SAN ANTONIO – On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers will come face-to-face with their top offseason target this past summer, a star forward who had two meetings with the team before becoming the latest high-profile player to turn them down.
The main criticism of the Lakers’ initial meeting with Aldridge was that it focused too much on marketing, on the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, rather than on the game itself.
"I think we looked at it more as a business presentation. It wasn't basketball, and that's probably where we made our mistake," Lakers coach Byron Scott said after his team’s morning shootaround.
The meeting included executives from AEG and Time Warner Cable but was especially lacking in the basketball department, such as analytics, an area where the Lakers have been lacking.
A second meeting was eventually granted, which Scott said included himself, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and assistant coach Mark Madsen. That session focused on basketball, but it wasn’t enough to sway Aldridge, meaning that for the third straight summer, the Lakers’ failed to reel in a top-tier free agent.
Would the Lakers still be 3-19 if Aldridge had signed them?
“I have no idea,” Scott said. “It is a big what-if.”
But he said the disastrous sit-down with Aldridge taught the Lakers a valuable lesson regarding modern free-agent pitch meetings, a factor that could come into play next summer when the Lakers chase Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, among others.
"Most of these guys want to know the basketball part of it,” Scott said. “We'll change that part as far as most of the meeting, 75 percent of it or more, will be about the basketball part and then the other part will be a little bit about the business part. I think we found from a great player that he was more interested in the basketball on-the-court stuff than anything else."
Speaking of pitches, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discussed how it was that he reeled in Aldridge.
"I don’t pitch too much," Popovich said. "We don’t try to convince people very often, honestly. I think it’s overblown like we’re going go have some sort of sales deal. We tried to sell Jason Kidd [in 2003] and it didn’t work. We had Mariachis and everything, I think. All kinds of stuff. After that, I decided never again.
"If they come, they come. If they don’t, I don’t care. Because it’s as simple as that. Especially for a guy who’s been in the league for nine years. You know what he can do, you know what he can’t do. You know what you like, you know what you don’t like. Whatever it might be. But more importantly, he knows who you are, and he knows what team he would like to go to for whatever reasons. So everything is pretty much out there on the table. If a guy had been in the league for a split second and then he had to make a decision, it’s different. But he’s seen a lot. He’s been around a long time and we just did the polite thing. We met with him. Our guys talked to him. He talked to us. They asked a few questions, he and his agents. That was that."
Aldridge signed a four-year, $80-million deal with the Spurs. Entering Friday’s game, the 30-year-old was averaging 15.4 points, second only to Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard, and a team-high 8.8 rebounds per game for the 18-5 Spurs.
“He’s a veteran. He’s very smart,” Scott said. “He fits in pretty well. … He’s a double threat. He can shoot it from outside and he can post him as well.”
After scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds against the Lakers, Aldridge talked about his transition to the Spurs.
"Yeah, it does [take time]. It does because it’s a new system, a whole new team," Aldridge said. "It’s trying to find out how to fit in with these guys, and trying to not do it in a bad way. So it’s a process for me. But I think I’ve been getting better with it the last few games. I’ve kind of found my way a little bit more."
Popovich agreed that it will take time for Aldridge to acclimate, but the process is going well thus far.
"It’s basketball, so it’s not all that complicated," Popovich said. "But when you’re playing with a whole group of new players, it takes time to understand where your place is. Sometimes, I think he’s deferred too much because he’s just trying to fit in. Usually, that’s the right thing to do when you enter an organization. Any of us who has a new job defers in the beginning and tries to fit. And I think he’s slowly getting over that, [and] he’s gonna become more demonstrative. He’s done a great job in doing what we want and done an even better job than I was expecting defensively and rebounding-wise."