San Antonio Spurs: Time for a tough conversation with LaMarcus Aldridge
The San Antonio Spurs might have to change LaMarcus Aldridge’s role
The rule of thumb is that great management should put individuals in a role that best uses their strengths for the benefit of the company, team, and individual. The San Antonio Spurs have developed a culture where the team is put first above personal accolades. The groundwork was set by Spurs greats, George Gervin and David Robinson and solidified during the Big Three era.
In sports, the role of a coach is to put players in the best position to perform for the benefit of the team. A great coach can find ways to get the most from every one of his players. It all comes down to putting individuals in the best situation for them to succeed. The Spurs have seen multiple iterations of this during Coach Popovich’s tenure as he has adapted to best suit the roster he has to work with.
Another attribute of great management is the ability to have difficult conversations with tact and grace. Sideline reporters may object to this assessment of Popovich but team personnel speaks glowingly of a different side of Coach Pop.
Players know he cares about them both on and off the court and has their best interests in mind. Yes, he will push and drive players mad with his demanding nature. But knowing a coach expects the best from them and pushes them for the betterment of the team allows Pop to do this.
This leads us to the difficult conversation that needs to happen soon and is actually in the best interest of all parties. Josh Paredes recently discussed three drastic options for helping LaMarcus Aldridge. I have one more, bringing LaMarcus Aldridge off the bench.
It might seem like a radical idea but it’s in the best interest of the Spurs and Aldridge. Let’s take a look at the case for making LaMarcus the star of the second unit.
Next: It would give the Spurs more balanced lineups
Nov 13, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan (10) shakes hands with forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) after making a shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half at Target Center. (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Moving LaMarcus Aldridge to the bench would balance the Spurs lineups
Put simply, it’s about balancing the lineup. The San Antonio Spurs seem to have been reluctant to embrace a three-point barrage but that has more to do with the strength of their two best players, Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, both former All-Stars and go-to scorers.
The thing is that their mid-range games and subpar defense aren’t a great pairing in today’s game. The Spurs should improve on defense with one of Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, or Lonnie Walker IV, moving to the starting unit. But that doesn’t solve their problems in the frontcourt.
The other frontcourt starter for most of last season was Trey Lyles who unfortunately doesn’t cover Aldridge’s weaknesses when quicker players roll past him. The Spurs could try to explore an Aldridge-Jakob Poeltl pairing but we have also seen that pair fail to defend well.
You might think that putting two solid defensive players together could lead to a solid defensive lineup but the Poeltl – Aldridge duo actually got outscored by 9.1 points during their time on the court together last year. This is a pairing that doesn’t need to be explored more.
Aldridge is still very productive and he’s taken efforts to do what’s best for the team by stepping back and shooting the three. But having him become strictly a three-point shooter is a disservice to his total skill set.
Aldridge can be the offensive focal point of any lineup but on this team, as presently constructed, his best fit is to be the go-to option on the second unit.
Picture a starting lineup of Dejounte Murray, DeMar, Keldon, Lyles, and Poeltl. This unit has spacing, rebounding & size, and quickness. A second unit of Aldridge surrounded by Patty Mills, Derrick White, Walker, and Rudy Gay or Devin Vassell would also be balanced with spacing, rebounding & size, and quickness
In dividing DeMar and LaMarcus the team can surround each of them with players who help cover their weaknesses while maximizing their offensive strengths.
Another benefit of dividing the veteran’s playing time is that it will permit the younger players to step up as secondary scoring options in both the starting and second units. We saw what White could do in Orlando and although some would argue he be included in the starting lineup, with DeMar on the team, Derrick would not be the go-to option.
The stats also support the notion that DeRozan and Aldridge together on the floor do not comprise the Spurs’ best lineup.
Per NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass the stats show the Spurs’ best lineup typically consists of Poeltl as the lone big man with three guards and either Gay or Lyles as the big forward.
In fact for lineups who played a minimum of ten games together the team’s top three defensive rating lineups all included Poeltl as the lone big man paired with DeRozan and none of those lineups included Aldridge.
Granted, Aldridge was among the 4th and 5th top defensive rating lineups but he was the lone big man and no true PF was among the units.
A simple move of substituting Poeltl for Aldridge in the starting lineup helps both the defensive rating of the starting rotation but also improves the offense of the second unit. It is a long-overdue move that helps balance the roster more evenly.
Next: Moving to the second unit is the next step in Aldridge's career
Mar 10, 2020; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) is congratulated after a score in the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
Aldridge against bench units is the best thing for the San Antonio Spurs
The selling point to Aldridge is that he would again be the focal point of the San Antonio Spurs offense even if he is relegated to the bench. A pairing of White and Aldridge running the pick and roll for consistent minutes would be playing to both of their strengths while also permitting White to develop more as a true point guard.
And even if Aldridge is not a fan of a move to the bench there are added benefits aside from being the focal point on offense.
If Aldridge was willing to come off the bench it would mean he would be facing off against opposing teams’ second units. So instead of facing the league’s elite big men, he would face backups who do not have his experience or skillset. One can easily picture Aldridge feasting on the opponent’s second units.
His overall numbers would be lower as he would be playing fewer minutes but that wouldn’t be a bad thing for a 35-year-old who has played heavy minutes for 14 seasons and counting.
In fact, one can even imagine that his per 36 and per 48-minute statistics would be similar or even greater than playing the 32 or 33 minutes per game he has been accustomed to as of late. Increased efficiency and an opportunity to extend his career, what’s not to like?
Additionally, one ulterior motive for Aldridge is that he can show contenders and/or teams who will have cap space in the upcoming offseason that he is able to adapt to a different or lesser role.
Aldridge can have the spotlight on him as leader of the second unit which will both help the team and also showcase him in a new role to potential suitors.
It is hard for any accomplished player to admit they have lost a step but if Aldridge were to join one of the title-contending teams across the league he’s might not be the starter. Most teams play with one big man and feature more mobile lineups and Aldridge is unlikely to arrive and start at the center over the likes of Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, or Nikola Jokic.
Coming off the bench would reduce LMA’s minutes and preserve his legs, likely improve his efficiency, and could potentially drive up his trade value if he takes the move in stride. Have I convinced you that this is a good idea yet?
Next: Potential blowback
Would this cause a rift between the San Antonio Spurs and Aldridge?
One thing that we haven’t discussed is the potential resistance that may come from his camp. There is concern that Aldridge would be hesitant to listen much less be open to such a suggestion.
Aside from dealing with ego, a move to the bench would impact his rhythm which is crucial for a player who relies on routine and consistency. But the Orlando bubble games showed the Spurs’ best playing style is to pick up the tempo and the message being discussed around the team is that they will continue that playing style. One can’t expect Aldridge to play heavy minutes in an up-tempo offense.
It’s not like moving Aldridge to the bench would be a revolutionary move. Aldridge may not like hearing this but there is a precedent in San Antonio of players before him who had been All-Stars and made the move to the bench for the benefit of the team.
The long list includes Pau Gasol, David West, Antonio McDyess, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Other NBA players of note would include Kevin McHale and Carmelo Anthony, who recently shared how he was reluctant but later embraced a bench role. Veterans adapting to reduced roles to extend their careers is nothing new.
Not only would this move help the San Antonio Spurs’ overall balance, but it also helps Aldridge be the focal point on offense, and be a showcase for contenders of what he can do for their second units.
LaMarcus Aldridge is still a very good NBA player. Heck, he was an All-Star a couple of seasons ago. But Father Time is undefeated and Aldridge is 35 years old. It’s time for the San Antonio Spurs to have that difficult discussion with their greatest free-agent signee – for his benefit and the team’s as well.