Breaking Down How LaMarcus Aldridge Fits with San Antonio Spurs

Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2015

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We interrupt your holiday weekend to bring you the biggest news of the NBA offseason: All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is leaving the Portland Trail Blazers for the San Antonio Spurs, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports

Let's go live to San Antonio for the team's reaction. 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Yeah, it's a big move, folks.

It's a move that was long-rumored; one that required a significant risk on the Spurs' part in the form of a salary-dump trade of starting center Tiago Splitter to the Atlanta Hawks in the opening hours of free agency, but also one that will likely prove well worth it

In a Southwest Division that somehow keeps getting crazier and even more talented (all five teams made the playoffs last year, and the Dallas Mavericks stole DeAndre Jordan away from the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday), the Spurs found a way to not only keep pace, but to stay ahead of the pack. 

Now that we know where Aldridge will be plying his trade for the next three-plus years (Aldridge's contract is for four years and the maximum $80 million, and it contains a player option after Year 3, per Wojnarowski), it's important to take a look at how he'll fit with his new teammates. The Spurs machine is a different animal than the Blazers squad Aldridge anchored for the first nine years of his career, after all. 

Aldridge does have a skill set that's tailor-made for the Spurs, though. He moves well without the ball, he's a skilled passer, and he's very smart. He can be a ball-stopper on occasion, but it's not at all difficult to envision him moving the ball more quickly in San Antonio than he did in Portland. The Spurs are infectious that way. 

via ShotAnalytics.com

Aldridge will likely slot into San Antonio's starting lineup at his normal power forward spot, taking Splitter's place while bumping Tim Duncan back to the center position. (Yes, Spurs fans. Duncan indeed played center for a while.) They'll be joined in the frontcourt by newly minted max player Kawhi Leonard, while Tony Parker and Danny Green will man the starting backcourt spots. If that lineup sounds terrifying, it should. There are no weak spots, no hiding places in which subpar defenders can camp. 

Within that specific group, though, there will be slight adjustments to be made by both Aldridge and the incumbents. 

Aldridge is a high-usage player who can serve as the foundation of a high-level offense. His usage rate over the last four seasons combined was 28.4 percent, and it peaked last year at 30.2 percent. The Blazers often leveraged the threat of Aldridge into open looks for the other players on the floor, and it worked well. They ranked fifth and eighth in offensive efficiency the last two years under Terry Stotts' Aldridge-led offense. 

The player Aldridge is replacing in the Spurs lineup is nothing like that. Splitter is a solid-enough offensive player, though more of a complementary piece than one who was likely to create his own looks, let alone one who could be used as a decoy to open up other players on the floor. He's had a usage rate above 20 just once in his career, and he used only 18.1 percent of the Spurs' possessions during his three years as a starter.

Aldridge's ability to soak up possessions at above-average efficiency is a good thing. At the very least, it will considerably ease the burden on both Duncan and Parker. That duo has long been the engines that powered the San Antonio offense, but both are on the far side of 30 and not getting any younger.

Parker was the team's primary offensive weapon over the last few seasons, but he showed signs of wear and tear for the first time last campaign. San Antonio shifted some responsibility to Leonard and Green, but it was important to find another high-level option to depend on for the future. Now they have one.

But what, specifically, does Aldridge bring to the table?

As you can see, he loves to operate from the left side of the floor, particularly near the elbow and along the baseline. Knowing head coach Gregg Popovich as we do, you can expect the Spurs to incorporate Aldridge into their sets in ways designed to get him the ball in those locations and also create all-new sets that free him up for easy looks.

That can mean using him as a screener in pick-and-pop plays with Parker or as the outlet man when Parker and Duncan do their pick-and-roll dance. The Spurs could also run him off pin-down screens from Leonard or Green designed to create just a smidge extra space for him to release his jumper, as they've done with Duncan on occasion in the past. 

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

That video is from a few years ago. The Spurs ran that kind of set for Duncan considerably less often last seasonhe took only 18 jumpers off screens all year. It's perfect for Aldridge, though, especially if Leonard is the one setting the screen, Green is spacing the floor from the corner and Duncan himself is the trigger man on the pass. That creates threats all over the floor.

Another thing I imagine we'll definitely see more of is Aldridge stepping out behind the arc to take threes. He set a career-high with 105 attempts from deep last season, just 11 fewer than he'd taken in his previous eight seasons combined.

