Last year, LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs to the playoffs as the centerpiece of the team. This year he’s mainly working on the “center” part, and he’s becoming one of the league’s best.
Aldridge is playing about 70 percent of his minutes at the five this year, a significant increase considering Pau Gasol started for much of last season. Recall that when Aldridge was the premier free agent in the summer of 2015, he didn’t even meet with the Knicks because Phil Jackson wanted him to play center so they could go small around Carmelo Anthony.
It’s easy to understand why LaMarcus wanted to remain at power forward. At 6’11” and 260 pounds, he has the ability to bully almost any four who draws the unfortunate assignment of guarding him on the low block. He can shoot over the smaller guys and use his length on the defensive end, and he doesn’t have to do as much of the messy and physical rim protector job.
When Aldridge first signed with the Spurs, Tim Duncan anchored a defense led by Kawhi Leonard. San Antonians were delighted to win the biggest prize of the summer, but he struggled to find his role on the court and didn’t even come close to the popularity podium dominated by future Hall-of-Famers who were already legends in the city. He even asked Gregg Popovich for a trade, something that had never happened before in his illustrious two decades of coaching.
Times change. Those future Hall-of-Famers retired or otherwise moved on, leaving a leadership void that Aldridge was eager to fill. Last year he wasn’t just the go-to scorer through which the offense ran, he directed the defense and became the emotional heart and soul of the team. That season left Spurs fans yearning for something to believe in, and LaMarcus became that.
The player the Spurs got back for Kawhi Leonard is dominating the headlines this season, and rightly so. DeMar DeRozan has played spectacular basketball, averaging 27.9 points per game, assisting at a higher level than he ever has before, and winning games for San Antonio in crunch time.
Some would look at Aldridge’s shooting percentage (44.3) and scoring average (20.6), both down from last year, and say that his play is regressing now that DeRozan is the go-to guy. He’s been demoted to second fiddle once again, and last year’s production was an anomaly only made possible by the absence of a true first option.
First of all, “second fiddle” is a stupid metaphor to apply to basketball players, or at least these ones. A team is like a band, and if your two best musicians both play the fiddle that band is going to suck. LaMarcus never played the fiddle in the first place. He has become the drumbeat, the steady metronome that gives every other member of the band the structure and pace necessary to play their instruments together.
Aldridge isn’t just playing his game as the tallest guy on the floor for his team. He’s evolving his game to play more like a traditional center, and one of the best in the league at that. The only centers in the NBA averaging more than LaMarcus’ 20.6 points per game are Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis.
Aldridge is boxing out 12.1 times per game, second behind only Steven Adams. He’s grabbing 9.1 rebounds, more than he ever has before in a Spurs uniform. A career-high 4.3 of those are offensive, good for third in the league behind only glass-cleaning monsters Andre Drummond and Adams. Those offensive boards often result in easy putbacks, and his 3.6 second-chance points per game put him in the 96th percentile in the NBA.
He’s getting to the free throw line more than he ever has, and as the pivot point of the offense, he is adding a career-best 3.1 assists per game. This trend also extends to the defensive end of the floor where he now calls out assignments and coverages to get his teammates in the right position. He’s averaging a career-high 1.3 blocks per game while fouling at one of the lowest rates in the league for centers.
Another way Aldridge is playing like a true center this year, unfortunately, is by shooting jumpers poorly. So far he has hit just 24/77 attempts from outside the restricted area, a miserable 31 percent. He’s getting to his spots, often wide open. There are no glaring issues with his form, he is just inexplicably missing the shots that he has reliably hit throughout his career.
It’s especially vexing because playing center alongside DeRozan should give Aldridge a clear advantage in the mid-range game. Last year he had to create more of the offense by himself, making nearly half of his baskets without an assist. This year, nearly 70 percent of his made baskets are coming off of a pass from his teammates, with DeRozan and Bryn Forbes dishing him 10 dimes each thus far.
Playing center means that a legit 7-footer has to guard Aldridge, and his ability to hit the jumper often pulls the defender away from the rim creating driving lanes for DeRozan and others. He’s creating 3.9 baskets per game with screens, putting him in the 98th percentile in the NBA. It’s especially dangerous in the pick and pop, forcing the opposing center to choose between allowing DeRozan an easier look at the basket or giving LaMarcus an open elbow jumper.
The good news for the Spurs is that Aldridge probably won’t keep missing open 17-footers for long. He made 42 percent of his shots outside of the restricted area last year, and he might do even better than that this year considering how many more wide open catch and shoot looks he’s getting now.
Aldridge is adapting to his new position better than he and the Spurs ever could have hoped, and he still has considerable room to improve on the thing he’s best at. Basketball is smaller and faster in 2018, and LaMarcus Aldridge is now dominating the center position he never wanted to play.