The Bubble Spurs impressed, entertained, and showed flashes of unrealized potential—all without one of the team’s cornerstone figures in LaMarcus Aldridge. The 35-year-old sat out after undergoing shoulder surgery in April and so, too, did Trey Lyles, leaving a smaller group to play a style that relied far more on dribble penetration and less on the diet of static post-ups and elbow-level pick-and-pops that have defined Aldridge’s game.
I’m admittedly uncomfortable with how much of the following reverts to LMA shirking midrangers for threes. I have no interest in pushing the agenda of Big Three-Pointer, which is a tired and uniform kind of analysis that also clashes with one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in person: Aldridge hanging 56 on the Thunder in January 2019. That he did his damage with nothing but bodyblows — turnarounds and bruising finishes around the basket — and without a single attempt from three, makes that game a dodo sighting in today’s NBA. While most stuff in sports is ephemeral, it feels like you can etch the tweet below in bronze as a final watermark moment for two-point scoring. The technocrats won.
Interesting here from @ESPNStatsInfo: No player has scored 50 points without attempting a three since Jermaine O'Neal on Jan. 4, 2005 against the Bucks. Aldridge has 52 on 20 of 32 and has made all 12 of his FT attempts. No 3-pt attempts.— Michael C. Wright (@mikecwright) January 11, 2019
When Aldridge is eating, the Spurs look good. In games where he eclipsed his average of 15 attempts, the Spurs went 16-11, which is great for last year’s group. The problem is, defenses can scheme against his inside-out game rather easily or fluster him by upping their physicality. And when they did, the lineups the Spurs had on the floor weren’t especially adaptable: guys like Forbes, Murray and Lyles were forced to be more aggressive and DeRozan had to shoulder a greater load. The Spurs were 7-19 in games where Aldridge attempted 14 shots or less.
The Spurs started moving away from this last season, as Aldridge increased his three-point attempts from 0.5 per game to 3.0, giving DeMar DeRozan more room to work inside en route to his most efficient offensive season. Some of the best Spurs ball we saw last season involved a four-out offense where DeRozan served as a point big, penetrating, posting up, and having a suite of shooters to kick out to.
Yet even with Aldridge taking steps to extend his game, his old habits still won out more often than not. His 9.7 post touches per game were 2nd in the NBA. He’ll have to keep reeling in that inside game to allow the team to further invert and diversify its offense while making way for younger and better defensive lineup combinations that rely less on specialists of years past. Barring any big moves this offseason, Aldridge will be rejoining a rotation of young wings that includes Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV who, along with DeRozan, would benefit from Aldridge further vacating his spot on the left block.
Aldridge has at least one blueprint to follow in a big who has famously renounced his inside game for threes in Brook Lopez. In 2015-16 Lopez finished 6.1 post-up possessions a game, 3rd most in the league, a number that dropped slightly in 5.4 in 2016-17 before the now-Buck reinvented himself into a stretch five. Nearly half of his shots came beyond the arc last season after 65% of them being threes the year before.
The thing about Lopez bombing away is that he’s not even been particularly good at it. Over these past four-high volume seasons (4.5+ attempts a game), here are his 3-point averages: 34.6%, 34.5%, 36.5% and 31.4%. When he makes them it’s great, but there’s value in him opening up lanes for guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe who don’t do most of their damage from outside.
While DeRozan isn’t Giannis’ equal, his possessions can spell the same type of exploratory dribble penetration, with an even better outlet in Aldridge (he shot 39% from deep last year) pulling the big man away from the rim or making defenses pay. Add in more pick and roll actions with White, mix in a few selective post touches for Aldridge and you’ve got an offensive formula for a more modern shot profile and for better player development. Players like Murray and Walker, who have both been abysmal finishers at the rim until now, could only benefit from the space, while the threat that someone like Johnson has become as a penetrator will force defenses to pick their poison between sending help or freeing up Aldridge for a high-percentage shot.
Lopez, like Aldridge, gets most of this three-point looks from simple opportunities: opponents getting sucked in, defensive collapses, or as the trailing big. His willingness to shoot without hesitation, and his teammate’s awareness to find him whenever he has daylight, put constant pressure on opponents.
The Spurs don’t have to become the Bucks to aspire to find their own formula and, something they’ve lacked the past three years, an identity. Aldridge embracing a lower-usage and higher-efficiency game can allow a number of other pieces to fall into place. Provided the Spurs let either Bryn Forbes or Marco Belinelli (or both) go in free agency, Pop will be without some of his best release valves for static post-ups: guys who can make up for the big man’s plodding style by moving without the ball and shooting quick off the catch and on the move. The flip side of that is that it would free the team from the crutches that have propped up those lineups the last few years. Sure, Patty Mills will remain, and White showed improvement in that area in the Bubble, but those possessions should no longer be the backbone of a San Antonio offense if the team is to move forward.
Forbes and Belinelli were often scapegoats for what ailed the Spurs last season thanks to their defensive shortcomings. And while they weren’t deserving of some of that criticism (they would both work on teams who have enough other defenders around them), they were microcosmic of a team that failed on defense because of how it viewed its offense, their strengths as motion shooters and possession savers deemed essential in spite of what they gave up on the other end. How much of that changes with not only the growth of the young wings but from a veteran big man’s acceptance that he can reshape the offense by stepping further out of his comfort zone? And how much could that swing this team’s potential next season if it adds more dynamic defenders to the mix while freeing the offense of some of its maligned predictability?