The Spurs have heard the fretting about LaMarcus Aldridge — how he holds the ball longer than any Spur is permitted to, hogs Tim Duncan’s territory on the left block, and cares in rather un-Spursy fashion about how many shots and points he averages.
The Spurs got over all of that long ago. They are itching to start the mutual adaptation process. Aldridge might not be the best fit for San Antonio’s whirring equal-opportunity system, but the perfect free agent isn’t always there the rare summer you have the cap room to lift Duncan’s championship window. Sometimes, you have to nab the star who’s both available and interested, and deal with the nitty-gritty stuff later.
“LaMarcus will be different,” says R.C. Buford, the team’s GM. “And we’ll be different than we were before LaMarcus. We have to figure out how LaMarcus will play within our group, and produce at levels that he’s capable of — and that are important to him, and to our success.”
Aldridge introduces some granular X’s-and-O’s complications, but don’t overthink this. He’s going to fit in fine, and the Spurs with Aldridge have a chance to be spectacular. They sacrificed the shared knowledge of roster continuity to get him, but it’s worth the risk — for this one season, and beyond. They need the simple accessibility of his post game, especially as the clock winds down, and a big man who can counter small-ball lineups — at both ends of the floor. Aldridge needs San Antonio to nudge him away from selfish tendencies and toward a new level of all-around greatness. If the Spurs fall short of expectations, it will probably be because of some other variable — age, injury, the continued decline of Tony Parker, or the brutal Western Conference landscape. It will take some sacrifice, but everyone involved is smart enough and flexible enough to make this work.
I mean, these are the Spurs! Gregg Popovich has already reinvented them at least twice over, and their team-first ethos, from Duncan on down the roster, gets all kinds of personalities pulling in the same direction.
“If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s Pop,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose super-small lineups were very much on San Antonio’s mind as it chased Aldridge. “Nobody is more capable of adapting to a new group.”
A big man who can shoot is perhaps the easiest sort of player to integrate on offense, and Aldridge is damn near Nowitzkian from midrange. It’s harder for that kind of player to hog the ball, simply because he needs someone to pass it to him first. By the time he gets it, the offense is already flowing. “When he shoots, the rim just looks really, really big,” says Chip Engelland, the Spurs assistant coach and famous shot doctor. When the Spurs needed extra spacing in the playoffs, they benched Tiago Splitter. Now they have Aldridge starting in Splitter’s spot.
Aldridge has earned his reputation as a post-up glutton, but don’t typecast him. He’s also comfortable buzzing around the elbows, where San Antonio’s big men live. Only 10 players recorded more touches at the elbows than Aldridge last season, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, and the threat of his jumper means defenses have to pressure him when he has the ball there. That leaves open space for cutters, and you can envision Aldridge working handoffs, picking out Parker slithering along the baseline, and forming sublime high-low partnerships with Duncan, Boris Diaw, and David West. Kawhi Leonard is already a mean post-up player; he could be even meaner with Aldridge sucking one opposing big man far from the paint.
Aldridge can spot up around Duncan-centric action, and when he’s dialed in, he can hit the bang-bang reads that make the Spurs offense go:
The Spurs will work to leverage the threat of Aldridge’s jumper as efficiently as possible, and that will mean a slight change in his diet of shots. He’ll still get to post up a ton, but the Spurs won’t walk it up, dump him the ball, and wait five seconds as Aldridge backs down into a turnaround jumper.
“Shots taken off ball movement are more efficient than shots taken off ball stoppage,” Buford says. “That’s irrefutable. And it’s by enough of a margin that I don’t think it’ll be hard for Pop to say, ‘Move the ball.’” Aldridge shot 51 percent when he held the ball for less than two seconds before jacking, and 42 percent when he kept the ball any longer, per NBA.com. The Spurs know that math.
Aldridge will still get to post up. The Spurs will even let him grind the offense to a halt against mismatches — and when Aldridge helms bench-heavy units without as many scoring options. Even in this era of pass-happy Spursgasms, Popovich allows Duncan, Diaw, and Leonard to clear out and draw double-teams against friendly matchups. Any team hoping to gut through four playoff series needs to shape-shift, and the Spurs are consciously building one sort of team that can beat the crap out of any smallish group — like, say, the Warriors with Draymond Green at center — on the block.
