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Chessmaster 2019: LaMarcus Aldridge Is Thriving With a Slow-and-Steady Approach

His plodding midrange game may not be the most riveting watch in an era of 3s and pace, but the Spurs big man proved in a 56-point night against the Thunder that he’s just as effective as ever

LaMarcus Aldridge AP Images/Ringer illustration

With just more than four minutes left in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge made one of the more exciting plays of his career. With his back to the basket and Thunder forward Jerami Grant tattooed on him, Aldridge gathered his dribble and stepped past Grant. There was an opening for a shot, but his momentum threw him off-balance. So instead of shooting, he threw the ball at the backboard. But whereas other players may have turned the attempt at a self-pass into a thunderous dunk, Aldridge, of course, grabbed the rebound over a crowd of defenders and finished it with a simple, shot-clock-beating layup.

There is nothing striking about Aldridge’s retro game. It is slow, prodding, and heavy on midrange shots. But as he showed in a thrilling, 154-147 double-overtime win against the Thunder, it’s also effective. The Spurs big man finished with a career-best 56 points on 20-of-33 shooting from the field. Like he has all season, Aldridge didn’t sniff the 3-point line, spending his time mostly in and around the paint—where he also grabbed nine boards and four blocks. He was relentless, and OKC played like a team without a clue of how to stop the slow burn.

San Antonio’s shot chart versus Oklahoma City

Watching Steph Curry, James Harden, or Kyrie Irving is like riding a roller coaster. Watching Aldridge is like sitting down at a chess match. But just like a chess match, the closer you pay enough attention, the more you appreciate Aldridge’s mastery of his craft.

First, consider his length. Aldridge is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, which gives him verticality without having to do much jumping and allows him to shoot over nearly every defender in the league. A smooth, efficient jumper may not sound all that exciting, but watch him do it over and over and you start to appreciate all the little things—the tight mechanics; the timing, rhythm, and awareness that go into deciding when to launch—that make him so deadly. When the shot is on, like it was against the Thunder, it charts a perfect, high-arching parabola to the rim that swishes in almost every time.

Aldridge and the Spurs have come a long way in their partnership since he signed there in free agency during the summer of 2015. After a first season in which he struggled to mix his style into the Spurs’ approach, Gregg Popovich admitted he had been in the wrong and began to cater more toward Aldridge’s needs. It helped that the Aldridge and Pop hashed out their differences (and agreed to a contract extension) just before a season wherein Kawhi Leonard played only nine games. When Leonard was traded to Toronto this summer in exchange for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs’ situation looked dire; the team still seemed good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but it was hardly what it could’ve been with Kawhi. After injuries to Dejounte Murray (season-ending) and Derrick White before the season, the situation appeared even more precarious. The Spurs began the year 11-14, and everyone, this site included, began to wonder if this might be the beginning of the end for the Pop era.

But the Spurs, as the Spurs do, have rallied back, and both Aldridge and DeRozan are leading the charge. As Kevin O’Connor wrote recently, San Antonio has developed a system that suits both its starters’ and their reserves’ strengths. Aldridge and DeRozan are exploiting the midrange, while the rest of the roster takes and make 3s. The game against the Thunder was the epitome of this strategy. The Spurs’ starters took six 3s and made four of them. Their bench took 13 and made 12 of them.

Aldridge is averaging 20.7 points a game on 50.9 percent shooting from the field and is one of only two players, alongside DeRozan, who is averaging more than 20 points while shooting under one 3 a game. Aldridge is also taking more shots closer to the rim and more shots in the deep midrange than he did last season, while dropping the number of 3s he attempts. Lamarcusball is Moreyball’s evil twin.

In the past 15 games, the Spurs have had the best offense in the league and the top net rating too. They have gone 14-6 over their past 20 games and vaulted themselves into sixth place in the West. So often we have praised Popovich for taking spare parts and fashioning them into contributors around the Spurs’ Big Three, but there is also something to be said for building a system that brings out the best of a player like Aldridge, whose game is effective but not in line with the current trends. It’s not quite the beautiful game of Spurs past, but it’s working, and that’s all that matters.