The Aldridge/DeRozan Era Was A Failure

After 2.5 seasons, LaMarcus Aldridge has officially been bought out and is no longer a member of the San Antonio Spurs. After five years in which he played an integral part of a formidable 67-win and 61-win squad, his play and fit on this current squad has declined so considerably that he cannot finish the season with the team. We all know he wants to be a starter on a contender and that isn't San Antonio anymore. With the way this roster has worked out and the fact that he is just getting older, he was unplayable as a starter and was not happy with a bench role. If you told me 3 years ago he would be bought out and not even finish his final season with us, I wouldn't have believed you.

Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan has maybe had his best season ever in his career. A very solid stat line of 20/4/7 per game with an eFG of 50% is just as good, if not better, than any season he had in Toronto. Sure, he isn't scoring quite as much as he did there, but I would say his knack of getting to the free-throw line, his passing, and his new role as a mentor to a young core has turned him into a much more well-rounded player who has never shown this kind of game in his career at this level. Despite all this, he is not an All-Star in the Western conference, has not really moved the needle as far as pushing this team to get more wins with an established playoff spot, and most curiously, is seemingly not a desirable commodity with his current contract to be a half-season rental on a contender or even a pseudo-playoff team like the Bulls. The only way he was going to be traded, since he got to San Antonio, would be in a package with one of our young guards and we all know what a mistake that would be even if we acquired good draft capital. How did we get here?

Despite the fall of Aldridge this season, he played fairly great in his first season with DeRozan. He averaged 21 ppg and shot his highest percentage ever at 51%. At this point, he was still very much a 1a option to DeRozan's 1b and proved, once again as he did when Kawhi sat out the season before, that he needs to truly be the #1 option to be at his very best. This first season together with DeRozan showed both players playing their kind of iso-jumper heavy game totally unfettered by Pop; he just let them play their game with the current roster they had. It amount to a 7-seed and tight 7-game series loss to the upstart 2-seed Denver Nuggets. I'm sure this season gave many fans hope that Pop's magic could mold this rather strange pairing into playoff success. After all, both players were All-Stars and it worked well enough in the first season.

It quickly went downhill as we all saw. The second season of Aldridge/DeRozan, with mostly the same roster and coaching staff, got out of hand pretty much right away. The team went 4-12 in November 2019 and 4-7 in February 2020. Before the COVID outbreak, it was quite clear this team wasn't going to make the playoffs. The Spurs were losing to teams we had not seen them lose to in years, bottom feeders of the eastern conference that were scoring up to 130 points on a team historically based on defense and team basketball. As it turned out, the pandemic and stoppage of play turned out to be a genuine blessing in disguise (as far as this team and their play is concerned, obviously the pandemic hasn't been a blessing in disguise materially for anyone in the world other than the super-rich): without Aldridge on the floor and DeRozan taking a back seat on the offensive end, our young core shined in the 8 games they played, giving many of us genuine hope of a new style of play for this team. Still, it wasn't enough and the Spurs missed out on the playoffs, ending their playoff streak with 22 straight seasons (tying for the record), one shy of setting a new record that would never, EVER, be broken by anyone in the NBA or major American sports in general. Personally, I hate ties.

As this COVID season has persisted, it has been quite difficult to figure out how to meld "bubble ball" with Aldridge's declining skillset. While great games and scoring were still possible, it just didn't work out with his lack of defense and inability to engage with the young guys on the court. With DeRozan as the true #1, it at least allowed our young players genuine roles on the floor. This kind of basketball is incompatible with this current iteration of Aldridge, and is quite a different team than the 2018-2019 season which relied primarily on DeRozan and Aldridge just doing their thing. Now he's gone. What we miss in scoring, we have gained in defense, but sadly it hasn't gained us many more wins since our COVID outbreak on the team and our record since the All-Star break has been 4-6; teetering around .500 is about what we can expect with a team such as this.

The era of Aldridge and DeRozan has proven to be a resounding failure and the reason is more than just a "bad fit". There was never a fit to begin with. The ceiling of a team with those two stars playing together with those styles is a 7-seed and first-round exit. I personally believe that the "success" of their first season together (which, when compared to the results of the Spurs in this millennium, would barely register as successful), came from pure edge with the Spurs and DeRozan really trying to prove themselves to Kawhi, the NBA, and all the doubters. They played hard and with a chip on their shoulder. Once they had a season together and teams had tape on them, it was easy to stop a ball club which didn't rely on ball movement or much 3pt shooting to win games. The first season of success was the highest level a team with these two stars as your franchise anchors could reach.

Why did this "bad fit" persist for 2.5 seasons despite having the greatest coach to ever exist in the NBA? Why could it not be remedied? Were we just a couple of 3-and-D guys away from having a great team? I don't think so at all. It comes from losing talent of immense caliber for very little in return beyond "solid" play from a non-superstar and a center who was very green and couldn't contribute at a high level right away. This comes from a stubborn desire to "compete", to stay relevant and deny the rebuild we all know is coming. It comes from the fact that, when paired together, Aldridge and DeRozan's styles are truly incompatible. Is this DeRozan's fault? Is it Aldridge's? Not really. It's the fault of an organization who decides to make this trade and then seemingly can't get it to work in practice.

