San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge is quietly one of the more polarizing players in the league. At his best he’s an All-Star, All-NBA-level player, a devastating first option scoring with impunity over defenders who can’t match his reach. Other times he looks awkward, out of place, a shrinking violet wilting in the spotlight, bullied by opposing defenses and struggling to put up 15 and 7. Mix those parts equally, add in a taciturn demeanor, and you end up with a player people ask questions about.
Nobody knows this better than a Portland Trail Blazers fan, which I am. For ten years Aldridge patrolled the hardwood in Portland, devastating the Spurs and crumbling against the Hawks and Grizzlies in equal measure. But take it from me, San Antonio fans, no matter what you cheer on a Wednesday or complain about on a Saturday night, it’s always better to have LaMarcus Aldridge than to be without him. Here are three reasons why.
His Offensive Game Isn’t That Easy to Replace
It’s easy to look at Aldridge’s falling field goal percentage last season and say, “He’s losing effectiveness.” 2016-17 wasn’t his best season, but percentages don’t tell the story of Aldridge’s value. Shooting 47.7% from the floor isn’t anything to write home about for a power forward, but that number still exceeded his mark during his two most productive scoring seasons in Portland. His .532 TS% surpassed his figures in 3 of his 4 All-Star seasons with the Blazers as well.
Aldridge attempted almost 60% of his shots beyond 10 feet last year. It’s one thing to do that if you’re a super-skinny, new-NBA power forward sitting in the corner and waiting for your guards to dish for the outlet three. Aldridge isn’t any of those things. He’s one of the few players in the league who can actually champion the offense from the mid-range, whose face-up jumper is such a devastating weapon that opposing defenses have to plan for it. Even when he gets erratic, he has to be covered. When he gets rolling, he can’t be covered. Either way, he’s bending the floor in a way that percentages don’t describe sufficiently. The respect and intimidation his face-up shot inspires cannot be replaced easily. Snaky guards and powerhouse centers command that kind of attention at the arc and the rim, but mid-range weapons are rare and the gravity exerted by a such serious in-between threat can’t be ignored.
He’s Fairly Affordable
41 NBA players will make $20 million or more this season. That list includes Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, Steven Adams, J.J. Redick, Chandler Parsons, and Otto Porter. At $21.5 million, Aldridge ranks 37th of those 41. Even hovering around 17 and 7 per game, he’s simply not overpaid in today’s NBA.
Let’s Talk About Kawhi
Kawhi Leonard is San Antonio’s superstar of the present and future. He’s a fantastic athlete with jaw-dropping talent. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to contradict that.
That said, Leonard is a shade different than the universally-acclaimed “once in a lifetime” players…LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Magic and Jordan of old. All of them have a certain forwardness, a sizzling individual drive that Leonard hasn’t shown. He’s THE guy; he isn’t THAT guy. He’s the best team-oriented, all-around superstar in the league. This is exactly what San Antonio coaches, exactly what San Antonio wants. The fit couldn’t be better.
In order to make it work—in order to keep Kawhi from becoming an island in a sea of mediocrity that he shines above but can’t lift—the Spurs have to keep a team around him. Their guards carry high years and high mileage. As long as Aldridge’s medical condition remains sound, he should be able to play his style for another 4-5 seasons without flagging. Though nobody can replace Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, it’ll be easier to beg or borrow (or draft and train) backcourt players in this guard-heavy era than it will be to replace a big man…most of whom are either mediocre or unavailable.
LaMarcus Aldridge is far from the perfect player. Sometimes you swear by him, other times at him. But he’s versatile, productive, experienced, and retains his star-power, if not always star production. If the Spurs could pull a higher-ranking superstar to San Antonio, they should do that without question. But until that happens, Aldridge provides more value for the dollar than they’re likely to find from any replacement, save perhaps one found by striking gold in the NBA draft. The Spurs don’t have to like him all the time, but they probably should keep him.