LaMarcus Aldridge is perhaps the best player on the San Antonio Spurs, but are his days as a legitimate star in this league numbered?
In all but one of the last eight seasons, LaMarcus Aldridge has represented the Western Conference as either a starter or a reserve on the All-Star team.
With a play style tailored towards longevity and success deep into his figurative “prime,” odds are, the decorated San Antonio Spurs forward should feel at ease about his chances of seeing his name on ballots for seasons to come. Then again, during his All-Star presser, he stated either an ominous prediction or a humbled assurance:
"“You got to start trying to soak it in more,” Aldridge told Jabari Young of The Athletic. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get back, so I want to have fun this time for sure.”"
Three factors play into Aldridge’s potential downward slide in terms of media-voted accolades, as he looks to put the finishing touches on a career worthy of Hall of Fame discussion. The more obvious two are his style of play and location in a small market. Particularly during his prime, Aldridge’s play has been largely contingent on pick-and-roll action (tied for eighth in screen assists) and catch-and-shoot success (tied for fifth in field goals made), mostly devoid of dunks or flashy play.
Most fans typically see this style as bland, as evidenced by Aldridge’s yearly omission from All-Star fan voting ballots. The custom has been similar for each of his seven All-Star trips: sweat it out until the day reserves are announced, hoping coaches felt enough punishment from his “quiet” 20-point performances to get the nod.
Those statistical trends don’t appear to be regressing, either. This past season, 58.8 percent of Aldridge’s trusty 2-point shot attempts were assisted. Of the 19 players that averaged more than his 21.3 points per game, only a single player had a higher percentage of shots assisted (Klay Thompson, 74.6 percent). With speculation that Aldridge will return in 2019-20 with a willing, revamped 3-point shot, it’s safe to assume that correlation could be even higher next season.
The return effect is that even though Aldridge has refused to take the full-fledged jump in conforming to the 3-ball, the rest of his game is easily translatable into this new era of basketball. The 33-year-old had the two best regular season games of his career, according to Basketball-Reference’s Game Score that measures a player’s productivity.
How Aldridge compares to similar stars of the past
Heading the 14th season of his career, Aldridge has logged a whopping 35,432 minutes including the postseason. Compared to his all-time great counterparts at the power forward position, Aldridge is a tier below in terms of lengthy postseason appearances. For example, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett each surpassed Aldridge’s minute total in just their 11th season.
Even with that mileage, the positive is that players with styles similar to Aldridge’s — the mid-range-centric, pick-and-roll play — have historically been able to extend the prime of their careers. Malone, for example, went on to win two MVP awards and averaged 24.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on 50.2 percent shooting over the next seven years of his tenure in Utah.
A more realistic, lower-level example would be a player such as Chris Webber. Knee injuries decimated any chance Webber had of gracefully sliding into his post-prime as a borderline All-NBA level player. However, he still produced, averaging 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game on improved 3-point shooting into his 30s. All told, he narrowly missed out on both the 2005 and 2006 All-Star Games.
Here are how other players of similar play styles and positions performed after surpassing Aldridge’s hefty minute total:
- Tim Duncan (2008-16): 6 All-Star appearances, 5 All-NBA appearances
- Kevin Garnett (2009-16): 4 All-Star appearances, 0 All-NBA appearances
- Charles Barkley (1996-00): 2 All-Star appearances, 1 All-NBA appearance
- Dirk Nowitzki (2011-19): 5 All-Star appearances, 1 All-NBA appearance
- Elvin Hayes (1979- 84): 2 All-Star appearances, 1 All-NBA appearance
Aldridge likely stands a tier below each of those forwards from a historical ranking standpoint, especially without a signature, all-time great season (or playoff run) at his position.
Once more, he will have to rely on his calculated consistency in order to earn more All-Star and All-NBA nods. The statistics see this as likely; the last two seasons of his career were the most efficient in terms of true shooting percentage (57.6), and advanced metrics such as Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM) and win shares paint him as an elite player, even after nearly 1,000 games played.
What’s needed to return?
Injuries to the Golden State Warriors’ All-Star quintet opens up not only a chance for other teams to make deep postseason runs, but also makes the likelihood of an eighth All-Star appearance that much stronger for Aldridge.
The former Longhorn fell victim to this in 2017, when the Spurs were only granted one All-Star (Kawhi Leonard), even as they entered the break with a second-ranked 43-13 record, something Aldridge said was wrong to do.
Even with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson out of the equation, competition will be as stiff as ever with up-and-coming studs such as Nikola Jokic, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert potentially gunning for a trip to Chicago’s All-Star Game. With a sense of urgency being the case, Aldridge can strengthen his case for a potential make-or-break eighth bid in three steps.
