The Spurs get credit for unearthing diamonds in the rough, but the franchise’s greatest accomplishment this season has been bringing its own All-Star back to life.
In the shadow of Kawhi Leonard’s never-ending injury saga, LaMarcus Aldridge has helped keep the Spurs right in the thick of the Western playoff picture. Aldridge is carrying San Antonio this season, averaging 23.1 points (his highest since 2014–15, his last season in Portland), 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.2 blocks per game. His effective field goal percentage of 51.9 is a career high, and his usage rate is back to hovering around 30 percent.
That’s why breaths are being held in San Antonio. Aldridge suffered what the team called a left knee contusion Tuesday night against the Wizards. He is set to have an MRI Wednesday to determine the severity. “He’s been playing with that bad knee for a while now, so hopefully it’s not too bad,” Tony Parker said.
At this time last year, there was mostly clamoring about Aldridge’s lack of rebounding and griping about his overall play. Now, the Spurs have to wonder whether they can stay above water over their final seven games without him. Aldridge is one of the main reasons the Spurs haven’t fallen out of the playoffs; they’re 43–32 overall, good for sixth in the West and two and a half games up on the ninth-place Clippers. The big man ostensibly sought to become a major cog in the Spurs offense when he signed with San Antonio in 2015, and though it took Kawhi’s absence for the team to fully embrace him as a no. 1 option, Aldridge has thrived this season in that role.
Aldridge’s usage rate has peaked in March, at 33 percent. The team is 7.2 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s off, and his scoring totals in the seven games before Tuesday’s injury read like fullback jersey numbers: 24, 25, 39, 33, 27, 45, 34. Aldridge is averaging three more points per game since the All-Star break, and 26.2 in the past month. And it’s not just the scoring that makes him so valuable; he also gives San Antonio an identity. An archaic, dusty, slow-paced identity, sure, but an identity nonetheless.
No team uses post-ups more than the Spurs, who, not coincidentally, are the second-slowest team in the league. And no single player uses the post-up more frequently than Aldridge — 43.5 percent of the time, to be exact. The approach nets him 0.98 points per possession. Last season, Aldridge posted up only 32.7 percent of the time, and it netted him only 0.87 points per possession. The improvement appears to have come in the type of shots Aldridge is taking out of that play. He’s reduced his midrange attempts by 14 percentage points, and he’s taking nearly half of his shots between 0 and 10 feet from the basket, making 61 percent of them. That makes a difference.
It’s unclear to whom the offense would turn should Aldridge miss time. Gregg Popovich probably has an umpteenth trick up his sleeve, but a healthy Aldridge would make things much easier. “We are at a point if LaMarcus gets a cough, a cold, we are in deep trouble,” Manu Ginobili said Tuesday. “So hopefully it’s just a one-half thing because if not it’s really going to get tough to score down the stretch.”
Popovich said in January that he had tried to turn Aldridge into a player he wasn’t, that he had overcoached him their first two seasons together. “We took care of it, and he’s been fantastic,” he said then. Who knows how Aldridge’s style or, rather, the Spurs’ willingness to accommodate his style, would have differed had Kawhi played all season. It’s an alternate reality we may have to wait until next season to see. For now, the adjustments both sides made are paying dividends. Aldridge is the Spurs’ pulse, and though that’s not enough to beat the Warriors or the Rockets, it’s preventing them from having a lost season.