When the San Antonio Spurs announced that Kawhi Leonard would be missing an indefinite amount of time due to right quad tendinopathy in September, many expected the team to start the season struggling. Some even conjectured that if Leonard missed a prolonged portion of the season that the Spurs could be fighting for a playoff spot late in the season.
The Spurs, however, currently sit third in the Western Conference after winning 17 of their first 25 games despite complications extending Leonard’s rehab.
There are many factors that determine whether a basketball team wins or loses, some harder to quantify and identify than others, meaning that there are many factors that have contributed to the Spurs’ strong start to the season. Undeniably, though, one of the greatest factors has been the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. So far this season, Aldridge is averaging 22.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 33.3 minutes for what has been easily his best season in San Antonio so far.
With Leonard expected to return soon, many have wondered if Aldridge will be able to continue playing at the level he has to start the season once Leonard is on the court again, and there is reason to believe he will.
With Leonard on the floor, Aldridge’s usage rate will drop from the 28.9% it currently sits at, but with Aldridge shooting at an increased effective field goal percentage (up from 48.8% last season to 52.2% this season) it would be a mistake for the Spurs to decrease Aldridge’s touches to what they were last season, or even the season before. Part of the reason for this increase in efficiency is that Aldridge is taking arguably better shots this season than he did either of the previous two seasons. According to CleaningTheGlass, Aldridge is shooting almost 10% less of his total shots from long mid-range, the least efficient shot in basketball. Aldridge has been more adept at drawing fouls this season as well, earning free throws on 14.1% of all shots he takes, the highest mark in his career. This increased free throw rate is a result of Aldridge taking a higher percentage of his shots at the rim this season compared to last.
Aldridge is also taking a higher percentage of his shots from three-point range, attempting twice as many threes this season than he did last season. Aldridge being more willing to shoot threes makes the Leonard-Aldridge pick-and-roll more diverse as it opens up options for what Aldridge does after he sets the pick and requires opposing teams to respect him shooting from long range.
This season, Aldridge has been particularly skillful at finding open teammates on the perimeter when opposing teams send double-teams at him in the post. The Spurs are shooting 18.2% better on corner threes when he is on the court than when he is on the bench. The pressure that he has been putting on opposing defenses this season has certainly created open looks for the Spurs’ outside shooters, and when Leonard, a long-range threat in his own right, returns, defenses will be forced to make concessions.
Ultimately, while Aldridge’s counting stats are up, it has been his aggression in getting to the rim and attacking the offensive glass, as well as a willingness to shoot more from long distance, that has opened up a multitude of offensive opportunities for him so far this season.
There is no reason for those opportunities to disappear when Leonard returns to the court. While Aldridge may see a dip in points-per-game, an MVP-caliber Kawhi Leonard playing next to Aldridge, who seems to have found his rhythm in San Antonio, will only make the squad stronger.
Yearly averages obtained from stats.nba.com, all other stats from CleaningTheGlass.com