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Evaluating LaMarcus Aldridge 2.0

In his second year as a Spur, Aldridge has had to once again make adjustments on both ends of the floor. His ups and downs serve as a barometer for the team and how it can improve.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

LaMarcus Aldridge’s second year as a Spur got off to an interesting start before the season even began, with a flurry of rumors temporarily casting doubts over his long-term future in San Antonio. He and the team quickly put the story to bed, and their early-season success has (for now) brushed aside the likelihood of any mid-season move.

But this has been a weird season. At 15-4, the Spurs sport the record of a contender but have often failed to look the part, offensively and defensively. Recent struggles against the Mavs (for a second time) and a fourth home loss (this last time to the Magic) underlie how inconsistent they’ve been. It might be Year Two for Aldridge, but it’s the first year of the post-Duncan era, and that’s reason enough to consider how the roster works and how it doesn’t.

Aldridge has in many ways picked up where he left off at the end of last year. His scoring (17.5 ppg), blocks (1.1), and usage rate (25.2) have remained more or less the same, and he’s looked comfortable within the offense despite the shakeup at center, cashing in on his usual shots through the pick-and-pop game and in the post.

Here’s a look at his shot charts from last year and this year:

More of Aldridge’s offense is coming from outside the paint than last year, which is somewhat surprising given that things should have opened up more with Duncan replaced by the rangier Pau Gasol. Part of that is because he’s taking a step back every now and then and firing away from three, which is looking like a good move so far.

We knew he had range, despite attempting only 16 threes last season. The year before, in Portland, Aldridge took 105 and hit a decent 35% of them.

He’s already topped last season’s total, making nine of his 18 attempts, and I don’t see why he shouldn’t take more than one per game — especially if offensive rebounding isn’t as big a focus this season (more on that later).

For all of Gasol’s shortcomings on the defensive end (I’ll get to that, too), the Spaniard’s arrival has had a promising impact on how the offense functions, with the Spurs now boasting two multi-skilled big men who can not only be dangerous off the pick and roll with the point guard but play off each other, too. They’ve gone to the the high-low game a few times this season, usually with Aldridge as the beneficiary of a Gasol pass, and it’s looked pretty good!

Pop has also looked at involving his bigs in a 4-5 pick and roll, a clever way of attacking teams that have two imposing rim protectors. Even with the pass being a bit off here, you can see the value in surprising defenses with a wrinkle like this.

It’s not a surprise that taking a step away from the hoop would result in less chances to hit the offensive glass, an area where Aldridge excelled last year. Yet, his rebounding totals on the whole are way down, not only from last year but for his career. His 6.8 boards per game (down from 8.5) is the lowest since his rookie season, and his rebound rate (12.0) is the lowest it’s ever been. It’s possible he’s just had to be more active away from the basket as the defense scrambles, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

The big worry heading into this season was how the Spurs defense would survive with Gasol replacing Duncan. And it’s true — Gasol’s looked rough. Teams rightfully go at him in the pick and roll, and when it’s Parker or Mills guarding the ball-handler, they face even less resistance at the point of attack. And as a help defender, he equally leaves a lot to be desired.

But included in those worries about the Duncan-Pau trade-off were questions surrounding Aldridge’s changing role: from the complementary big man to one who would need to not only take on more challenging assignments but to communicate, rotate and do all the little things the team would need from its longest-tenured returning big.

It’s obviously unfair to hang the team’s defensive drop on Aldridge, who’s been one of the league’s better on-ball interior defenders. Opponents are shooting 12.7% worse within 10 feet when he’s there contesting, which is only behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert (min. 5 attempts).

It’s also a bit reductive to put all of them on Gasol, especially after you look at how lineups have fared without him. Replace Gasol with David Lee and Tony Parker with Patty Mills and you’ve got one of the Spurs’ better offensive lineups (128 per 100 poss), but they still have a 107 defensive rating. That’s the team’s most-used lineup with Aldridge in and Gasol out. The next two (Aldridge-Lee-Leonard-Ginobili-Mills and Aldridge-Lee-Simmons-Ginobili-Mills) have both been plus-minus disasters.

There has been one that’s worked, albeit in just 11 minutes of total time together: Aldridge, Lee, Leonard, Ginobili and Mills are sporting a 106.9 offensive rating and an 82.3 defensive rating right now. That’s two iffy defenders (plus Lee), though, so it’s hard to see that net rating staying so low.

Pop is going to continue looking how to make the Aldridge-Gasol duo work, but part of that education will be knowing what lineup to go to when opponents go small and force him to bench Pau. Aldridge and Dedmon, who was huge in the Spurs’ comeback win in Dallas yesterday, could be the perfect answer. The pair have a solid 11.8 net rating at the moment.

In Tuesday night’s win over the Mavs (which Pau sat out), Aldridge’s shot was off. His five points, on 2-of-9 from the field, were easily a season-low. But he did hit one in the fourth quarter — a standard rainbow turn-around over Andrew Bogut.

His tendency to regularly seek out those high-degree-of-difficulty shots can be frustrating at times (especially for purists who prefer a more ‘beautiful’ game), but his ability to knock them down is huge — and even more valuable in the playoffs when things slow down and get a bit more predictable. In that way, Aldridge may represent one of the Spurs’ few constants this season as they try to answer a dozen other questions and navigate the first stretch of this weird, post-Duncan world.