1. Don’t rely on variance this time around
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Aldridge’s days as a perennial star were over when he stumbled out of the gates to begin the 2018-19 season. Over the first 17 games of the season, Aldridge averaged a career-low 24 points per 100 possessions, and shot just 32.2 percent on his usual clockwork catch-and-shoot attempts.
From that moment on, Aldridge adjusted his game, taking fewer long mid-range shots, and it translated to 22.4 points per game on 54.9 percent shooting over the final 64 games of the season.
Simple variance suggests that Aldridge would have come around to hitting net on those deeper mid-range shots, as he had done throughout his career. All told, Aldridge did just that; he hit on 51.1 percent of those shots after the near month-long slump. This was much more on-beat with where Aldridge usually ranged on these shot attempts — between 42.2 percent and 45.2 percent — since the shot has been tracked beginning in the 2013-14 season.
If Aldridge can find a way to combine his rebounding during his slump with his shooting following the slump, he should have the numbers necessary to connect on an eighth bid.
2. Learn from film
If the casual fan wonders at all what it would take for LaMarcus Aldridge to reach an eighth All-Star Game or sixth All-NBA appearance, they likely wouldn’t see the likes of Bryn Forbes or Rudy Gay as the falling dominoes that lead to it. As logic would have it, they do serve as focal points for it.
With all due respect to Jakob Poeltl and what he does as both a rim protector and hustle scorer — he ranks third in the NBA in put-back frequency, according to NBA.com and Synergy Sports — it wasn’t until the Spurs adjusted to a conforming, 3-point lineup that they played their best basketball.
For example, take the Spurs’ early-December stretch where they won seven of eight games and didn’t lose back-to-back contests until mid-January.
Gregg Popovich turned to a five-man lineup of Aldridge, Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Bryn Forbes and Derrick White. In a team-high 388 minutes played, the lineup had a +3.7 net rating. Aldridge produced an exceptional +12.0 net rating during that 18-game stretch. In contrast, the Spurs’ next most frequent lineup — simply swapping Gay for Poeltl — resulted in a -4.5 rating.
The big difference is that it granted Aldridge the luxury in breathing room to not only make his patented turnarounds with less traffic, but it also allowed him to show off his improved court vision, as illustrated below.
Early in that series, the Denver Nuggets employed a strategy of putting Jokic on Aldridge, and then sending the likes of Torrey Craig, Gary Harris or Jamal Murray to blitz him and force him to kick out to the perimeter. In this case, Denver was hesitant to do so with three capable shooters (Marco Belinelli, Gay and White) and one cutter (DeRozan) keeping them honest.
3. Conformity might be for the best
In the summer before the Aldridge-DeRozan pairing kickstarted, LMA posted on his Instagram page in response to a statistic that showed how he and DeRozan fared — first and third, respectively — in both mid-range shots and attempts. “Good thing I’ve been working on that [3-point shot],” Aldridge said.
The “work” appears to still be in progress. The former All-NBA Second Teamer took roughly one 3 every other game, converting on just 23.8 percent of them from deep.
This wouldn’t be asking for anything too strenuous; the Spurs run the majority of their sets with Aldridge doing dribble hand-offs at the top of the key for slashers. If he gains comfort and can make himself a shooting threat there, it makes himself and his teammates all the more dangerous.
The case against continuing to eschew the long ball could have its benefits — after all, it hasn’t hindered his game yet.
Still, analytics have proven that there are more points to be scored by taking shots from behind the 3-point line. Aldridge has been the key catalyst to a pair of borderline 50-win seasons in his two-year term as alpha dog. However, the Spurs will likely need to add a few more wins onto that to avoid the powerhouses in the Western Conference and get into the second round and beyond.
Postseason included, the Spurs won at just a 53.4 percent rate in games decided by single digits. The great irony is that they are the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league. If they can up their 3-point frequency — they were dead-last in both the regular season and postseason — it could move the needle for what the team hopes to achieve in the post-Tim Duncan regime.
The lasting thought centers around whether or not additional All-Star and/or All-NBA appearances legitimately matter. The correlation between the two and an eventual coronation into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is telling; some see it as the reason Chris Webber isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, and why someone like Antawn Jamison stands no chance.
While the personal opinion is absolute, the public jury is still somewhat out on whether Aldridge has done enough to be considered for the Hall of Fame someday.
As of now, the only player to match Aldridge’s seven All-Star trips and not be enshrined is Jack Sikma. Among non-active players, there are 23 with at least five All-NBA ballot selections. Eighteen of them have been recognized. Aldridge would also have the opportunity to join an exclusive 18-man group of players to surpass both the 20,000-point and 10,000-rebound barrier.
As LaMarcus Aldridge himself has said, as long as his teammates understand his sacrifices, accolades come second. If he does continue to perform at a similar rate over the twilight of his career, odds are, it could be enough. Should he fall into the daunted “Hall of Very Good,” though, a few tweaks here and there could very well be the difference.