For so long, the Spurs have been a team that grew its biggest, most important, most substantial parts from the inside. David Robinson was a draft pick. Tim Duncan was a draft pick. Manu, Tony, Kawhi: all draft picks, all put through Pop’s Crucible of Character Development and Adversity Training during the most instructive, informative, and influential parts of their careers. Even Pop, for that matter, came from the inside: He’d been an assistant under Larry Brown when Larry was the coach of the Spurs in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (He left briefly after that for Golden State, then returned to be the GM of the Spurs, then eventually hired himself to be the coach, which, I mean, that’s a sauce-heavy move, really.)
LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t that, and isn’t that. He came to the Spurs as an outsider. And more than that: He came to the Spurs as outsider who was supposed to be an integral part of what the Spurs wanted to be, and to become. And that’s really what the main issue is. There have absolutely been times in the past when the Spurs signed someone and the result was, “Well, that certainly didn’t work out how we’d hoped.” (Shout-out Richard Jefferson.) But adding via free agency was always a less instrumental part of the Spurs machine. You can win a championship when your fourth- or fifth-best player is screwing up, because he’s your fourth- or fifth-best player, you know what I’m saying?
With LaMarcus, though, there’s just too much space to fill in. He is, to be sure, the second-best player on the Spurs, and it’s honestly not even close. So when he’s playing poorly — which, whoo boy these playoffs — it seems like too great of a thing for the Spurs to overcome.
Last year, LaMarcus averaged 39.5 points per game on 75 percent shooting during the first two games of the Spurs-Thunder second-round series. He even nearly single-handedly won Game 2 for the Spurs, pouring in 13 points in the final three and a half minutes (the Spurs wound up losing by one). So this is what we know: He can be great. He can be dominant. He can be unbelievable.
Here’s the other thing we know, though: Ever since then, LaMarcus Aldridge has been just a big bag of hair. The Spurs have played 11 playoff games since that Game 2 showing. In those games, he’s:
- Averaged 15.9 points per game. (And he hasn’t scored 25 points even once.)
- Shot just 41.9 percent from the field.
- Averaged less than eight rebounds a game. (I’d like to remind you that he’s 6-foot-11.)
- Averaged less than one block per game. (I’d like to remind you again that he’s 6-foot-11.)
- Averaged only 1.3 assists per game.
- And somehow he’s been even worse at home (13.4 points per game on 35.8 percent shooting, less than seven rebounds a game).
Would you like some more LaMarcus stuff? I have some more LaMarcus stuff. Here:
- LaMarcus is the worst jump shooter in the playoffs among all players who’ve taken at least 50 shots.
- LaMarcus made as many shots (two) as he had turnovers during Game 1 of the Rockets-Spurs series. (I’ll take this moment to point out that he’s making over $20 million this season.)
- LaMarcus was a minus-36 in Game 1 of the Rockets-Spurs series, a remarkable stat that’s even more unbelievable when you realize he played only 25 minutes. (I’ll take this moment to point out that he still has two more years on his contract with the Spurs.)
- If we look at every player who’s played a minimum of 1,000 playoff minutes since the invention of the 3-point line, nobody has had a greater decline from regular-season box plus/minus to playoff box plus/minus than LaMarcus. The five worst scores are LaMarcus (minus-2.2), Kenny Anderson (minus-2.0), Marvin Williams (minus-2.0), Nicolas Batum (minus-1.9), and then Karl Malone and Tyrone Hill (minus-1.8).
- (The above stat was first pointed out by Krishna Narsu using Basketball-Reference. It’s been updated to include LaMarcus’s Game 1 performance from Monday night.)
- (If you get spun around by advanced analytics like box plus/minus, which happens to me often, just know that basically all it’s saying here is that he has been really bad in the playoffs compared with the regular season.)
In 2014, LaMarcus’s Blazers played the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. I live in Houston, so I very vividly remember watching that series because a good thing to do when you live in a city that’s not the home of your favorite NBA team is to watch the games and then talk shit to everyone when their team loses.
In the first two games of that series, LaMarcus was historically good. I’m not saying that to be stylistic; I mean it literally. Over the course of Games 1 and 2, which, FYI, were on the road, he scored 89 points on nearly 60 percent shooting (and that’s to say nothing of the 26 rebounds he grabbed). Only Jerry West and Michael Jordan ever scored more in the first two games of a series.
The Blazers ended up winning that series, and then they lost to the Spurs in the next round (during which LaMarcus was fine, but not stellar). But that two-game stretch against the Rockets was the first thing I thought about a little more than a year later when I heard that the Spurs had signed LaMarcus as a free agent. I said, “WE GOT THAT GUY?!” That’s who I was expecting to show up: a basketball murderer with a duffel bag full of guns and knives ready to be dropped into some high-stakes playoff games. That’s not who showed up, though. Or, if it is who showed up, it’s not who’s here now. It’s LOLaMarcus Aldridge right now. It’s LMAo right now.
I do not want LaMarcus to fail. In fact, it would be the greatest thing if he was wildly successful, because that means the Spurs would also be wildly successful, and that would make me happy. So it’s not that I want him to fail. It’s just that … I don’t trust him, which I don’t think is an irrational feeling.
Think on it like it’s a Fast & Furious–type situation. When Brian showed up in that first Fast & Furious movie, Vince, the group’s biggest skeptic, was like, “Nah, I don’t trust him,” and the only reason he didn’t trust him is because he didn’t know him. Vince and Dom and everyone else had already stood together, been through it together, survived it together. They all trusted each other because that’s what happens when you commit crimes while racing fast cars together. It wasn’t until later in the franchise — somewhere around the second half of the fifth movie, Fast Five — when Vince decided that, even though he didn’t like Brian, he could trust him, because by that point Brian had been through it all, too.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s basically how it is for LaMarcus and the rest of the Spurs. I know what’s going to happen when Kawhi’s feet touch the fire, or when Tony’s do, or when Manu’s do, or Patty’s or Danny’s. They’ve earned that trust already. They’ve earned that loyalty. Even if Danny Green for the rest of his career never made another 3 (which seems like a possibility after his performance in Game 1 of the Rockets series), it’d be fine. I would be A-OK with that.
LaMarcus doesn’t get extended that same gratitude, though. He hasn’t done it yet. I want him to do it. I desperately do. But me wanting him to do it — Spurs fans wanting him to do it — can go only so far. Eventually, he’s going to have to do it himself.