Now that we know for a fact that LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the rest of the season, the San Antonio Spurs could look at the Orlando trip as an opportunity.
After it was formally announced earlier this week that there will be no more LaMarcus Aldridge this season for the San Antonio Spurs, discourse around the fandom took a turn. There are a handful of fans who took this as the undoing of this team, effectively eliminating them from playoff contention. Then, there was the sector of fans who looked at his absence as positive.
Though Aldridge is one of the most talented players at his position, the team was turned over to wing DeMar DeRozan this year, effectively pinning their record to the bottom of the Western Conference. Aldridge began to defer to his cohort and his age began to show as the team dropped to nine games below .500 as of the hiatus.
With 10 players age 25 or younger on the roster, it’s clear that the Spurs’ direction is changing and it’s time to face the music. Aldridge is prioritizing his health and longevity over carrying the workload for a team that wasn’t likely to make the playoffs anyway. Now, they can shift their focus toward next season while using Orlando as a showcase for what’s to come in the next era of San Antonio Spurs basketball.
Con: LaMarcus Aldridge is not playing for the San Antonio Spurs!
This is obvious, so I’m not going to spend much time on it—San Antonio is going to be without one of their two star players, which is a huge deal. It means that Aldridge’s shoulder troubles from earlier in the season were more serious than we thought and now, the team will look to their cast of characters to fill the biggest gap in the rotation. Having a star player out with an injury is the biggest con you could get and now, fans won’t get to watch one of the best bigs in Spurs history play out the rest of his season.
With that out of the way, let’s try to have some perspective about this and see what San Antonio can gain from playing without it’s former All-NBA big.
Next: Young bigs get a chance to step up in his place
Pro: We’ll get to see what the San Antonio Spurs frontcourt looks like without Aldridge’s commanding presence on the floor.
There’s no debating that Aldridge is the best big on the roster, but the Spurs are forced to cater to him. He commands 33.1 minutes per game at the center spot as a natural power forward who doesn’t have the athletic ability to play at that position anymore. In the modern game in which versatility and lineup flexibility win games, it’s not easy to have a player like that anymore.
With Aldridge at home nursing his shoulder, we’ll get to see a few new lineup combinations that we otherwise wouldn’t have. For starters, we can expect a huge bump in responsibility for center Jakob Poeltl, who is one of the best rim defenders and rebounders in the league. His shot-blocking ranks amongst the best in the NBA, but he’s been stuck with a cap on his playing time for the last two seasons because of Aldridge’s hulking presence. Now we can get a good look at Poeltl as a starting center, which will gauge what he’s worth in restricted free agency this offseason.
The same can be said of starting power forward Trey Lyles, who improved to 14 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in six games without Aldridge before the hiatus began. Lyles shot 48.7 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from 3-point land in his last 20 games, so he’s someone that the Spurs should try investing some more time into as a talented all-around role player.
There’s also a significant chance that we see a minutes uptick from some of the guys stashed on the bench like rookie Luka Samanic, two-way center Drew Eubanks or sophomore Chimezie Metu. I won’t dwindle on Metu for too long since I wrote an entire piece about him here, but he’s been fantastic in the G-League this season and deserves a chance at minutes.
Samanic only played in one game during the back-end of a blowout, so we didn’t get to see what he’s capable of at all. Unless you’re an avid G-League viewer, the No. 19 pick is an absolute mystery and now, he might get a chance at some legitimate experience in the big leagues.
Next: The playoff streak is probably ending
Con: For the first time in 22 seasons, the San Antonio Spurs aren’t going to make the NBA playoffs.
Having the consecutive playoff appearance streak end at 22 is bittersweet. It’s such an incredible feat that will be hard to ever top, but it was one short of actually breaking the all-time record and barring a miracle, there’s no coming back from that. So Spurs fans who have witnessed nothing but playoff appearances for their whole lives need to face the reality that competing franchises have time and time again since that span.
It’s uncharted territory, but to be quite honest, it’s probably better than losing in the first round of the playoffs again. San Antonio has been a first-round out in the last two seasons, drawing the Golden State Warriors two years ago and pushing the Denver Nuggets to seven games last year.
Making the playoffs and getting swept by the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t sound like a great draw either considering that San Antonio lost all three games against them this year. Earning better odds for a good draft pick and accepting their fate will be better for the long-term outlook anyway, but that 23-year streak sure would look great in the record books.
Although this season would be particularly fun because we’d get to see legitimate playoff minutes from the young core. Last season, the Nuggets series served as a coming-out party for Derrick White, and this season, they’d have both Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV logging serviceable minutes for the silver and black.
Next: This may bode well for the Spurs' draft pick
Pro: With their star player out for the year, the San Antonio Spurs could walk away from Orlando with a better draft pick.
Losing games will never be a particularly good thing, but in this instance, Aldridge’s injury might end up helping the Spurs in the long-run. He can preserve his body for the future and shed light on what the team will look like in the post-Aldridge era. Obviously, DeRozan and Aldridge aren’t going to be the world-beating combination that some hoped they could be, so we might as well look ahead to the future.
The most crucial way for the Spurs, a small-market team with limited cap space, to proceed this offseason is by making a splash in the 2020 NBA Draft. Hitting on a high-upside prospect who can help them soon is the best way for San Antonio to set itself up for winning in the future, even if that means leveraging their immediate hopes.
We’ve been covering a handful of draft prospects over the last few months; not just because it’s fun to write about and to read, but because this is the most important draft the Spurs have had since picking Tim Duncan first overall in 1997. This year isn’t just about picking the best available player—it’s about picking someone who can drastically impact the organization moving forward.
Though the 2020 Draft Class isn’t considered to be the best or even anywhere close to it, some serious gems in the group have longterm potential to influence the Spurs’ direction. If San Antonio uses these eight games in Orlando to develop their young guys and get their feet wet, they could roll out an exciting young core next year headlined by a flashy rookie prospect.
Next: Damaging Aldridge's trade value
Con: Teams may be wary to trade with the San Antonio Spurs for LaMarcus this offseason if they decide to blow it up.
If all hell breaks loose and the Spurs legitimately decide to deconstruct their roster this offseason, moving Aldridge has to be a priority. He’s going to be 36 years old next season and will be making $24 million in the final year of his contract. Though he can play up to that number and remain an influential borderline All-Star player, his value is already diminished by the fact that he plays an outdated game.
And yet, Aldridge is still one of the Spurs’ better trade chips. They need to squeeze every ounce of trade value out of him while they still can should they move on from DeRozan and look for suitors for their veteran big. A major shoulder surgery that sidelines him for the year might not help with finding a trade partner in the open market.
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There’ve long been talks about trading him back to Portland to reunite with All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard, but the Spurs need to get something of value in return. It’ll be hard to have any leverage when the Blazers know that Aldridge wants to return and that San Antonio wants to get rid of him, so the offers might stink. The best way to drive up value is by gaining other offers.
Unfortunately, it might be hard to find other offers if Aldridge isn’t playing in this Orlando showcase. San Antonio would have to point at statistics from a season in which his role was reduced and his body gave out near the end of the season. That isn’t going to bode well in negotiations with some of the more cutthroat general managers around the league.
Still, San Antonio can bank on the fact that Aldridge has been a model of consistency in this league for a long time. You know what you’re going to get from him and general managers can live with that, especially knowing that he’s resting his body to be prepared for next season.
Seriously, don’t be surprised if Aldridge gets shopped in the offseason later this year.