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LaMarcus Aldridge is 'on a mission' with Kawhi sidelined

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SAN ANTONIO -- Arms folded with a foot propped against the doorway, San Antonio Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland waited for the last reporters to leave the locker room as LaMarcus Aldridge unlaced a pair of Air Jordans, laughing about learning from a scribe that he'd made his sixth NBA All-Star Game.

As Engelland reached to extend a congratulatory handshake, you could almost see the relief wash over Aldridge.

In the midst of a transitional period in San Antonio, where future Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker no longer starts, and questions abound over the franchise's relationship with star forward Kawhi Leonard and his return, Aldridge serves as a stabilizing force for the Spurs.

But it wasn't always this smooth for the star forward and the franchise.

San Antonio signed Aldridge in 2015 to duplicate down in Texas the success he achieved over nine seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, not fully realizing the still-ascending Leonard would develop into one of the league's top players that same season.

Then, the Spurs tried to change Aldridge into a different player. Until finally, this past offseason, Popovich realized his squad was better off letting LaMarcus Aldridge be LaMarcus Aldridge, which in turn has allowed the forward to return to his All-Star form.

"There's been a lot of work, and a strong process in between myself and the team," Aldridge said.

With the team announcing its decision recently to shelve Leonard indefinitely, Aldridge's resurgence has come at the perfect time, as the Spurs will need him to carry them into the postseason.

"I just wanted to be myself again," Aldridge told ESPN. "I just wanted to be productive. I'm happier about that than anything. I'm happier about being able to play at this level again. It was never about trying to make the All-Star Game. It's about being back at that high level to help a team win."

To be himself again, Aldridge felt he needed to play more minutes. In 2015-16 and 2016-17, his first two seasons with the Spurs, he averaged only 30.6 MPG and 32.4 MPG, respectively. But the 12-year vet knew he couldn't approach Popovich with a request for more playing time without first handling business on his end.

Aldridge typically gives himself a month to "eat whatever I want" at the conclusion of each season. But he reduced that time to a week coming off the team's Western Conference finals loss to the Golden State Warriors last May.

"I wanted to lock in early," he said.

The previous summer, tendinitis in both knees hindered Aldridge's summer conditioning program. But this time around, Aldridge was fully healthy. So from Monday to Friday over a summer that started in Orange County, California, and ended in Dallas, he'd wake up his sons, Jaylen and LaMarcus Jr., get them settled in at home, then hit the gym for a morning weightlifting session.

By noon, he'd pick up the boys and head back to the gym, where they'd work with their own trainer while Aldridge sweated through another two-hour session. On most weeknights Aldridge would make one more trip back to the gym to hit the weights again.

"He came back in great shape, physically," Popovich said. "Mentally, he was really committed and was focused from Day 1."

Teammate Pau Gasol characterized Aldridge's approach as a "being-on-a-mission type of deal."

"He set the tone from the beginning, ready and understanding that Kawhi was going to be out for awhile," Gasol added. "That meant the load was going to be on him, and he was going to be able to be more himself. You could see it all the way back to the preseason, every practice, every game. There are seasons where you're just locked in 100 percent.

"After two years of being here, getting to know the system, and trying to fit in, now he's gotten to a point where he's playing his game, taking care of business, and being an All-Star, a superstar in this league."

The added minutes have certainly helped, as has Popovich's open-mindedness. Aldridge is currently the only Spur averaging more than 30 minutes per game (34.1).

"I think having the talk with Pop helped it happen," a laughing Aldridge told ESPN one morning in Los Angeles, as Popovich walked up to crack a joke. "Having the talk, and telling him I play better when I'm playing more minutes and maybe we can find different ways for finding me rest.

"I struggle with playing low minutes, and trying to keep a rhythm. I've just never been able to do it. When I was really rolling in Portland, I was top five in minutes. So that's kind of who I've become. I think Pop understood that, and he's letting me play more minutes. I'm staying in great shape. I'm feeling good. My rhythm is better. Being out there more, this is just me."

Over his last three seasons in Portland, Aldridge led the Blazers in usage rate (28.7 percent), points (22.3 PPG) and field goal attempts (19.4 per game). Aldridge also held the distinction of being just one of 15 players averaging double-digit rebounds, including the seventh-most offensive rebounds in the league, over that span, in which he was selected to two All-NBA teams (second team in 2013-14, third team in 2014-15) and three All-Star teams.

"It was never about trying to make the All-Star Game. It's about being back at that high level to help a team win." LaMarcus Aldridge

After Aldridge signed with the Spurs in the summer of 2015, his playing time, usage rates and offensive numbers all decreased. In 2015-16, Aldridge played his fewest minutes since his rookie season, though he produced the best net rating (12.0) of his career, while knocking down career highs in field goal shooting (51 percent) and free throw shooting (85.8 percent).

Aldridge helped San Antonio win 61 games in 2016-17 and reach the conference finals, but his numbers continued to decrease across the board, with the forward averaging his fewest points (17.3) and rebounds (7.3) since his rookie season. In fact, Aldridge averaged fewer points in the paint that season (6.7) than Cody Zeller (7.6).

While it's true Aldridge requested a trade during his sit-down over the summer with Popovich, that conversation contained more context and nuance than a simple demand to be moved, according to league sources.

In laying out feelings about the previous season and concerns about the future, Aldridge admitted he was struggling for various reasons to adapt his game offensively to fit what Popovich wanted. Rather than continue to try to jam a square peg into a round hole, Aldridge suggested that a trade "wherever" would provide San Antonio the ammunition to acquire the type of power forward he believed the club coveted, according to a source.

Popovich responded by saying, "Let's figure this thing out."

Weeks later, Aldridge signed a $72.3 million extension, which, at this point, looks like a bargain.

"At the offensive end, he's better off not listening to me, and that's been proven this entire year," Popovich said. "In the past, I just confused him, 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."

"After talking with Pop, I thought it would be better," Aldridge said. "I can't say I knew that it would be this good."

With Leonard playing in just nine games this season and an indefinite timeline on his return from quadriceps tendinopathy, Aldridge's role has expanded tremendously. In addition to leading the team in minutes per game, Aldridge's usage rate is up (27.0), as are his scoring (22.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.5) averages. His current player efficiency rating of 23.5 would be a career best.

Aldridge is currently on pace to join LeBron James (2017-18, 2016-17) Antawn Jamison (2008-09) and Shaquille O'Neal (2004-05) as the only 32-year-olds in the past 15 seasons to average at least 33 minutes, 22 points and 8 rebounds per game, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.

"The numbers are obviously impressive, but what's more impressive is his efficiency, the way he goes about it, and his effort levels on both ends of the floor," said Spurs reserve point guard Patty Mills, who played two seasons with Aldridge in Portland. "The way he talks in huddles and in the locker room, he is comfortable. He has been allowed to be himself. It is crazy the things that can happen when you feel like that."

Still, Aldridge knows the Spurs can't thrive without both he and a healthy Leonard clicking.

"Because it's a team," Aldridge said. "For us to go to where we want to go, we both have to play well. Golden State is a prime example, Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul. It's not impossible to coexist. I feel like I'm playing with more confidence and I'm playing better this year, where [Leonard's return] is not going to be an issue. When he's back to 100 percent, he's going to be who he was, and I'm going to be who I am. That's going to make us better down the stretch."

For now, he'll be the only Spur represented at the All-Star Game in L.A., reaping the benefits of priceless sweat equity in leading a beaten-up San Antonio squad to what's expected to be its 21st consecutive postseason appearance.

"I'm not caught up in making the game," Aldridge said. "Just being able to play at this level again was good enough."