How LaMarcus Aldridge Busted His Slump

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After a frustrating shooting slump, LaMarcus Aldridge has played much more effectively in the first three games of San Antonio’s road trip.

LaMarcus desperately needed to change his game after struggling mightily for much of November. He scored in single digits three times in two weeks, more than he did all of last season.

There are several different but related reasons why Aldridge has had a tough time. To start with the obvious, he’s doing something that he has never been asked to do before in his 13th season in the league: play the center position almost exclusively.

Aldridge has played center for over 95 percent of his minutes since Pau Gasol’s injury on November 4th. That’s up from around 62 percent last year, as well as this year before the injury to Gasol, who started 63 games last season.

Pau and LaMarcus compliment each other about as well as two big men can. Gasol is a spectacular passer and a deadeye catching and shooting three-pointers, so he spaces the floor around LA in the post and sets him up in the dirty areas. Playing with a true center allows Aldridge to do the thing that made him a perennial All-Star, which is bully other power forwards on the left block.

As I’ve already gone over in great detail, LaMarcus is not having much success playing the center position the way he played power forward. When he posts up against a smaller defender and pounds the rock, not many of them can stop his drive to the right or effectively contest his turnaround jumper.

On the other hand, many centers can do both. Against taller and stronger defenders, the 6’11” LA can’t create as much space with his body, and he can’t finish over them as easily. Especially if help comes to contain the drive, all the 7 footer guarding Aldridge has to do is anticipate and contest the predictable fadeaway. Still, Aldridge posts up far more than anyone in the league at 12.5 times per game.

Not only does Aldridge have a harder post matchup, but he also has to do all of the little things that centers do on both ends of the floor. He needs to box out, rebound, set screens, and play physical defense protecting the rim. He does all of them exceptionally well, leading the league in box outs and team rebounds off of box outs, and near the top in offensive rebounds and two-point field goals contested.

The physical demands of his new position are probably taking a toll on the 33-year-old veteran’s legs. He’s also playing 35 minutes per game, more than he ever has in his four years in San Antonio. Combine that with the increased degree of difficulty of his shots and reduced accuracy that results, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it all impacted his confidence. Shooters need to see the ball go in the hoop, and he hasn’t. That might be why he seems to think about it too much, even if he’s wide open.

Aldridge seemed to get his mojo back with 33 points on the road against a Pacers team missing Myles Turner, one of the top five shot blockers in the league. Later in the game he started feasting on Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young in the post, but his approach to start the game is what really stuck out. He set picks, popped, and made quick decisions when the ball came to him.

Aldridge scored a bunch by popping and rolling to the rim, and his screens also resulted in lots of buckets for teammates.

When LaMarcus did post up, he often caught the ball and attacked the smaller defenders immediately, before the double team could come.

LaMarcus got into a groove shooting the ball on open jumpers, started feeling himself a little bit, and realized that nobody on the floor for Indiana could block his shot. He used his size to create space and shoot over the Pacers in the post.

After a road win with 33 points on 14/25 shooting, plus 14 boards and a couple of blocks, Aldridge didn’t have quite the same impact the next night in a loss in Milwaukee. He shot 50 percent, but only on 12 shots. It makes sense that the Spurs didn’t go to him as much, considering they went from facing an Indiana team with no shot blockers to the longest team in the NBA.

Aldridge spent most of his night matched up against Brook Lopez, who has the size advantage and did a good job of containing LA in the post. LaMarcus remained effective by setting a ton of screens for DeRozan and others. DeMar tied his season high with 34 points in the game, and he owes a lot of those open looks to Aldridge’s picks.

DeRozan drew plenty of double teams, and a couple of his 7 assists went to Aldridge, who stretched the defense out with his shot-making ability. Against a team as long as the Bucks, LaMarcus was right to attack more from the perimeter and play off the ball.

He also decided to test Lopez’s lateral quickness by facing up and driving, rather than posting up. It’s a pretty solid strategy to attack the bigger defender’s weakness.

The Spurs actually led this game by ten in the fourth quarter, but the wheels fell off the bus at the end. Aldridge shot just twice in the quarter, and this dismal attempt was one of them. It looked as if he would face up for a moment, but instead he decided to back down a brick wall.

He still impacted the game late, opening up DeRozan with screens. With a little over five minutes to go, the Spurs cleared out the strong side corner and LA came up to set a screen for DeMar. The defenders didn’t communicate, and both could do nothing but watch as DeRozan cocked it back on the Greek Freak.

Giannis had the last laugh though, as DeRozan shot just 1/4 in the final five minutes. Aldridge barely touched the ball, the Spurs couldn’t get a stop with Forbes and Mills in the game for their shooting, and Milwaukee wound up winning 135-129.

After a day of rest, LaMarcus looked extra springy against the Bulls. He didn’t shoot the ball much at all to start the game but did all those little center things that he needs to do for his teammates. His screens opened up DeRozan and Forbes for easy buckets, and so did his defense.

Once again, he got a couple of open looks out of the pick and pop very early in the game. He made the first, but missed the second.

The Bulls saw what happened to the similarly undersized Pacers, and their game plan to start the contest was to double Aldridge as soon as he touched the ball down low. It definitely kept him from scoring early on, but the Spurs made some excellent plays out of it, including an emphatic dunk by LaMarcus himself.

Oddly enough, the Bulls seemed to forget their strategy of doubling LA in the fourth quarter. He scored 11 of his 20 points in the final period, bullying the smaller, younger Bulls who suddenly had no help. He attacked the mismatches quickly once again, and by the time Chicago realized, it was already too late.

With two minutes left and a small lead, Aldridge once again found himself isolated on the wing against a center named Lopez. This time, he read the situation and attacked it perfectly. RoLo’s knees buckled on the pump fake, and LaMarcus didn’t look tired at all when he drove left, cocked it back, and threw it down.

Aldridge got to 20 points, and the Spurs moved to 9-0 on the year when he reaches that mark. It’s not that he shouldn’t play center, or that he should only attack the rim, or only pick and pop. LA can find success in just about any situation, he just needs to play the right way for that specific situation. Based on his play in the past few games, he and the Spurs seem to understand that.

Tonight against Karl Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, he’ll have more success setting screens and playing off the ball, getting elbow touches and crashing the boards. LaMarcus will probably attack KAT in the post a little bit, but he’ll be more effective getting him out in space and taking him off the dribble.

The coaching staff will have to build the gameplan around LA’s matchup for the next 62 games of the year, and then it’s up to him to execute. Their success in that endeavor will determine their success as a team.


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