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What we’ve learned from 2 years of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan

A retrospective on the numbers and takeaways as San Antonio approaches a likely third (and final?) year with both players on the the roster.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not meant as a knock on DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge to say that where the Spurs are—structurally or competitively—isn’t what the front office had planned three-ish years ago before the vector bent profoundly and irreversibly with the start of the Kawhi Leonard saga. While they salvaged what they could a year later by moving Leonard to Toronto and getting back a package headlined by DeRozan, the path back to the upper echelons of the NBA remains murky.

In theory, that Shawshankian path includes at least one more year of both, who would each have one year left under contract provided DeRozan opts in (that option deadline appears to be TBD as the financial numbers and dates for next season are rounded out). They have no urgency to move either player but, under a more opportunistic front office, may decide that moving one sooner would make them more competitive and/or better foster the development of its younger players. There is at the same time the potential that they extend both past 2021—who knows. It’s enough to take a look at the duo from a few different angles, if only to see what next season may have in store.

66-62: Combined record with Aldridge and DeRozan in the lineup (.516 win percentage)

The Spurs went 44-33 in the pair’s first year together in games when both suited up. Last year, that dropped to 22-29. The record in the aggregate isn’t as bad as many might think, but you can’t ignore the downturn in year two, both in the wins column and in some of the beyond-the-box-score stuff below.

+0.5: 2018-19 two-man net rating

First, the mandatory caveat when discussing records, net ratings and things of that nature: Aldridge and DeRozan are but two of five players on the floor at any given time and are thus subject to a dozen variables that affect those numbers; their on/off numbers, which look less favorable than some of the Spurs’ bench players, are also shaped by the better competition they’re routinely facing. Still, with outsized roles and salaries come outsized expectations for how they should impact the game.

At the time, having a borderline neutral net rating seemed pretty damning for the Spurs’ new star pairing. More than anything, it spoke to the downgrade DeRozan represented from the departed Leonard. However given the amount of turnover the team had experienced going into that season, the injury to Dejounte Murray, as well as the better numbers put up by the perennially potent Spurs bench, things could’ve been worse. After a number of tweaks, Gregg Popovich found something in a starting group of DeRozan, Aldridge, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes and Rudy Gay, with Jakob Poeltl mixed in every now and then.

-2.7: 2019-20 two-man net rating

Things got worse in year two. The team’s most-used starting lineup of DeRozan-Aldridge-Murray-Trey Lyles-Forbes ended up with a +0.0 net rating, while hybrid lineups that featured DeRozan and Aldridge fared worse, keyed by a 112.6 defensive rating.

That last number is the big one that usually gets overlooked when dissecting what’s gone wrong with this experiment. The offense, by virtue of their efforts and the players Pop has surrounded them with, has been fine—it’s on the other end where the Spurs get killed. And that, again, has to do with all five players on the floor.

Starting lineups should have balance, but San Antonio’s amounted more to a hedge gone wrong: Pop played Aldridge and DeRozan because they’re the team’s present; he played Murray because he was the anointed Point Guard of the Future; he played Forbes to make up for that trio’s lack of spacing and off-ball movement, and he played Lyles to shore up Aldridge’s lack of defensive mobility and grease the wheels offensively. Aldridge and DeRozan ultimately propped up the lineup, but their deficiencies also helped define it.

+5.6: Three-man net rating of DeRozan-Aldridge-Belinelli in 2019-20

This is noteworthy because not only is it the highest net rating for a trio that includes the Spurs’ two stars, it’s the only one that’s positive at all. The next best figure? The duo plus White at -0.9. Maybe this is a sweeping criticism of the viability of cobbling lineups around Aldridge and DeRozan, maybe it’s a quiet reason why the team re-signs Belinelli this offseason, maybe net rating truly means very little to the Spurs.

1st and 2nd: Where each finished on the team in scoring, usage rate, win shares the last two seasons

If you dominate touches the way both players have, it shouldn’t be surprising to lead the team in these areas. That said, those who think the Spurs can finesse a bit of addition-by-subtraction by simply trading either guy for little return should be aware of the void they’d leave behind.

17: Combined three-pointers made in 2018-19

Aldridge and DeRozan’s well-documented aversion to the three-pointer was on display in year one. Still, lineups that featured both of them posted a 111 offensive rating, which was lower than the team’s average but would’ve finished just behind 10th ranked Boston for the year.

61: Aldridge three-pointers in 2019-20

The big man’s long-awaited evolution came last year, giving each player a bit more room to operate. DeRozan benefited by putting up easily his most efficient shooting season, going 53.1% from the field, although both would benefit from Aldridge pushing things even further that direction moving forward. With that in mind . . .

Moving forward with both

To some fans, the idea of both players remaining with the team in the longer term is nightmare fuel, and the numbers above all affirm why they’d feel that way. In the least, it’s likely that both stick around next season, and it’s worth exploring how the Spurs can make better use of them under those terms.

Aldridge trading more post-ups for threes is a start—it gives DeRozan more room to do what he does best. It makes the math work more in the Spurs’ favor as they invert their offense, and it’s more realistic than DeRozan upping his attempts ever was. That shift also makes Forbes less necessary, opening the door for White to start alongside Murray or for PATFO to explore upgrades over Lyles. That won’t suddenly make them a scary two-man game —Aldridge isn’t much of a roll threat and bigs can always drop against DeRozan — but it allows the Spurs to cobble together lineups that are better rounded on the defensive end, which, again, is where they’ve lost more games.

Staggering the two is also a thought, unless you can convince Aldridge to consider a bench role the year before he hits free agency. Given both can anchor possessions and that both need the right defensive pieces around them to mitigate their weaknesses, it’s far easier to conjure up lineups that feature just one player versus two.

Moving on from either player

Neither Aldridge or DeRozan is unmovable, and the Spurs should be looking at what market is out there for both. If DeRozan opts in, he and Aldridge would both be, in the least, situationally effective scorers and expiring contracts. The latter holds value both to cash-strapped owners in a COVID-impacted economy (which should be several) and ambitious GMs eyeing short-term competitiveness and flexibility for the 2021 free agency market (hello, Miami).

You can dedicate entire articles to trade ideas for either — it’s just worth noting that you should consider how that new-look offense will look with either gone, especially DeRozan. He’s been the engine for much of what the starters have done, and there’s little indication that any of the wings can spell that level of shot creation, for himself or others, at the volume DeRozan has shouldered.

That last point is probably the caveat that has steadied PATFO’s hand in the past. As flawed as they are, Aldridge and DeRozan are known commodities capable of anchoring possessions and giving your team a theoretical puncher’s chance each night. Move either and you should probably have a good idea of where your team is going to get its points, create advantages in the half court, and find long-term paths to the next top-40 player or two. If the Spurs do take the plunge and move one or both, it could be because they’ve seen that brighter path through its budding youth movement — or it could be that they, too, have reflected on the past two years and not liked enough of what they saw.