Any excitement Spurs fans had about the NBA’s potential return to action probably disappeared with the news that LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his shoulder.
The Spurs were a long shot to make the postseason even under ideal circumstances, so this loss will likely take them out of the running. This season San Antonio has gone 4-6 without their second leading scorer, with three of the wins coming in extremely close games. It’s hard to imagine a legitimate playoff push coming without Aldridge.
Alas, the Spurs will still have to participate when the season returns, so let’s take a look at what his absence means to them and how they can navigate this unfortunate situation in the best way possible.
The Spurs can’t do anything to improve their lottery odds
Under normal circumstances, the Spurs losing Aldridge for the season would not have been the worst thing. Their chances of making the playoffs and keeping their streak alive were slim, so it might have been a good thing to just give up on that dream and simply play the young guys in hopes of improving their lottery odds. Unfortunately, they can’t do that right now.
The NBA purposefully set up things so that a West team couldn’t just tank for better position. By the new rules, seeding for the lottery is determined by the record teams had on March 11. That means the top eight spots are already taken and the Spurs are locked into the 11th spot unless they make the playoffs, in which case they would be pushed outside the lottery completely, or the Suns somehow make the playoffs, in which case San Antonio would get the 10th spot. In other words, even if the Spurs lose every game in Orlando, they won’t leapfrog Phoenix or Washington unless those teams somehow make it to the postseason, which seems very unlikely.
One of the few silver linings that could have come from Aldridge’s absence — a better chance at a top pick — is simply not in the cards at this point, so the Spurs have no option but to try their best to win as many games as possible while shorthanded. Which means...
The Spurs should probably use Rudy Gay as their backup center
The Spurs have a great backup center in Jakob Poeltl, who will surely fill in as a starter. Had he not missed four of the same games as Aldridge did, San Antonio’s record without the veteran star would have probably been better. The pairings including Poeltl and Trey Lyles or Rudy Gay have done well, so San Antonio shouldn’t be at a disadvantage when Poeltl is on the court. The problems will start when he heads to the bench to rest.
Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks have simply not developed enough to be worthy of actual playing time. Eubanks seemed overmatched every time the team needed him this season, getting targeted on defense and unable to make an impact on offense. Metu continues to lack discipline on both ends, taking — and missing — too many mid-range jumpers and routinely being out of position on defense. Neither is reliable. The same applies to rookie Luka Samanic, who despite showing encouraging flashes in the G-League doesn’t seem ready for the big time yet. The coaching staff should give all three a shot at earning the backup center role, but it would be surprising if any of them did. Which means they should get creative.
The Spurs’ best hope for good minutes behind Poeltl at center right now might be Gay, as surprising as that might sound. He doesn’t have the size for the position and should arguably never be played alongside Lyles, considering the awful net rating the pairing posted, but there could be positives in going small with him at center and four guards around him. Gregg Popovich experimented with those types of lineups for short periods of time, and while the results weren’t always good, they allowed the Spurs to have more of their best players on the court at the same time, along with much better spacing, and seemed to spark a sense of urgency on defense and the boards on the perimeter players that wasn’t always there when there were legitimate big men around.
Going extra small with Gay at center when Poeltl rests might be a gimmicky gambit that would not likely work in the long run, but it could catch opponents off guard for a few games, which is all the Spurs need to at least add some suspense to the postseason race in the West.
The loss of Aldridge essentially ended this Spurs season in many ways. Even at full strength they were a long shot to make the playoffs, and the new rules take away a lot of the drama that comes with lottery positioning. It would be understandable for the fan base to feel defeated at this point.
Fortunately, there will be interesting story lines for the faithful to follow as the NBA returns. The development of the young guards, the potential emergence of one of the young bigs as a legitimate rotation player, or even the deployment of small lineups to make up for the absence of Aldridge should provide at least some intrigue and entertainment, which is all we can ask for at this point in this disappointing season.