AT&T CENTER – Before January 22, 2016, the San Antonio Spurs were getting 15.9 points and 8.9 rebounds from their marquee free agent from the previous summer, LaMarcus Aldridge. From the start of the season to January 22, that was known in many ways as an adjustment period for Aldridge to get acclimated to new teammates, a new system, and almost everything on the basketball court.
So why point out such a date as January 22? Well, that was the last time Tim Duncan would play in quite a while with the Spurs, when he faced the Los Angeles Lakers and would miss the next eight straight games with soreness in his right knee. With no Duncan on the floor to defer to, Aldridge became the Spurs’ go-to player in terms of their front court lineup of bigs. When asked before the Spurs’ victory over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday if Duncan’s absence helped force Aldridge into becoming more aggressive, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich indicated that it might have been a reason for Aldridge’s more confident and comfortable change in play.
“It’s a subjective thing, but I think it’s logical to think that that may have been a little bit of a catalyst,” said Popovich. “He realized he had to do some things and there wasn’t anybody else to defer to, as far as bigs are concerned. That probably had a little bit to do with it. It’s also been a process where he’s become more comfortable in the offense, catching it in different places than he was used to, and it was a process for me too to give him the ball more in places that he was used to. So a little bit of both and then as time went on his confidence level went up when he would miss shots, and he realized we don’t care.”
“We care if you don’t shoot them if you’re open,” continued Popovich. “If you miss them, we don’t care, you can’t control that.”
As Popovich said, while pinning Aldridge’s growth in confidence on Duncan’s absence might be a subjective take, the data does support the argument. With Duncan around in 37 of the Spurs’ first 44 games, Aldridge was averaging 15.9 points. Once Duncan went out after 01/22 and he fully returned after the All-Star Break on 02/18 against the Clippers, Aldridge’s scoring increased to 20.8 points per game. The chart below reveals three different timelines. First, the start of the season to 01/22/2016, when Duncan played in 37 of the Spurs’ 44 games, then 01/23 to 02/18, when Duncan missed all but two of those 10 games, and finally, from 02/18 to Thursday’s recent victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on 03/17, where Duncan has played with Aldridge in 13 of the Spurs’ last 15 games.
|Timeframe||PPG (FGA, FG%)||FTA||REB||AST||TOs||BLK||MIN|
|Start – 01/22/2016||15.9 (13.6, 48.7%)||3.4||8.9||1.3||1.4||0.9||29.6|
|01/23/2016 – 02/18/2016||20.8 (13.9, 54.7%)||6.1||5.8||1.8||1.1||1.5||29.8|
|02/18/2016 – 03/17/2016||20.2 (15.2, 52.6%)||4.6||8.6||1.8||1.1||1.4||32.6|
When you look at the three sets of data, you’ll see two of the key areas of growth for Aldridge’s scoring have been both in his field goal percentage and free throw attempts. With 63 games now under his belt as a Spur, not only has he become more comfortable in the offensive system as Popovich mentioned, but his teammates too have taken the time to learn and figure out where he prefers the ball, as Tony Parker mentioned on Thursday after the win over the Blazers.
“I feel great,” said Parker of playing alongside Aldridge. “I love playing with him, I know exactly where he’s going to be. It’s funny because even if he hits five shots in a row, they’re (defenders) both staying with me and I’m like, ‘go to LaMarcus, go guard him,’ but he’s still getting open shots and he got a lot of shots tonight, and he’s been knocking them down. I feel like LA is feeling more and more comfortable with the system and he’s playing great.”
Through 68 games this season, Parker has assisted on 97 of Aldridge’s 449 made baskets. Last season, Damian Lillard assisted on 130 of Aldridge’s made baskets, but Aldridge also shot a lot more with the Blazers to make 659 field goals last season. Just to compare how much Aldridge is being assisted by his new teammates, check out how many Spurs have over 10 assists on Aldridge’s made baskets this season, compared to the Blazers last season.
Spurs: Parker 97, Duncan 39, Leonard 34, Mills 28, Green 26, Ginobili 23, West 12, Diaw 11. – 8 Spurs
Blazers: Lillard 130, Batum 74, Steve Blake 46, Matthews 28, McCollum 10, Kaman 10. – 6 Blazers
So it’s not just Parker getting comfortable in finding Aldridge in his comfort zone, but it’s also most of the core Spurs that play alongside him in different lineups and situations.
Even Aldridge’s former coach Terry Stotts said Aldridge is starting to look more comfortable these days as a Spur, now that Aldridge has had more time and experience in San Antonio’s system.
“He looks very comfortable in the situation,” said Stotts Thursday. “We played them in November and I think there was an adjustment period both from his standpoint and the Spurs, but he looks like he’s very comfortable out there. He’s scoring, he’s efficient, so I think he’s fitting in pretty well.”
When Stotts says Aldridge is efficient, he’s on point, as Aldridge is shooting above league average from most of the areas on the floor where he shoots the ball with San Antonio, according to the numbers from Statmuse.com. When you look at his shot distribution from StatMuse’s shot charts, you can see just how much Aldridge’s shots have had to change from the Blazers to the Spurs, in just one season. Yet, even through the change in shot location, Aldridge is still making shots at a very respectable percentage with his new team.
Aldridge’s Shot Chart as a Blazer
Aldridge’s Shot Chart as a Spur
Aldridge still produces most of his damage near the rim either off post-ups, dunks, or drives, but the key difference you can see when analyzing both shot charts is how San Antonio isn’t making him a threat from just the left block and left elbow, like the Blazers used to do, but instead, he’s now a threat from all areas in the mid-range – left elbow, right elbow, middle, left side and right side. Making Aldridge a comfortable shooter from all areas within the mid-range area and on either block in the post makes guarding him that much more difficult for defenses, because he can spot-up from anywhere, pick-and-pop from anywhere, or post-up on either block. If you’ve watched Aldridge over the past two months, notice that his shot selection doesn’t just come from the left side only, or right side only areas of the floor, but instead, from anywhere within the 3-point arc.
While Duncan’s absence from late January to mid-February might not be a definite reason why Aldridge has grown more comfortable, the data and observations of Aldridge’s play lately have shown that through his transformation into becoming one of the key weapons for San Antonio, there have been stages through the process, and Duncan’s absence could have been a key reason for how Aldridge is playing today.