LaMarcus Aldridge, Saved by Kawhi's Injury
LaMarcus Aldridge joined the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2015 and was the most significant free agent signing in the Spurs history in the opinions of many. The Spurs do not go out and get free agents, they draft well and develop their players. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard were all drafted by the Spurs. This was a different move for the team, they actually went out and signed a free agent to a max contract.
The deal has had its ups and downs and there have been times when it seemed like the relationship was destined to end. However, during Aldridge’s first two seasons with the Spurs, they went 128-36 in the regular season. Despite that regular season dominance, the Spurs have not reached the NBA Finals, losing in the 2nd round of the playoffs in 2016 and being swept in the Western Conference Finals last season by the Warriors.
While most teams would be happy with that type of success, the Spurs were not. The biggest problem was their injury luck. Kawhi Leonard was hurt in the first game of the Western Conference Finals and the thought was that LaMarcus Aldridge would need to step up for the Spurs to have a chance. He did not play well at all and the Spurs seemed to go into the off-season with the mindset that they would like to trade LaMarcus Aldridge.
As we all know, that did not happen. What did happen was a meeting between Gregg Popovich and Aldridge that seemed to clear the air. Coming out of the meeting, it seemed that the Spurs felt better about their moody big man and gave him a contract extension. This move baffled many people, but it is just like the Spurs to do what no one else is thinking they will do. It seemed that the Spurs felt that they could keep LaMarcus happy and he could be a productive player for them.
One of Aldridge’s complaints to the Spurs was that he was a player of rhythm. He needed touches, consistent touches. Watching the Spurs of last season, Kawhi did everything for them and then some. There was not a great deal of feeding Aldridge in the post. According to NBA.com/stats, Aldridge averaged four post ups per game. He was just not happy with his role on the team.
As the regular season approached, there was a problem for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard, a top 3 MVP finisher, was not going to play in the opener and it looked like he might have a significant quad injury. Many began to wonder if this was the year that the Spurs struggled and would not make the playoffs. There was reason to believe it might happen. In the offseason, they signed Rudy Gay, re-signed Pau Gasol and Patty Mills, and their go-to-guy with Kawhi hurt, Aldridge, was not happy with his role on the team. Not only was Kawhi Leonard hurt, but they were also going to be without Tony Parker for an extended period of time.
The season started and the Spurs were the Spurs. They made up for scoring issues with tough defense and pounding the ball inside to Aldridge and Gasol. According to Basketball Reference, the Spurs have played the 29th slowest pace in the league with the 15th best offensive rating and the 3rd best defensive rating in the NBA. Aldridge’s post up numbers have risen to over 12 per game, per NBA.com/stats. Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game on 17 shots per game, both highs for Aldridge as a Spur. He has helped the team get out to a 19-8 start without Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard for a great deal of that run.
For 27 games, Aldridge has been the man for the Spurs. He has been the focal point of the offense and they are feeding him the ball in the post with opportunities to score. It’s funny to think about this, but the Leonard injury could have been the best thing to happen to the Spurs and Aldridge. Without their do everything superstar, the team has needed guys to step up and they have. Aldridge has shown that he can be the focal point of their offense and they can be successful. Kyle Anderson and Danny Green have stepped up. The Rudy Gay signing has looked like a stroke of genius for the team and Tony Parker has looked great since returning from injury.
With the news that Kawhi Leonard is planning to play against the Mavericks on Tuesday night, there has to be some worry from Aldridge. It is easy to say that you are going to get more touches when the superstar of the team is injured, but when he returns what happens? Will Popovich continue to get Aldridge the touches to keep him in rhythm? The Spurs need Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge to play well if they hope to do anything in the playoffs. With the Warriors and Rockets looking more and more dominant everyday, the Spurs are going to have see one of them in the 2nd round and if they hope to be successful they will need Aldridge to be the Aldridge of the first 27 games of the season.
What has Aldridge done to be so effective for the Spurs? When you look at the numbers, the difference is the amount of touches. Aldridge in his first two seasons with the Spurs averaged just a little over 14 shots per game. 13 of those in each season were two point attempts and he was averaging less than one three pointer per game. He averaged 18 points and 17.3 points per game respectively and when you look at his shooting numbers on Basketball Reference you can see that he is taking the majority of his shots from the same distances. This season has been a little different.
This season, Aldridge has upped his shot attempts and with that has come an increase in scoring. He is not shooting a much better percentage from the field and he is not performing better in a certain area of the court than in seasons passed. The big difference this season is that he is playing without Kawhi and the Spurs have been successful. Kawhi will more than likely have a minutes restriction as he integrates himself into the lineup and how that impacts Aldridge remains to be seen. Gregg Popovich has some important decisions to make, but his track record suggests that he will figure it out and that the Spurs will still be dangerous come playoff time.
LaMarcus Aldridge is still a very good basketball player. Given the opportunity, he can carry an offense. There are not many guys in the league that can do that. If the Spurs are able to keep him involved and getting touches in the post, the Spurs are going to be a tough out for the Warriors or Rockets. Neither team has a big that can stop Aldridge in the post. While the Rockets and Warriors present matchup problems of their own, the Spurs’ size could be trouble for both of those teams. The Spurs can absolutely dominate the glass and they are currently 5th in the NBA in offensive rebounding and 7th in total rebounding, per Basketball Reference. Whatever your opinion may be regarding LaMarcus Aldridge, it cannot be denied that he is a good basketball player that can help your team win games. He just needs the opportunity to do so.