For those saying the trade is in the past, water under the bridge, etc, that couldn't be farther from the truth. The agonizing decline of this team with a coach and stars who seemingly don't understand where they rank in the league right now is stubborn and prideful and a result of making a trade for players who can't possible fill the shoes of those who left or have been here before. Even if you grant that the purpose of the trade was simply to get the playoff streak, that idea failed as well (unless you're a fan of ties). And before COVID, we had never seen a Spurs team play this badly in the 21st century. We were air balling free throws and losing to teams by margins that were historically bad (and in that regard we still are). The "bad fit" comes from the idea that this team, with these two stars and a roster that rarely changes, could be a competitive playoff team at all. Our other "moves" to try and be a playoff team were getting washed vets like Demarre Carroll, busts like Trey Lyles, or going after head cases like Marcus Morris. None of these moves were going to drastically change things to make this a truly competitive playoff team since it would still be anchored around the tandem of Aldridge and DeRozan.

The fact of the matter, despite what fans think, is that Aldridge and DeRozan are not good enough to be All-Stars in the Western conference right now in 2021. In this conference, you desperately need at least one All-Star to be a competitive team. Aldridge was, but he's just old and can't contribute defensively like he used to. DeRozan, on the other hand, obviously very much believes he is an All-Star and takes things like that quite personally. Fans here have tried to say he's an All-Star snub and maybe he is, but even then he's a borderline All-Star in the west. That's not good enough. He desperately needs to be back in the East where he can be an All-Star again and try to remain relevant in the NBA narrative. He does have champions such as Candace Parker out there talking about how he'd be a GOAT if he played in the 90s, and if he was in the East, he would have more of a chance to shine to live up to claims like this. But in the West, on this team with no 3pt shooting and when paired with another star that did much of the same things as him, he's never had the opportunity in these 3 years to really live up to those standards others thrust upon him.

Pop has seemingly tried everything to get him to work on this team while Aldridge has seemingly been out of the picture (for the most part) since the Bubble. On basketball reference at least, DeRozan's last 3 seasons have his position as SG/SF/PF showing just how much work Pop has put in to in trying to get him to play in different roles and make the team better, so it's not for lack of trying on Pop's part in getting this guy to work here. And if DeRozan truly was an All-Star player and guy you could use to make a real difference in the playoffs, a team would have actually traded for him and him alone despite his contract. He is not desirable enough to move the needle for any team on his own. Others teams would have wanted Lonnie, Murray, etc along with him to make that trade worth it. On his own, with the awful contract PATFO traded for, he is not worth even a half-season rental since he can't really fit in a system right away as a true iso-player. Even with his improved passing, even with his improved leadership, even with his improved free throw percentage, even with his proven professionalism, even with his positive social awareness of mental health and depression, even with him as a franchise cornerstone anchor for a historically elite team, he's just not worth going after right now for any team on his own. That should say pretty much everything.

The Spurs will not get out of the agonizing death throes of mediocrity until we accept that this trade and era has been a failure no one saw coming so swiftly. Even for those of us whose main memories of DeRozan before the trade was being benched in the playoffs, I don't think we could have predicted how groan-inducing a team with Aldridge and DeRozan as our two stars could be. Granted, the team this year has been mostly more fun to watch and has given most of us a good amount of hope. But sadly, these young guys need to have the team to themselves and build chemistry and trust as a true new guard for the organization. PATFO has never tried for big trades and their inexperience showed in the deal for DeRozan/Poeltl and the second-to-last pick in the first round of the draft. It just wasn't a good deal and, obviously, Kawhi nuked the team into oblivion.

It should be noted this is really all Kawhi's fault and I will never, EVER, respect that dude or want his number retired here. The unceremonious exit of Aldridge, the (perhaps unfair) comparing of DeRozan to previous HOF's that have played here creating an immense sense of disappointment and stagnation, is all due to him and his despicable behavior simultaneously torpedoing this team into mediocrity and severely shaking the foundation of player-safety and health that this organization helped pioneer in truly game-changing ways for the NBA. Instead, he helped to foster a narrative of us being "the team that didn't take care of Kawhi's injury". That kind of slanderous narrative, I hope, was mainly short lived.

But nevertheless, Pop made this trade and he only did because he clearly thought he could make this work. It didn't work. And if Pop of all people couldn't make it work, something is really, truly wrong with how the pieces fit. This organization will not be out of the shadow of the past until these vets are gone and the training wheels are off. Vassell's remarkably high ceiling and good play show what higher draft picks look like and this organization's careful vetting of players will not stop simply because we have higher draft picks. We need to get out of the Aldridge/DeRozan business to start feeling optimistic about a new era of Spurs basketball and we're already halfway there. I think it's clear that DeRozan and PATFO haven't agreed on an extension because he wants a max contract. Good. I hope DeRozan can find a place to play in the East with his best friend Kyle Lowry where they can be All-Stars together again. He's a much better player now than when he came here and, in the East, that will be immensely helpful when paired with his favorite point guard.

We all knew we just had to ride this season out and with COVID this is all wonky anyway. I may have typed this all for nothing because how can we literally judge anything right now, sports or otherwise? But even with taking that into consideration, I think I've seen enough of what this era had to offer and it was not very fun or indicative of progress beyond some real baby steps for our young players. Stagnation is its own purgatory and thinking this team needs to be shaped and molded for another 3-4 years around DeMar DeRozan is honestly closer to insanity than anything else. He can't hack it out here in the West as a #1 option and I think this is undeniable. Godspeed back to the East and thank you for your service. Same goes to Aldridge. It's time to fully move on and accept what we are - a rebuilding team entering a truly new decade of Spurs basketball.

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