In Appreciation of LaMarcus Aldridge

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Tim Duncan isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli. Shoot, Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through that door unless it’s as an opponent. The previous lines are starting to resonate with the San Antonio Spurs and their fans.

There isn’t a singular player that is going to save this team from a lackluster season, but there is a veteran on the roster that could be deserving of your appreciation: LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Decisions…decisions…

Spurs fans have a lot to rejoice about when thinking about their future. They have a core of three young players in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV, each of which has tantalizing potential. 

The problem is – in the present – the Spurs are trying to navigate a super sensitive space where we ask: do you let the young guys ride it out or do you rely on your veterans?

There is a faction of Spurs fans that believe coach Gregg Popovich needs to play his young core more minutes and punt on the Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan tandem. (Which would most likely lead to a bottoming out for the team.)

There is another camp that believes punting on the season in favor of developing young players goes against everything the Spurs stand for. The thing is, things are different now.

There aren’t three Hall-of-Famers on the roster to help usher in the new generation. So as a neutral party, I’ve taken the easy way out: The Spurs should play their young core more, but play through Aldridge even more. I’m playing both sides, sorry. 

DeRozan has been great this season, averaging 22.4 points on an insane 53.3 percent from the field (3-point nerd corner be damned!). It’s not fair to DeRozan to be playing this well and still drawing the ire of analytic truthers.

But there is validity in some of the criticisms. If the plan is to keep Murray, White, and Walker IV together then it makes little sense to have a player like DeRozan taking 16.0 shots per game. It’s counterintuitive.

I know the fear is: if fewer shots go to DeRozan, whether he gets fewer touches or is simply moved in a trade, will the young fellas be ready to assume responsibility?

I say they’ll be fine…as long as more sets are run through Aldridge and he builds on his recent play.

Aldridge is averaging 14.9 shots per game, his lowest in two seasons and has a usage rate of 23.3 percent, his lowest rate since coming to San Antonio. But he’s averaging the most threes per game (2.8) and percentage on threes (42.6 percent) of his entire career. 

A couple of neat advanced numbers for Aldridge: he’s posting a career-high in true shooting at 58.9 percent and he brings it on defense as well with a block percentage of 4.6, also a career-high. 

Lineup Issues

Aldridge has been ridiculously efficient while holding his own on defense in one-on-one matchups. Unfortunately, he’s tasked with running the five as part of the NBA’s sixth-most frequently-used lineup.

The reason it’s unfortunate is because of the players around him: Trey Lyles (bad defender), DeRozan (meh defender), and Bryn Forbes (who plays hard but is limited physically). 

Of lineups that have played in at least 25 games and 100 minutes together the aforementioned lineup with Murray at the point guard has the third-worst defensive rating.

As a comparison, the lineup consisting of Aldridge, Rudy Gay, DeRozan, Forbes, and White posts a defensive rating of 98.5 in 95 minutes of game action. Swapping Forbes for Murray would probably provide an even bigger surge on defense. 

The defense is the Spurs’ biggest problem this season (they currently rank 25th in defensive rating). Doubling down, running more sets through Aldridge and surrounding him with the best defensive options is the best course of action for San Antonio. 

Aldridge still has plenty left in the tank, considering his playing style should age well. Running more lineups with Walker IV, Murray and White with Aldridge as the offensive fulcrum would allow the young guys to develop chemistry with one another without sacrificing too much shooting. 

Red Hot From Deep

Since December 23, Aldridge is shooting 36-for-69 on threes (that’s a wild 52 percent clip). If this is more than a hot streak the Spurs are best served to ride the hot hand while giving their core of the future an opportunity to continue learning and adapting to the NBA.

My call for Aldridge to be featured more isn’t a solution for the side of Spurs fans that want the best option for making the playoffs and going on a surprise run.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Ultimately, if the Spurs need to move on from either DeRozan or Aldridge, I believe Aldridge is a perfect fit to keep on the team. He can get a bucket in one-on-one scenarios, roll off a pick and roll, or pop out for a three-pointer. 

I mean look at the scoring versatility from his 40-point performance against the Grizzlies on Dec 23:

Aldridge, at age 34 is still one of the best offensive big men in the game. He cooked Memphis’ opposing bigs with his ability to work in the post for his patented fadeaway; he trailed for threes; and he stayed true to himself, knocking down mid-range jumpers within the flow of the offense. 

Let The Young Guys Loose!

I’m confident the defense would come around if Murray and White got more opportunities to operate in tandem on the perimeter, and more reps for Walker IV is vital if he’s ever going to be a positive on that side of the court. 

A lackluster start to the season and a seeming unwillingness to fire from deep might’ve caused some to sour on Aldridge, but his surge as of late bombing away from three, and his continued efficiency should be swaying public opinion. 

With Popovich still at the helm, I have my doubts on a complete embrace of a Murray, White, Walker IV, Aldridge, (*insert floor spacer*) lineup, but it’s something to hope for. 

The Solution (?)

Aldridge is locked in until the end of the 2020-21 season, while DeRozan has a player option for next season that he could opt out of and leave with no return for the Spurs. Keeping Aldridge around is the prudent move; moving DeRozan might be an imperative move. 

The best scenario for the Spurs is to find a trade partner for DeRozan (which I know must be tough in today’s NBA climate). If they can accomplish that then they can take a good look at how their future core plays alongside Aldridge. Making the playoffs would just be the icing on the cake. 

There might be a fair amount of Spurs fans who resent the idea of moving on from DeRozan and seemingly giving up on the season, but that’s why you keep Aldridge around. The Spurs won’t officially know what they have in their young guys if they don’t get consistent extended NBA reps. (Murray is averaging 24.1 minutes per game, White is at 23.6, and Walker IV is at 12.3.) Let the kids hoop!

Aldridge is still a flawed player who is only getting older, but teams all around the league are searching, praying, they can nab a big man who can hit threes. The Spurs have a player like that and a promising core. It’s crucial for Popovich and Co. to make the right moves in order to get the most out of the present and the future. 

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