The Spurs were one of the first teams to discover the power of the corner three, and they've turned players like Leonard and Boris Diaw into better three-point shooters once they landed in San Antonio. It's not a stretch to imagine the same happening with Aldridge, who hit a perfectly respectable 35 percent in his first go-round at taking a high volume of threes last season. 

The Spurs probably won't pound the ball down into the post quite as often as the Blazers did, but they're sure to take advantage of the fact Aldridge is able to score down there at an efficient clip while shouldering heavy usage. According to Synergy Sports, Aldridge averaged 0.96 points per play on post-ups, the fourth-best mark among 30 players that used at least 200 possessions out of the post.

The Spurs will run their familiar "4-Down" set (watch Duncan after the offensive rebound in that link to get an idea of what it looks like) to get Aldridge good post position. They'll have him set screens and roll into the post while running decoy action on the weak side. They'll get him duck-ins after he sets an off-ball screen. There are all kinds of ways to feed him the ball on the block. 

Aldridge's combination of height, length and versatility also makes him a good option to anchor bench-heavy units when Duncan takes a breather. He can easily fit next to Boris Diaw, or even Leonard in small-ball frontcourts.

Aldridge has long shown an aversion to playing centerhe even canceled a free-agent meeting with the Knicks when it was revealed they wanted him to play the position exclusively, according to NBA.com's David Aldridgebut something tells me the franchise that got Duncan to play center for years while referring to him as a power forward will be able to convince Aldridge to do the same.

Those lineups will likely rely on getting the ball to Aldridge in the post and at the elbow, which will allow him to get his touches and his shots without screwing with the Spurs' Spursiness. His presence in those lineups will help players like Patty Mills get cleaner looks than in the past as well, which will boost their efficiency. 

The concerns with Aldridge's fit in San Antonio will likely come on the defensive end of the floor, but it should be noted those concerns are very, very, very small. (Did you hear me, Spurs fans? I said the concerns are very, very, very small. There is basically nothing not to like about this signing. You are the big winners of the offseason. Be happy.) He's not a great defender, but he's a pretty solid one. He's just not quite as solid as Splitter, the guy he'll be replacing. 

Aldridge moves his feet fairly well defensively and is usually in proper position, both of which are key, but he's left something to be desired as a rim protector of late. He checked in 59th in points saved per 36 minutes in each of the last two seasons, per Nylon Calculus. That could become a concern in small-ball lineups, but the Spurs are so solid everywhere else in the floor and in their rotations that it might not. You can't score at the rim if you can't get to the rim, after all.

With Splitter, though, that concern didn't really exist. (Note: There were other concerns with Splitter, like when teams went small and played him off the court as the Heat did in the 2013 NBA Finals, but those were alleviated a bit the last two years.)

Aldridge graded out 0.36 points per 100 possessions better than the league-average power forward on defense, per ESPN's RPM. That placed him 45th among power forwards. Splitter, meanwhile, was a plus-2.70, the 10th-best mark among all centers. 

Much of defense is dependent on context, though, and Aldridge's could tick up in San Antonio if he doesn't have to carry quite as heavy an offensive load as he did for Portland last year. When the Blazers were healthier during the 2013-14 season, he was seventh among power forwards with a plus-3.23 defensive RPM. The possibility of him playing high-level defense is there, for sure.

The biggest benefit of adding Aldridge, though, is it gives the Spurs a third anchor for the future that will presumably be built around the league's best perimeter-defense duo: Leonard and Green.

Green is a hyper-competent role player, one of the best three-and-D guys in the NBA. He's terrific, but he's also ultimately a complementary piece. Leonard is a top-10 NBA player at this point on the strength of his defense alone, even before we get into what he brings on the other end.

He improved immensely as an offensive weapon last year, though, particularly once he came back from injury. But he's also still yet to show he can anchor an entire offense himself. Now he has ample help in the form of one of the top offensive anchors in the league. 

The Spurs have been contending for titles since the start of the Duncan-Popovich era, and they were right in the mix before that when they were anchored by David Robinson. You can consider Aldridge the next link in that big-man chain, and now that we know Popovich plans to stick around at least through the end of the extension he signed last summer, you can expect San Antonio to play deep into the playoffs for the foreseeable future as well.  

 

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.