions in his first two seasons with the Spurs—33.7 percent in 2016 and 32.7 percent in 2017. This year, that number is up to 43 percent.
At the All-Star break, he led the league in post-up possessions and points while rarely turning the ball over. (His overall turnover rate has never been better.) Aldridge’s 480 points with his back to the basket were exactly twice as many as Karl-Anthony Towns, who appeared in seven more games and ranked fifth in that category.
“You can’t double team him because by the time you get there the ball is gone. He’s already taken the shot,” Vanterpool says. “You can’t switch. He’s far too big and much stronger and bigger than people really think. It’s very, very difficult. Very, very difficult.”
Even though he still doesn’t like to be called a center, and enforces a rule that disallows the PA announcer to label him as anything but a power forward during pregame introductions, Aldridge has spent a majority of his minutes at the five for the first time this year, too.
He is pulling it all off with a significant degree of difficulty. He’s averaged more shots with a defender between 2-4 feet than anybody else, and the percentage of his field goals that are assisted is the second lowest of his career. In clutch situations (when the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes left on the clock) he’s +46 and shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.
In October, Aldridge signed a surprising three-year, $72.3 million contract extension. His agent, Jeff Schwartz, noticed how comfortable he looked in training camp and during the preseason, then asked Aldridge if he could approach the Spurs about widening their partnership.
“[Schwartz] was like ‘they might think I’m batshit crazy, but I’m gonna call them.’ I was like ‘go ahead.’ He made the call just to see if they were interested, and they were taken aback. But I think they could see in my body language and my demeanor that I was happier,” Aldridge says. “I felt more comfortable. Both sides went back and forth until they got it done.”
Aldridge can pinpoint the very night he first felt positive that his talk with Popovich would translate to legitimate, long-term, in-game success. It was a week before Halloween. Aldridge scored an easy 31 points as San Antonio smoked the Miami Heat by 17.
He was a racehorse up and down the floor who seamlessly blended an impossible amount of patience with two bulldozers where his shoulder blades should be. If Heat rookie Bam Adebayo—who was a newborn when Aldridge was about to become a teenager—had a weak mind, this experience could’ve ended his career before it began. No matter how close his fingertips came to blocking Aldridge’s shot or obscuring his vision, the ball dropped through the basket. Over and over and over again.
But anyone who’s ever witnessed this sort of demolition before knows nobody is to blame. Peak Bill Russell would’ve had his hands full. Aldridge pirouettes down the lane, flutters out on the perimeter, and toys with grown men as they dig forearms into his lower back. Perfect defensive execution is futile when he's in rhythm. In only San Antonio’s fourth game of the year, Aldridge redefined how unstoppable he can be.
The prescription for stagnant offense is such: The ball is entered to Aldridge in the mid post, he reverse pivots then somehow manages to rise and fade at the exact same time. The touch behind this shot is basically a magic trick, one learned after torn cartilage in his left hip cut Aldridge’s freshman year in college short.
“He sat on a stool that we put in the gym and had guys stand around him during practice,” former Texas head coach Rick Barnes recalls. “He would literally sit on a stool and shoot, working on that high release where he gets it way up over his head. He did it for hours on hours and came back and really made it a weapon.”
To call it his signature move would be like saying the ocean has a signature fish. Aldridge can carve up a defense in so many different ways. Still, few actions he, or anyone else in the game, regularly pull off can leave an opponent feeling that helpless.
Aldridge has also grown in areas that allow San Antonio to feed off his individual expertise. He’s isolating more around the free-throw line, a section of the floor that forces opponents to think twice before sending help. He’s not hoisting up threes at a volume most expected, but the percentage of his shots that come from the mid-range is down over 10 percent from last season. He’s sprinting the floor (a skill that, all these years later, still sticks out to his high-school and college coaches), recognizing double teams, finding open teammates, and averaging more free throws per 36 minutes than he ever has.
“I’m doing everything that no one wants to do,” he laughs.
Popovich called Aldridge “an All-Star performer at both ends” in early January, a statement that’s supported by San Antonio’s ownership of a top-three defense for most of the season. His name doesn’t surface in discussions about the All-Defensive team, though, which is illogical. (He received one second-team vote in each of the last two seasons.) Situation and scheme matter, but Aldridge brings it on that end, on every play, despite having so many offensive responsibilities. It’s a dedication and awareness that ever-so-slightly separates him from the likes of Towns or (a healthy) DeMarcus Cousins.
Not only is his length intimidating around the rim, but Aldridge is agile enough to switch out onto the perimeter, smart enough to direct traffic along the backline, and filled with enough guile to get stops without fouling. His hands stay vertical and his elbows never straighten out at the wrong time.
“People sometimes tell me ‘You made it easy for LaMarcus,’ but LaMarcus, he did so many things,” Lopez says. “He was always an underrated defender. He’s a very savvy defender. It was just a pleasure to play next to him in the post.”
