There’s no question signing LaMarcus Aldridge was a coup for the Spurs. Aldridge is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, he’s 30 years old and allows the Spurs to, at the very least, continue winning 50-plus games the next few seasons as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili decline.
Many stat geeks are quick to point out that Aldridge isn’t an efficient player. He takes a ton of long twos and doesn’t shoot them at an out-of-this-world rate, hovering just above 42 percent from mid-range on his career.
That, however, isn’t much of a problem. Aldridge has been the focal point of a Top 5 offense the past few seasons and functionally he works as a very good shooter since teams are afraid to leave him alone on the perimeter. Offenses featuring Aldridge as the hub have always been very good, a trend that should continue going forward.
If you had to grade the Spurs on their season so far and their success integrating Aldridge into the system both offensively and defensively, it would very much be an incomplete – and that’s OK! The Spurs and everyone else knew it was going to be a process, and perhaps a long process lasting all the way to spring before everything is supposed to click.
The most important part is taking tangible steps in the right direction. So far it’s been a mixed bag, and there are some things that are clearly not going well, but on the other hand Aldridge is finding ways to contribute in other ways.
Offensively, the Spurs have played about as badly as they’re ever going to play, even in such a short period of time. They’ve scored just 99.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked 27th last season just ahead of the Hornets, Knicks and Sixers.
Aldridge’s familiarity and understanding of the offense right now is somewhere between “has no idea what to do” and “I know where I should be but I’m out of rhythm and reacting to everything a step slow”. That’s understandable given the differences between the Spurs’ offense and what the Blazers ran. Starting from the point of attack, teams defend pick-and-rolls completely differently if Parker is in charge than with Damian Lillard.
Now, the defense is concerned about the drive instead of the shot and how Aldridge gets free after screening and the angles involved change. Aldridge has been either hesitating to shoot or firing up bad looks and hasn’t found a balance between looking for his own shot and continuing to run the offense and moving to the next option in the play. Aldridge is just 8-for-37 from outside of 10 feet on the season for a measly 0.43 points per shot.
LaMarcus Aldridge hesitates on jumper
The Spurs have changed in their statistical profile as an offense from what we’re used to. With Aldridge on the court, the San Antonio has assisted on only 48.9 percent of their baskets, compared to 68.2 percent when he sits. Last season, that would have been a larger difference than the No. 1 ranked Hawks (67.6 percent) and the No. 30 Suns (52.2 percent). The Spurs shot 24.4 percent of their shots from mid-range in 2014-15, a number that has now been bumped up to 32.1 percent.
The results on offense have been terrible so far and the Spurs have a long way to go on that end. There have been a couple of obviously good things, however. Aldridge is a brilliant passer, and even if he’s not on the same page with everyone else all the time, he finds cutters well and the Spurs are able to get easy baskets with him facilitating from up top or handoffs from the post.
LaMarcus Aldridge hand-off with Kawhi Leonard
Also, when the Spurs get into trouble they now have a reliable post option they can dump the ball to when everything else fails. Aldridge is currently posting 0.89 points per possession from the post, a somewhat below-average mark, but last season he was much better and with all the space the Spurs are able to provide Aldridge should destroy opponents down there this season.
The Spurs have revolutionized the NBA, especially offensively, in a few different ways – teams are emphasizing ball movement and multiple pick-and-roll threats in a way they haven’t before, and there’s more misdirection and creativity going on than ever. One of things that has lagged a bit behind, though, is how the Spurs run their offense around post-ups.
Mostly they’re dumping the ball to Aldridge right now and just clearing out the strongside for a one-on-one post-up, and it would be nice to see more cutting and action along the perimeter when Aldridge gets the ball in the post. The Hawks are the best getting open three-pointers from post-ups. And it would be nice to see the Spurs steal something from Atlanta’s playbook (for once the learning can go this way).
On the other end, the Spurs have been beyond fantastic, allowing just 93.0 points per 100 possessions. A mark that would have blown away the Warriors’ top defense from last season. The Spurs have a monster starting lineup defensively with at least three All-Defensive Team caliber players and Aldridge, who’s big, smart and moves well for his size.
Aldridge has always been an above-average defender and something close to very good when he’s showing 100 percent effort. He’s doing that right now, which shows his commitment to the Spurs despite a rough start on the other end. Aldridge deserves tremendous amount of credit for not allowing the offensive woes affect his defense.
In pick-and-roll situations, Aldridge is effective due to his excellent mobility and size. The Blazers were perhaps the most conservative team in their pick-and-roll coverages, hedging on just 1.2 percent of them, according to Vantage Sports – by far the lowest margin in the NBA in 2014-15.
The Spurs tend to help quite a bit more than the Blazers in these types of situations, something they can get away with since Leonard and Green are excellent at recovering back to their man on the perimeter.
Getting Aldridge integrated into the offense has just started and it’s likely to take a while before we see great results. The Spurs don’t care about that. They know they’re going to win games and be in a good position come the playoffs, the most important thing is just to be ready by the end of the season.
Aldridge also allows the Spurs to switch more, something that was of particular value to teams in the playoffs last season. He’s also the perfect weapon against small-ball teams and the Spurs know the ultimate small ball team happens to be the best team in their conference.
It’s a challenge, but one the Spurs are up for. Most likely the process will take a while, but somewhere on a dark Tuesday in mid-February, everything will click and the league will once again be very, very afraid of the Spurs.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.