LaMarcus Aldridge Presents San Antonio Spurs a Challenge They've Never Had

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 4, 2015

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The San Antonio Spurs have done things the same way for almost two decades, but LaMarcus Aldridge's arrival means they may have to do them differently this season.

The Spurs of the past few years have been all ball movement, unselfishness and good-to-great shot-hunting sacrifice. When we think of them, we think of plays like this:

There's something like a hive mind at work here—some kind of telepathy—developed over thousands of hours of attention-to-detail practice and ego subjugation at the hands of Gregg Popovich. The Spurs can play the beautiful game, because they find players who don't care if their stats look pretty in the process.

That's not to say Aldridge is some kind of me-first ego monster. It is to say, though, that a player like him—one with a glamorous, largely individualistic style of play—has never signed on with the Duncan-Popovich Spurs. Where in the Spurs' collective is there room for individuality like this?

Aldridge is a jump-shooting, mid-post-dominating scorer. His team's schemes have always bent to him.

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That's why Aldridge's addition could threaten much of what makes the Spurs great.

Play-Type Preferences

To get a clearer picture of how Aldridge and the Spurs fit together, we need to understand two separate statistical profiles.

Here's Aldridge, whose pertinent play-type data from the 2014-15 season looks like this:

LaMarcus Aldridge Play Types in 2014-15
TypeFrequencyPoints per PlayNBA Efficiency Percentile
Roll Man15.5%.8319.5

A beastly matchup in the post, Aldridge totaled the second-most post-up points in the league last year, trailing only throwback technician Al Jefferson. He was also an exceptionally effective spot-up shooter, and his points per play would look even better if he'd attempted more three-point shots.

There's nothing surprising about Aldridge's strengths in his play breakdown. We know who he is, and the data only reinforces it.

Let's check out how the Spurs used their possessions last season.

Spurs Play Types in 2014-15
TypeFrequency (NBA Rank)Points Per Play (NBA Rank)NBA Efficiency Percentile
ISO4.7% (29).80 (24)20.7
Roll Man6.0% (22)1.04 (6)82.8
Post-Up9.6% (9).90 (5)82.8
Spot-Up22.9% (2)1.04 (4)89.7

Two positive signs emerge immediately: The Spurs don't care much for isolations, and they don't often ask the roll man to finish. That's good news because Aldridge didn't do either of those things particularly well in 2014-15.

San Antonio sets loads of screens, but as that iconic clip above shows, they don't often rely on the big man to finish those plays. More than anything, his role in those instances is to sucker the defense into collapsing before finding open teammates elsewhere.

They also ranked second-to-last in the league by wasting just 4.7 percent of their possessions on hero ball.

It's surprising to note that San Antonio posts up frequently, mainly because such sets conjure up the image of a big man backing his defender down while his teammates stand around idly. Only the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers were more efficient on those sets.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Aldridge's post-up usage is extreme, but the Spurs clearly have no problem attacking on the block. 

Lastly, and least surprisingly, we see the Spurs were phenomenally good at (and reliant on) spot-up shooting. All that ball movement and unselfishness leads to open looks.

San Antonio used 22.9 percent of its plays on spot-ups, ranking second. It converted 1.04 points per play on them, ranking fourth.

There's more detail to consider here, but what we should take away from this basic play-type data is that Aldridge's game, though seemingly a complicated fit, actually works in San Antonio. The Spurs like post-up plays, and they actively pursue catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Those are the things Aldridge prefers.

Fitting In Seamlessly

Look at San Antonio's shot chart from last year:


See that red section in the mid-range area on the left side? Aldridge's shot chart shows that's exactly where he loves to operate.


Aldridge's strongest area on that shot chart fits right on top of the Spurs' weakest. He is a piece that fits.

But what if all of that stuff about play types and shot locations misses the point? After all, it's not so much where the Spurs shoot from that makes them so effective; it's more about when. The ball in that clip was hopping. It didn't stick.

Quick, precisely timed passes like those are what truly make the Spurs different.

