CHICAGO – It seems like the last time San Antonio was a destination was about 180 years ago when an adventurer and one-time United States congressman named Davy Crockett tried to help local settlers protect an old mission called the Alamo against the Mexican army.
Crockett and the defenders, as they became known in their martyrdom, became the symbols of future independence, growth and success.
Will it be so for the San Antonio Spurs and LaMarcus Aldridge?
Aldridge was the NBA’s premier free agent last summer, courted by all the big and glamorous locations, like Los Angeles, New York and his hometown Dallas.
Instead, Aldridge, who received a four-year, $80-million deal from the Spurs, chose this humid, tropical plain in south central Texas not far from the Mexican border. Its media market size in the U.S. is 36th, behind such metropolises as Hartford, Connecticut; Columbus, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee. NBA players don’t go to places like that for any reason, to play or visit.
Yet, San Antonio attracted the NBA’s premier free agent, and beyond that two-time All-Star David West, abandoning an eight-figure salary contract option with the Indiana Pacers to play backup in San Antonio for an NBA minimum contract.
Are they panning for gold in the River Walk that winds through downtown San Antonio?
They are mining for NBA championships in having accumulated five already, and it’s a new day in the NBA.
The Lakers and Knicks lost out on the big free agents to San Antonio and Milwaukee, the latter signing the Pistons’ Greg Monroe when he rebuffed the coastal celebrity spots.
Hey, maybe it is about winning.
The Spurs have assembled the most admired franchise in the NBA for the last two decades, winning those five championships with David Robinson and Tim Duncan through Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge would like to believe he’s the link to the next run.
Which is the greater significance of Aldridge’s signing with the Spurs.
The most difficult task in sports, especially with a successful franchise, is to sustain that success. The Celtics finally dropped off in the later 1980s and took 20 years to recover. The Bulls went through a fallow period for almost a decade and have yet to return to the Finals. The Lakers are currently going through the poorest period in franchise history.
The Spurs have remarkably remained title contenders despite the loss of Robinson and aging and slowing down of Duncan and now Parker and Ginobili.
It’s been an amazing run. But with Leonard, already a Finals MVP and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and now Aldridge to join him, the Spurs appear well poised with Aldridge just turning 30 to extend their run for at least another five or six years.
It’s basically unheard of in professional team sports.
Are the Spurs NBA title favorites because they acquired Aldridge and to a lesser extent West?
According to the annual survey of NBA general managers released last week, the Cleveland Cavaliers are favorites to win the NBA title with the Spurs second. That means the Spurs to win the West. But who knows.
Last season, the GMs favored the Spurs to win the title and they were defeated in the first round of the playoffs.
The Western Conference is so deep and talented and Golden State is coming off a 67-win season that it’s difficult to project a favorite. Kevin Durant returns to join a loaded Oklahoma City team and the Clippers upgraded and retained DeAndre Jordan.
Plus, it’s not going to be easy for the Spurs and Aldridge.
Duncan has long said he doesn’t care to play against centers; so has Aldridge. One will have to as they gave up Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes for salary cap room to acquire Aldridge. Plus, Aldridge plays more of a deliberate style in the post, accustomed to the ball being directed to him, often in a two-man game with his guard. The Spurs play with more ball movement in seeking out 3-point shooting.
Both sides will have to adjust.
Aldridge is one of the best mid-range big man shooters in the NBA. You don’t eschew that. At the same time, Aldridge will have to become more accustomed and patient about not being the focus of the offense all the time with the Spurs’ fluid style and various options. So there will be a learning curve.
But if anyone is looking for the meaning of sacrifice in the NBA or team sports, it’s the San Antonio Spurs.
West took that virtually unprecedented cut in pay to have a chance for a title with the Spurs.
Duncan, the future Hall of Famer, accepted one of the smaller contracts and actually even below the league average to return another season and help make room for Aldridge.
As Robinson once compromised to accommodate Duncan, then Duncan does for Aldridge. Danny Green also accepted a contract well below market value as did Ginobili.
They come to see the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, a unique tribute to the past. LaMarcus Aldridge came to San Antonio and the Spurs will have a future.
It’s also a great American story.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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