LaMarcus Aldridge: The San Antonio Spurs’ Enormous Enigma

Pinpointing LaMarcus Aldridge’s current value to the San Antonio Spurs is tricky, and, frankly, the answer differs depending on who you ask.

But what can’t be disputed is the public’s enduring memory of the big man’s play. The 31-year-old power forward is coming off a postseason during which he notched playoff career-lows in points (16.5), rebounds (7.4) and blocks (1.0) while registering three games with single-digit scoring totals.

After averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds in six games against the Memphis Grizzlies and the first five against the Houston Rockets, Aldridge went off in the Game 6 clincher, thoroughly dominating H-Town to the tune of 34 points and 12 rebounds on 61.5 percent shooting. He followed that up with a 28-point, seven-rebound night in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, by which time it looked like he was primed for a bounce back to reality. But that was also the same contest Kawhi Leonard’s sprained ankle ended his postseason, and without the team’s first option by his side, Aldridge struggled.

In Game 2 without The Klaw, the five-time All-Star went scoreless in the first half and finished with just eight points, prompting head coach Gregg Popovich to quip (via CSN Bay Area’s James Ham): “LaMarcus has got to score for us. He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first half. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score. Scoring has got to come from someplace. I think he’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done, whether it’s for himself or teammates.”

Aldridge cobbled together a decent Game 3 (18 points, five rebounds), but with Tony Parker already out nursing a torn tendon in his left quadriceps, the Spurs offense was severely overmatched. Golden State’s defense made Aldridge miserable, double-teaming him at every turn and refusing to surrender any clean looks. The team was eventually swept, and through the three games without Leonard, he mustered just 11.3 points and 5.3 boards on 38.5 percent shooting.

The big man labored through a bumpy postseason. That much isn’t up for debate. But does that mean he and San Antonio should part ways? Aldridge, for one, seems to at least be considering it.

In late June—after getting bounced by the eventual champs —Arizona Sports 98.7 and ESPN both reported the Spurs were shopping their starting power forward for a top-10 pick in the draft. USA Today’s Sam Amick also relayed that Aldridge’s “unhappiness in San Antonio [was the] driving force behind the Spurs trade talks,” and that he was “hopeful San Antonio can find a better fit for his talents.”

Even so, when prompted in the midst of the Warriors series, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright that Aldridge has “fit in a way I’m not sure we ever could have dreamed would happen…He’s made the transition of this year’s team after Tim [Duncan’s departure] very, very successful without getting much recognition. Oftentimes he’s gotten overlooked or maybe even misjudged.”

So which is it? Is the fit awkward enough to jettison him to a rival team, or is he just misjudged?

The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

From PDX to the Alamo City

Aldridge spent nine seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, during which time he tallied over 20 points per game for five consecutive years and racked up four All-Star selections. In his final two campaigns with the team, he put up 23.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 blocks. He established himself, without question, as a perennial All-Star on a playoff team.

But in the summer of 2015, he opted for a change of scenery and signed a four-year, $80 million max contract with the Spurs. By raw numbers, one might say Aldridge has been disappointing in his two seasons with the team, averaging just 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 blocks—numbers that pale in comparison to his production on Portland. He has scored 20 or more points 51 times and has 54 double-doubles during this span. In his final go-round with the Blazers alone, he poured in at least 20 points 50 times while collecting 39 double-doubles.

Still, he’s playing fewer minutes in San Antonio, taking six fewer shots per game and knocking them down with better accuracy (50 percent effective field-goal percentage compared to 46.9 in Portland). 

Simply put, he’s been much more efficient as the second fiddle to superstar Kawhi Leonard. And his shot selection has a lot to do with it.

When he’s feeling it, Aldridge’s fadeaway 15-footer is one of the most unstoppable shots in the league. Standing at 6’11” with a high release, he’s nearly impossible to block, and he makes it look so easy with just a flick of his wrist. But mid-range jumpers are one of the least efficient shots in basketball, and Aldridge has cut down on them since venturing to the Alamo City.

According to Basketball-Reference’s shooting stats, which track field goals attempted by distance, his average shot length with the Spurs has been 10.9 feet, compared to 12.6 in his final two Blazers campaigns. He’s also attempting fewer two-pointers of at least 16 feet and more from zero to three feet, which has only helped his efficiency.

Take a look at his shot charts, via StatMuse. First, in his final season with the Blazers:

2014-15 (last season in POR)

Then during his first two go-rounds with the Spurs:

Last two seasons in SA

In the Spurs’ pass-happy offense, most of Aldridge’s opportunities come after the ball has swung around the arc, in the pick-and-roll or on put-backs. Gone are the days where the Blazers feed him a dozen times per game at the left elbow and let him go to work. His attempts now come within the flow of the offense, but he knew this when he signed on.

Since 1996-97, when Popovich took the helm, Tim Duncan and Leonard are the only Spurs to average over 25 points per game for a season, and they’ve each only done it once. Considering the latter is still just 26 and entering his prime, Aldridge shouldn’t ever expect to enjoy a more prominent offensive role.

