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LaMarcus Aldridge’s Extension Is a Safety Valve for the Spurs’ Uncertain Future

After locking in a three-year extension for their star big man, it’s clear that Gregg Popovich isn’t quite ready to throw out the blueprint for his last two decades of success

LaMarcus Aldridge holds up one finger Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Spurs have created a cottage industry out of subverting expectations, making fools of those who have called for their numerous premature burials over the last decade. And just before opening day of the NBA regular season, San Antonio stuck to its ethos in what could be the most consequential roster decision of the post–Tim Duncan era. LaMarcus Aldridge is staying put, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Spurs and Aldridge agreed to a three-year, $72.3 million extension Monday, ahead of the NBA’s 11:59 p.m. deadline. The extension will kick in after the 2018-19 season, during which Aldridge is slated to make $22.3 million.

The Spurs big man is coming off the worst postseason of his 11-year career and a summer of blocking out the noise about his place in both San Antonio and the league at large. Those questions are valid: In a league all in on small ball, and, on a team with Kawhi Leonard as the unquestioned alpha, do the Spurs need a low-ink copy of Duncan anchoring their lineups? All of the tension came to a head before training camp, when Aldridge sat down with coach Gregg Popovich to address his discontent regarding his role, the trade rumors, and what lies ahead. Spirits have risen since that talk, and, evidently, the Spurs believe public perception has created yet another premature burial within the franchise.

Managing the ego of a second option can be more difficult than managing that of a team’s leading star. Aldridge, who has long carried with him the reputation of being a surly character, stemming back from his days with Portland, left the Trail Blazers when Damian Lillard’s ascendant stardom began encroaching on the turf he’d held for nearly a decade. In San Antonio, Aldridge was paired with another low-key star, but operating in the shadow of Duncan was always a losing proposition as far as living up to a certain standard. The comparisons aren’t going anywhere, not when even your own coach is making them. “He leads more like Timmy does, just by example,” Popovich said during training camp. The Spurs will do a better job coaxing the good out of Aldridge this time around: More touches in the post, more opportunities from behind the arc; in return, Aldridge might run hard up and down the court consistently.

Retaining Aldridge makes sense for the Spurs, for a number of reasons. While we’re living in the age of the unicorn, Aldridge is still a rare commodity, a big, strong body who is not only adept in the post, but has range out to the 3-point line. You’ll never confuse him for a legitimate rim protector, or even a notably good defender, but his physique alone makes him a deterrent walling off the rim. Aldridge also serves as a sort of structural crutch for Pop, who has never coached a team without a Duncan-like figure in the starting lineup; he’s the comfort food that goes with Popovich’s Bordeaux.

The way the Spurs’ current roster is constructed, Pop is approaching the future of the franchise with caution: One foot’s in the future, and the other in his own past, just to stay safe. San Antonio doesn’t have many traditional bigs left on the roster, and we could be seeing Pop experiment with younger, more athletic small ball all season just to see what his team is capable of. In all that uncertainty, Aldridge is a safety valve, a player with the tools to do what Pop has expected a big man to do in all 21 years he’s been the Spurs head coach. It’s an extension made in good faith from both parties, but it does still feel like a stopgap until the team has a clearer image of how to build around Kawhi. Aldridge is 32, and he’ll be nearing 37 by the end of his extended contract; the Spurs’ existential debate will begin anew sooner than later.