But Aldridge will have to recalibrate how he gets his shots, and he has the hoops IQ to do that within a Spurs system that organically produces quick-hitting post-ups. Imagine him in Diaw’s spot here:
Boom! Sprint around a back screen from Leonard and slide into tasty post-up position as other Spurs fly around the weak side — occupying help defenders, and opening up passing options. Plop him into Duncan’s role in this classic bit of Spurs early offense that turns into a deep post-up:
Aldridge got hundreds of reps on that exact action in Portland, only he takes it places Duncan can’t:
Fade out another step or two and that’s a corner 3 — a shot Aldridge should take more in San Antonio, including on scripted out-of-timeout plays.
He has the tools to pull off either end of this pick-and-roll for Diaw that morphs instantly into a post-up for Duncan:1
There are other preexisting sets into which the Spurs can plop Aldridge — pindowns they run for Duncan now, and “dive” plays they used to run when they had both Duncan and David Robinson.
A play that gorgeous requires a ton of collective smarts, chemistry, and unselfishness nurtured over time, and it’s the exact kind of play that inspires minor fretting about Aldridge’s fit. Four Spurs touch the ball in a span of four seconds; lots of Aldridge’s post-ups in Portland dragged on longer. The action spits Duncan out on the right block, and Aldridge has never shown the ability to post up in an instant wherever the offense puts him. Over 90 percent of his post-ups came on the left side of the floor, making Aldridge the most lopsided post-up player in the league last season, per Synergy Sports.
“The way they play, just kind of playing out of principles, you don’t get to pick your block,” says Jeff Van Gundy.
Skilled players adapt; Duncan gradually developed into a threat from both blocks, and Aldridge may have to expand his comfort zone. The Spurs might tinker so that even unscripted elements of their offense lean left for Aldridge. This is all doable.
That play doesn’t happen without Diaw rolling hard toward the rim, sucking Duncan’s defender toward him, and the Spurs might be plumb out of big men who enjoy the dirty work of jetting into a thicket of bodies near the basket. That may be a larger concern internally than Aldridge’s chucking.
Splitter excelled at diving, in part because he had to. It was the only way he could draw defenders into his orbit. Even when Splitter didn’t touch the ball, opponents had to send help toward him at the basket, and that loosened space for San Antonio to unleash drive-and-kick hell.
Aldridge, Diaw, and West all prefer to pop out after setting picks — Aldridge and West for jumpers, and Diaw for those delightful jiggling attacks when he catches the ball at the 3-point arc, fakes three different ways at once, and dribbles in for some crafty one-handed hook. Duncan’s roll is lumbering — too slow to scare defenses every time. Boban Marjanovic, the Spurs’ giant new movie villain, loves slicing to the hoop, but no one is sure if he’ll play meaningful minutes.
“We don’t have as good rollers anymore,” Buford says. “That’s gonna be different for us.”
Extra shooting solves a lot of these problems. Trap Parker or Manu Ginobili off a simple high pick-and-roll with Aldridge, and something will open up — a midranger for Aldridge, or the uncontested 3s Aldridge creates with his gravitational pull on help defenders:
If Aldridge’s defender hugs him so that he never gets open, Parker and Ginobili will have free paths to the basket. That is death. Switch the play, and Aldridge can bulldoze some poor little guard down to the block. That simplicity is nice to have in the bag. The Spurs’ side-to-side offense is beautiful, but it’s also exhausting. They built a deep bench to account for both age and the toll that offense can take. With Aldridge onboard, they can ditch the mad scramble for a possession or two and just run a two-man action in the middle of the floor.
For Popovich to embrace that, Aldridge will have to make better choices with the ball. He slipped into the bad habit last season of looking off wide-open shooters, pausing, and then hoisting up a contested midranger right as his defender recovered:
His assist rate dropped, and he gobbled up a larger share of Portland possessions than ever before — and a much larger chunk than any individual Spur gets to use.
Aldridge has a good pump-and-drive game to trick defenders rushing out at him, but when he comes across a guy who can keep up, he settles for brutal pull-ups and step-backs:
Popovich won’t tolerate that stuff early in the shot clock.
