For as long as I can remember, the demise of the San Antonio Spurs has seemed imminent. To many, it was a surprise that Gregg Popovich was able to lead his team to the Western Conference crown back in 2013 and an even bigger surprise that his team was able to defeat the Miami HEAT in the NBA Finals the following year.
After losing to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, many people thought that the franchise’s run of dominance was finally over and that Tim Duncan’s time as a contender had come and gone.
Now, with LaMarcus Aldridge and David West added to the fold and Kawhi Leonard re-signed, the Spurs, surprisingly, are being touted by Bovada as the favorites to win the NBA’s Western Conference this year.
Certainly, the Spurs will have that opportunity. However, whether it all comes together for the franchise will depend not on Aldridge’s talent, but on his ability to sacrifice, blend in and let go of the desire for personal accolades.
In effect, he will have to make the same transition that Chris Bosh did when he joined the HEAT.
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In July 2010, Bosh was coming off of the best season of his career and had put together per-game averages of 24 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists on nearly 52 percent shooting from the field. His final four years as a member of the Toronto Raptors were marked by very similar cumulative averages: 22.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 50 percent shooting from the field. When Bosh decided to leave Toronto for the sunny shores of South Beach, he was ridiculed for “taking the easy way out” and, essentially, forfeiting his potential and the opportunity to amass personal accolades to play third fiddle to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Think about that for a moment and think about how hypocritical we all can be as pro basketball observers.
We talk about players being greedy and selfish and chastise many who never seem to have understood the concept of there being no “I” in “team,” yet many hated the fact that James, Wade and Bosh joined forces in Miami in an attempt to build a core that was superior to that of the one built by Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics.
I have long been a Bosh admirer. Since he became a member of the HEAT, I have had dozens of conversations with Bosh and have observed him up close. Those who know him well would describe him as a highly intelligent, compassionate, selfless person and a magnificent teammate. When he signed on in Miami, Bosh was almost immediately asked to change and sacrifice his game for the greater good of the team. During his final few seasons in Toronto, he established himself as a gifted low-post scorer and became dominant, but Erik Spoelstra didn’t feel that featuring Bosh on the low-post would allow him to utilize Wade and James most effectively.
Over the years in Miami, Bosh made the transition from low-post threat to “stretch four” seamlessly. He never complained about a lack of touches on the offensive end and never let his defensive intensity or effort wane when his coaches and teammates forgot to call his number. He played hurt when he had to, stepped up when asked to and always gave 100 percent effort, despite often being asked to guard bigger and stronger players.
Best of all, Bosh did it while being overlooked and forgotten about as a primary contributor on a team that won its conference and appeared in the NBA Finals in four consecutive years.
Of those four years, the single moment that will be remembered most is the overtime-forcing miracle three-point shot that Ray Allen converted at the end of regulation in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Everyone will remember how James seemed to crumble down the stretch of that game with turnovers and missed shots, and many will remember that it was James who missed a wide-open, game-tying three-pointer with a shade over 10 seconds left.
Nobody will remember that it was Bosh who set a perfect screen for James and shielded him from both Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw. James missed, of course, but Bosh, never taking anything for granted, slowly followed the shot.
Yes, Allen drained one of the biggest shots in NBA history on the ensuing possession, but nobody remembers that it was Bosh who grabbed the offensive rebound that earned the possession, and it was Bosh who had the presence of mind to look for Allen and find him on that play.
In the end, Bosh wasn’t even called to the podium after Game 6. And the next day, after the HEAT had valiantly fought off elimination, on the podium, Bosh wasn’t even asked about the role that he had played in what had transpired. Instead, he was asked about the genius of LeBron James.
Never bitter and never concerned of himself, Bosh has always epitomized the concept of there being no “I” in “team,” even though there is one in “Chris.”
And when asked to look ahead to Game 7—a game that the HEAT would go on to win—Bosh only offered the following: “I think it’s kind of like you have a second chance on life. You’re not going to waste it. … We brought ourselves back to life and we’re happy to be in the situation. We know we still have a lot more work to do.”
In a way, Bosh could have just as easily been referring to himself. His second chance came in Miami, and he certainly hasn’t wasted it. He never stopped being a Hall-of-Fame caliber player or franchise cornerstone—he only faded into the background because that’s what his team required of him.
That is true humility. That is true sacrifice, and it is not something every NBA player is capable of doing.
I covered the last four NBA Finals, and aside from some storied in-game moments and interactions with Wade, I will always remember Bosh for how he carried himself during the years he and James were teammates in Miami.
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For Aldridge, the decision to leave Portland was not an easy one. As has been previously written in this space, his issues with the direction of the franchise over the past few years were well-known. The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the premature ending of the careers of both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy contributed mightily to his frustration, and the drafting and discovering of Damian Lillard only temporarily assuaged his concerns.
In the end, make no mistake about it, Aldridge wants to be a champion and he wants it just as badly as Bosh did in Toronto.
However, it took only one season for the brass in Portland to realize that Aldridge was, at least, a major part of the future of their franchise. That is what made the decision to trade Zach Randolph to the New York Knicks on the night of the 2007 draft a bit easier. Since then, Aldridge was the franchise player in Portland. The keys to the city and to the team were all his. It wasn’t until Lillard burst onto the scene that his status as the alpha male was challenged.
It seems telling, then, that Aldridge decided to leave Portland after that. The assumption was that he and Lillard were close, but in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Aldridge echoed what Damian Lillard had previously told our own Alex Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of Aldridge’s departure.
“I feel like the organization blew it out of proportion and I felt like the media blew it out of proportion,” Aldridge said of the poor relationship he and Lillard were believed to have had.
“Of course him and I could’ve talked more and been closer. You know we’re both … the issue you have when you have two guys that are very similar as far as competitiveness and drive and kind of being brought up the same way is that they’re both the same way so you don’t have one person that really goes out of his way to make a relationship.”
What I can’t figure out is why Aldridge, as the franchise player and as the elder statesman, wouldn’t go out of his way to build a relationship with Lillard. Feel free to draw your own conclusion.
One thing that we can safely conclude, however, is that winning in the NBA takes sacrifice. We hear it way more than we see it. And if the Aldridge experiment is to work in San Antonio, he will have blend in and get used to doing things the Gregg Popovich way. Of course, that shouldn’t be too difficult. The hardware and the sustained success of the franchise as well as the fact that Aldridge freely chose to relocate to San Antonio should make for a pleasant experience.
But Aldridge has never been in this position before, and as the 2015-16 season sets to tip off with the Spurs as the favorites to win the Western Conference, the spotlight has never been brighter.
In the end, Aldridge may be asked to replicate the selflessness of Bosh. And, for any NBA superstar, that’s not easy. So when I’m watching the Spurs this season, I’ll be looking for more than just good basketball – I’ll be looking for evident signs of willing sacrifice on the part of Aldridge, because that’s the only way these Spurs will continue to defy Father Time and preserve themselves as contenders.
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