As Amick cited in his trade-speculation piece, the veteran had to be “sold on the idea that his skills were a good fit for the Spurs’ system” before joining. He reportedly “came close to signing with the Phoenix Suns, having seen their young core and been drawn to the idea that he would be a featured part of their offense.”

But now with the Spurs, Aldridge’s time as a lead option is done, and his current role is nearly ideal for this stage of his career—if Popovich will use him correctly.

Projected Rotation

Since 35-year-old point guard Tony Parker is out until at least January, Patty Mills will start in his place, likely accompanied by Danny Green, Leonard, Aldridge and Pau Gasol, with newly-signed Rudy Gay, Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson the first bodies off the pine.

In a perfect world, Aldridge would slide to the five, Gasol would come off the bench and either Gay or Anderson would start in the forward slot next to Leonard. But Pop will probably stick with his tried-and-true twin-tower approach. Not that it matters much. Only one official center is on the roster, so Aldridge will need to log ample time at the 5.

After rarely manning the middle in recent seasons, the former Blazer has been slotted at center 39 percent of the time in San Antonio. The only problem? He hasn’t been utilized as the small-ball big man nearly enough. Out of his 2,846 minutes in 2016-17, just 220 came with Gasol, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon and Davis Bertans off the court, per NBAWowy. He’ll need more run than that next season if the Spurs want to maximize their ceiling in the hellishly high-caliber Western Conference.

At this stage of his career, Aldridge’s skills are best used as a stationary rim-protector, rather than being sucked away from the basket to corral guards on screens. He still blocks a decent amount of shots, and he’s set career-highs in defensive box plus/minus in back-to-back seasons.

But back to his offense: He attempted 1.5 threes per game (35.2 percent hit rate) in his final season with the Blazers but took just 0.2 during his first Spurs crusade. Last year, his tries climbed back up to 0.8—and though his 41.1 percent accuracy probably won’t be replicated, aiming for somewhere in the mid-to-high 30s would seem both doable and admirable.

Having said that, we’ve already seen some decline on the offensive end from Aldridge, and sticking to his strengths will be that much more important going forward. Per NBA Math’s play-type profiles:

Post-ups are the most notable plummet in the graphic above, as Aldridge was below average in the action after shining in 2015-16. On the same note, the lumbering power forward continued his struggle as the roller in the pick-and-roll. His diminished athleticism is on full display in both play types, as he lacks both the quickness and leapability to get by or power through stronger post players.

A firmer commitment to pick-and-pop jumpers, in addition to threes off the catch, will only help Aldridge as he continues to age.

Spurs’ Future Books

The cherry on top of the Aldridge-San Antonio sundae is the team’s salary situation.

The Spurs are in a strange spot. Pair Popovich, Kawhi and strong role players with well-timed rest and franchise synergy, and they’re locks to churn out 50 wins every year. But as presently constructed, it’s tough to see this team disrupting the Warriors’ reign anytime soon. Then again, Leonard is just 26, and maybe they’re planning to just stay competitive and re-load when Aldridge and Gasol are off the books.

The 37-year-old Spaniard declined his player option in June so the team could chase Chris Paul. The assumption was he would re-join the Spurs for less money over more years, no matter who they ended up signing. But after Jonathon Simmons bolted for the Orlando Magic and San Antonio acquired Gay on a two-year, $17 million deal (player option after the first), the 16-year veteran re-upped for three years and $48 million ($6.7 million guaranteed in the final season).

This move came as a complete surprise, since up until then, the team’s future books looked remarkably clear. Leonard is locked up for at least two more years (player option on the third), and Mills put pen to paper on a four-year contract this summer. After them, though, not one of the primary rotation players is operating on a long-term pact.

Aldridge, Green, Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne have player options next year. Murray has a team option. Anderson, Bertans and Bryn Forbes will all be restricted free agents. Parker is unrestricted. With the Gasol signing, the Spurs may have removed themselves from the superstar free-agent pool for the next two summers, should they have interest in bringing back any combination of these soon-to-be mercenaries. And perhaps that’s part of the plan. If they believe Aldridge is picking up his player option, the Gasol overpay, due to its non-guarantee in 2019, better aligns with their cap-space timeline.

Pretty much no one thought Aldridge would opt into the final year of his contract when he first signed it. But the free-agent market is weird after so many teams spent themselves into oblivion during the 2016 offseason. Unless Aldridge decides this situation is purely awful—and it doesn’t appear to be —playing out his deal may be the optimal route. Recouping the $22.3 million he’s owed in 2018-19 could take two or three seasons. Given the Spurs’ success, along with his high compensation over the next two seasons, it feels like he’ll remain in San Antonio.

And yet, if he opts out, and the Spurs deem his price tag too steep, stay woke.

The L-Train might come roaring down the tracks of a city near you.

 

Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com

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