None of this is rocket science. We’re talking about Aldridge bagging two greedy midrange jumpers a night, swinging the ball, and maybe even getting it back later in the possession. He’s a smart passer when he wants to be. He also knows he can’t just drift out for jumpers after every pick; he’ll mix in hard slips to the hoop when his defender lunges out hard at the ball-handler:
Unpredictability is important, and all of these popping big guys get that. If they all cut hard to the rim now and then, they can collectively make up for Splitter’s absence. This is just basketball.
Aldridge isn’t even the most important part of the equation; Parker is. Defenses will try to defang the whole attack by ducking under screens against Parker, and if he can’t punish them with jumpers, floaters, and full-speed-ahead drives into traffic, the Spurs will have to battle to get some traction. “When it’s all pick-and-pop, you’re gonna have a hard time collapsing the defense unless Parker is living in the paint,” Van Gundy says. “Everyone talks about LaMarcus, and then Duncan and Ginobili getting older, but that’s what I’m most interested in: how healthy Parker is, and how well he plays.”
Patty Mills outplayed Parker for stretches of last season, but he’s not quite the kind of relentless drive-and-kick slicer that can keep an entire offense humming.
Even if Parker can’t regain All-Star form, Aldridge’s shooting alone should be a boon for the Spurs — after an initial adjustment period. The fit should be even smoother on defense, where Aldridge has long been underrated. When he’s engaged, Aldridge can lock down multiple positions and cover a ton of ground with top-notch footwork. He’s fast enough to lunge out at a point guard on the pick-and-roll, stop on a dime, and sprint back to his guy before that player can uncork a triple:
He stays balanced against pump fakes, and he’s an expert at switching onto little guys who pull the ball out and try to go one-on-one against him:
When guards get a half-step on him, Aldridge is long enough to bother them from behind. Point guards who drive against him arrive at the rim, feel Aldridge on their hip, and loft layups a few inches higher than they’d like in order to squeeze them over Aldridge’s outstretched arms. Those shots usually hit the glass and bounce off the front of the rim.
Stretch power forwards haven’t been able to get by him off the bounce:
This is what makes Aldridge a small-ball antidote, and the Spurs had Golden State on the brain when they signed him. The dream response to small ball is simple: stay big without compromising your defense, and then destroy the small-ball team in the post and on the offensive glass. The Spurs can use Aldridge with any of their big men, especially Duncan, against small-ball opponents that keep one traditional big on the floor. Aldridge can hang with almost any wing player masquerading as a power forward,2 and Duncan can guard that solitary big fella.
Kevin Durant would be a notable exception, though Aldridge might be able to hang for a few seconds at the end of the shot clock after a switch.
Go super-small, and the Spurs can now yank Duncan without sacrificing size and post-up ability. Aldridge makes noise about not wanting to play center, but he’ll have to do it in all kinds of lineups — including smaller groups with Leonard at power forward. He’ll serve as the nominal center alongside Diaw or West in bench lineups, but both of those guys can spend time guarding post-up behemoths so Aldridge doesn’t have to.
Aldridge is a so-so rim protector, and much has been made about how the Spurs are running low on rim deterrence with Splitter and Aron Baynes gone. Probably too much, really. Aldridge and Splitter are the same height, and Splitter isn’t exactly a leaper; opponents shot better at the basket when Splitter was nearby last season than against Portland with Aldridge at the bucket, per SportVU data. Aldridge isn’t a shot-blocker, and he would go through stretches of lazy, ground-bound swiping around the rim in Portland. He does not take charges. But he can do better when he cares, and when he’s not paranoid about foul trouble.
Baynes turned himself into a real rotation player, but is anyone really worried the loss of Aron freaking Baynes is going to cost San Antonio real championship equity? Come on.
Aldridge is 30, and as he gets older, he’ll lose a bit of the speed that makes him an anti-small-ball weapon. Smart teams can already hurt Aldridge after switches by cycling him back into a pick-and-roll or nailing him with screens away from the ball. But everyone struggles with that stuff, and Aldridge becomes more alert once you burn him. Aldridge isn’t an All-Defense-level guy, but he’s fine.
He can play one kind of role for this specific Spurs team, perhaps the last of the Duncan era, and transition into another kind of role toward the back end of his four-year contract. “There will be a time when Pop, Tony, Timmy, and Manu are all gone,” Buford says, chuckling, “and we might want LaMarcus to hold the ball for 20 seconds.”