Not all is copacetic in the here and now, though. Thanks to a lingering quadricep injury, Leonard has only seen 210 total minutes of action this season, and the 26-year-old’s own free agency looms in 2019 as an organization-wide crossroad. (He recently told reporters he wants to spend the rest of his career in San Antonio.) Aldridge is obviously aware of how important his Finals MVP teammate is and will be for the next few years, at least, and he has learned from past mistakes just how important it can be to open up around teammates.
“Kawhi is a great guy. He talks more as he gets to know you. We talk all the time. Locker room, on the bus, on the plane, at the games, so I would say we’re good friends as far as playing together and things like that. I wouldn’t say we’re best friends but we’re good friends and we try to communicate.” Aldridge says.
Their on-court compatibility isn’t much of a concern, but the fact that Aldridge has reached his summit without Leonard by his side cannot be ignored. It’s unknowable how he’ll respond whenever Leonard steps back on the floor, but it’s fair to surmise that the two-time Defensive Player of the Year will boost Aldridge before he dislodges him from this happy place.
“That was a goal for myself, to learn to communicate even more with him. If he and I are communicating constantly, he can see something I can’t see or maybe he’s feeling some way about something that I didn’t know,” Aldridge says. “The one thing I wanted to have with him was a good open dialogue about how he’s feeling, how I’m feeling, so if something’s going on we can just talk it out.”
Throughout our time together, Aldridge hardly resembles the monotonous tower seen on League Pass. His eyes widen, hands twirl, and voice amplifies when responding to questions only he can answer. I ask him to explain why he hates being called a center, why he felt especially overlooked in Portland at the beginning of his career (“They tried to trade me twice!”), and whether he wants to clear up any gossip that splashed across the internet during his free agency.
“I’m probably one of the most misunderstood people in the league,” Aldridge says. “I have no bad intentions, but I carry myself in a very protective way. I like my little shell. I like my little circle of three or four people that I’m close to. I think that comes off as bad to people that don’t really know my personality. I don’t like new environments. I don’t like being around a lot of new people. It makes me uncomfortable.”
The contrast between him and a majority of his peers is clear when, at the conclusion of our interview, I walk out from behind a curtain and see Steph Curry on the other side of the room, taking his turn with the Jr. NBA kids. He is mic’d up, standing at the far centercourt, facing a wall of fans who all have their hands raised hoping to ask the two-time MVP a question. Aldridge never had a microphone and his voice didn’t project over a loudspeaker. Instead of being the center of attention, Aldridge was right in there among them. It was almost like he was trying (comically) to blend in.
And that’s, of course, a perfectly fine way to be. Aldridge is comfortable in his own skin. “He doesn’t try to be something that he’s not,” Barnes says. “And he’s not an attention seeker.”
Despite calling himself an introvert several times when we talk, there’s no wall around him. Aldridge is modest and polite, and never looks at either cell phone even when they buzz. He occasionally bookends his replies by looking down at his lap and letting out a chuckle.
Aldridge is having one of the more productive seasons anyone his age, at his position, ever has. But he’s still growing, learning, and working. He hasn’t reached the same level as someone like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, or Dirk Nowitzki—postseason struggles are just one reason why it’s hard to justify those comparisons—but squint hard enough and a general outline of that same mythical talent starts to appear. With one or two reasonable breaks at watershed points in his career, Aldridge could have a ring or maybe even an MVP.
“I think he’s a Hall of Famer, and I think that he will get the recognition that he deserves because he’s not done,” Barnes says. “I want to see him keep winning.”
Right now, all he wants to do is enjoy a life that is blessed (a word Aldridge repeats multiple times, and had tattooed along his right arm when he was a junior in high school), and focus on maintaining a comfort level that can keep him as upbeat as he appears to be.
In arguably the best professional situation of his life, with a new contract, fresh outlook, and numbers that prove he’s never been more efficient or essential, Aldridge is at the point in his career where he can kick both feet up on a desk, lean back, and exhale. On and off the court, as his sport, league, and world revolutionize themselves over again, the big man has evolved on his own time. He’s rooted himself to core principles and beliefs, and emerged on the other side with supreme confidence—almost like a dinosaur who weathered the asteroid’s crash into Earth.
“I feel like I’ve definitely shown people I haven’t lost it,” Aldridge says. “That’s what bothered me more last year. People were acting like I lost it and I’m like ‘No, I’m just trying to figure out this system and how to be myself. I haven’t lost who I was and how dominant I can be.’ And then once we found that compromise where I can play as myself again, I’m back to being that guy.”
He thinks back to that October night in Miami, which, in a way, kick-started this pseudo-vindication tour.
“I remember just playing my game, scoring down the stretch, and I was like ‘This is who I am. This is who I’ve been for my whole career’,” Aldridge says, growing more serious with every word. “I remember feeling: ‘Man, I’m back to that player again, and it feels good.’ That feeling felt really good.”