And when you think of Aldridge, you think of a player going to work on his man deliberately—sizing him up, taking a few dribbles to get him off balance, bumping him, waiting for an ill-timed lean one way or the other before rising up to score.

He's like a surgeon: careful, proceeding with a plan before making the incision. San Antonio is a team of ninja assassins: ruthless, precise and impossibly quick. Both cut you up just the same, but the way they do it is very different.

Or so we think.

Consider this: Over 50 percent of Aldridge's shots last season came after he'd had the ball for two seconds or less. Almost 45 percent of his shots came within two to six seconds of touching the ball. Less than five percent of his field-goal attempts involved more than six seconds of the possession.

For reference, 14.1 percent of notorious ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony's shooting possessions ate up at least six seconds last year.

On average, even Duncan stopped the ball more frequently than Aldridge did in 2014-15 (though he also got more quick shots up as well).

As a team, the Spurs already tolerate much more ball-stopping than Aldridge tends to commit.

More and more, it appears our perception of Aldridge's game isn't in line with reality. Yes, he does major damage in what are essentially one-on-one situations. And yes, he's a high-volume scorer whose infrequent use of the three-point shot makes him inefficient according to the Spurs' lofty standards. But he doesn't stand around jab-stepping and shot-faking his man like Anthony does.

He doesn't waste time. He uses it to get the best shot he can.

That sounds pretty Spurs-y to me.

Ready for Each Other

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JULY 10:  LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs poses for a photo after a press conference on July 10, 2015 at the San Antonio Spurs Practice Facility in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

This is a good fit that could get better.

Aldridge subtly changed his game last season, shooting more threes than ever before and converting them at a 35.2 percent clip. We should expect even more deep shots with San Antonio, and we should also expect his accuracy rate to improve as the Spurs' tic-tac-toe passing affords him more open looks.

Grantland's Zach Lowe believes, given time, Aldridge can succeed: "It will take him a bit to feel the flow of the Spurs’ nonstop offense—the constant screening, the dribble hand-offs that connect one action to the next, the cutting and passing. But Aldridge is a high-IQ player who can adapt."

The trickier issue is the philosophical one. Because even though the data suggests this isn't going to be as complicated a fit as it might seem, there's still going to be some friction. And when that arises, the Spurs and Aldridge will face difficult questions.

Who's supposed to accommodate whom here? Should the Spurs bend to the preferences of an individual player after bending players to their needs for so long?

San Antonio is going to be smart about this, and it's going to put Aldridge in situations to succeed. Maybe that success will come in slightly different ways than he's used to, but it's difficult to imagine he'll be unprepared when his coach explains to him that the Spurs do things a certain way.

Aldridge told reporters (h/t USA Today's Avery Stone) of his free-agency meeting with Popovich:

You've seen TNT interviews, right? It was like that, but a little bit nicer. Pop isn't going to tell you sweet stories or try to make up things. He's a very honest person. He's very caring, but he's not going to sweet-talk you...Our meeting wasn't an hour of him sweet-talking me. It was basically just talking basketball, and it was awesome.

This is a player fully aware of what he signed up for, and that will matter more than anything when the rough moments come.

Up to this point, the Spurs were always the ones doing the picking. They selected or developed players with the team-first personalities necessary to succeed in their system.

Though Aldridge's arrival as a star free agent is something different, and though San Antonio has never faced the challenge of integrating a player like him, it's important to remember that these two parties picked each other.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 14: Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs greets LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers after Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antoni
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Aldridge knows what makes the Spurs who they are. And you have to assume the Spurs believe Aldridge has the kind of personality they prefer.

In the end, it's fair to wonder about questions of logical and philosophical fit. But the more deeply you examine the Spurs-Aldridge pairing, the more an unsurprising feeling emerges: San Antonio already thought all of this through, and then it put $84 million behind its conclusion.

Given all that, we should expect the Spurs to meet this new challenge intelligently, collectively, and ultimately, successfully.

Just like always.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.


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