San Antonio Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge is struggling through arguably the most inconsistent offensive output of his career. But how much of the blame actually falls on his shoulders?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The date is Jun. 20, 2013, and Chris Bosh is preparing to play the type of game the greats dream of. A pivotal, win-or-go-home Game 7 in search of his second title in as many years, against the San Antonio Spurs.
Bosh could’ve left the game that day and arguably retired a Hall of Famer. But the opportunity to leave an imprint in a game of that magnitude is once in a lifetime, especially for an 11-time All-Star who’d consistently sacrificed and had his production swept under the rug.
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By the time the red and gold confetti had begun to fall, Bosh produced this stat line: zero points, seven rebounds, two assists and (this should surprise you), zero percent from the field on five shot attempts.
As he remembers it today, it’s the “proudest moment of his career.”
Miami would go to win a championship, but perhaps just as important, Bosh’s numbers that night helped to diversify basketball fans and analysts alike. Check Google yourself: through hot takes and opinions, we quickly learned about who merely glanced at the box score, who watched the game and, lastly, those who studied the game.
Seven seasons later, LaMarcus Aldridge finds himself in familiar territory. To a degree, it’s understandable; following 39-point, 19-of-23 shooting performances with three-point, 1-of-4 outings is enough to raise eyebrow.
Basketball fans give off the impression that they’ve long graduated from the notion that low-scoring individual outputs correlate to “poor performance,” but in era where everyone has an opinion, even that viewpoint has become muddled.
Aldridge’s case considered, though, we’ve sometimes diverted back to an elementary line of thinking. The same thinking that caused us to once devalue the contributions of Hall of Famers of the past — think Bill Russell or Wes Unseld.
And yes, it’s obviously unacceptable for seven-time All-Stars to string together three single-digit scoring games over a seven-game span, especially offensively gifted ones like Aldridge.
But through this rambling, we have a central point: all the fingers in San Antonio appear to be pointing at the 6-foot-11 Texan. But is he mostly to blame?
Explaining Aldridge’s lack of touches and usage
LaMarcus Aldridge nearly broke a record in Sunday evening’s loss to the Boston Celtics. In 26 minutes of play, he had a mere four shot attempts. For reference, the last time he took fewer shots was nearly eight years ago — a Feb. 14 game against the Washington Wizards — and it took an ankle sprain to take him down that night.
You know what else became a broken record yesterday? Sean Elliott.
Time and time again, the commentator and former Spur urged and pleaded for the Spurs’ playmakers to establish their perennial All-NBA player down on the low block. Midway through the third quarter, Elliott gave up. “I’ve said it enough,” he hilariously declared as the Spurs’ deficit ballooned into the 20s.
Take for example these two plays. For those not observing the game’s happenings, it can be easy to see Aldridge’s three points and say he failed to show up. But think about that fundamentally. Does an All-Star know how to plant himself in the post one night and become oblivious to doing so the next? Maybe, but not those who’ve made 958-game careers out of it.
Don’t mistake me for an Aldridge apologist; that’s exactly what I am. It certainly feels safe placing some of the blame on the Spurs’ playmakers. The players have even said as much. Take note of Dejounte Murray‘s comments before the Spurs’ 121-112 win over the Thunder on Friday.
"”I tell him every day, you’re too great of a player to just go missing in action. It’s on me being a point guard and the rest of the team. We’ve got to make sure a guy like that is well-involved early from the jump.”"
And obviously it’s become problematic. Aldridge ranks fourth on the team in touches per game at 45.7. To contextualize, that’s only five touches more than Trey Lyles, who barely cracks the 20-minute per game border (20.3).
This makes Aldridge’s spotty scoring at least a bit more justifiable. In total, it’s nearly 10 fewer touches than Aldridge got a season ago (56.2) and a far cry from what he’d once been used to in Portland (a superstar-esque 69.0 touches in 2013-14 for a No. 2 ranked offense).
To further exacerbate matters, Aldridge’s usage and touches see drastic changes on any given night. Consider his game-to-game usage percentage — in caveman terms, this notes how many possessions are used by a particular player — and be careful, you might leave with a crick in your neck from how erratic it is.
Take note of the first three games to open the 2019-20 season: Aldridge’s offensive load stagnates between the 24 to 26 percent mark, meaning the Spurs are running about one-quarter of its offense through him.
In knowing the ebbs and flows of the offense are going to run either primarily or secondarily around him, Aldridge delivers the goods. Over those three games, he averaged 21.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, hit on 49 percent of his shots and 60 percent from deep.
Since then, Aldridge’s stat line has alternated between All-Star level performances and YMCA rec league ones, seldom finding a medium.
So, what’s the issue? It’s not as though defenses have uncovered a new formula for defending his post-up, pick-and-roll-centric style of play; they’d have done so hundreds of games ago. But rather, his playmakers — brilliant as they are — are going away from his play if he putting ball in net right away (he’s shooting 36.8 percent in the first quarter this season).
And while they remain beneficiaries of his pick-and-roll or pop gravity, they’re seldom looking back to him when the defense focuses in. It turns out to look something like this.
sighs, or this.
Obviously, it’s easy to play “armchair quarterback,” playing know-it-all after the event has occurred. 58.1 percent of Aldridge’s 62 made field-goal attempts this season have been assisted. And of those 36 assisted shots, Murray has accounted for 13 of them, while DeMar DeRozan has 10.
They’ve been predictably brilliant in playmaking, but these are a few of the missteps worth cleaning up.
If an incentive is needed, perhaps they can look at Aldridge’s unselfish work within the trenches. Only six players are boxing out defenders as frequently as Aldridge is (excluding one-gamers Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton). It serves as no coincidence how many Spurs are enjoying career-years on the glass thanks to his team-mindedness.
In essence, the message is clear: through boxouts, I’ve scratched your back. Now, allow me to carry you on mine. All that said, this certainly won’t be the last time Aldridge follows up a 30-point game with a clunker; it’s hard being great, particularly with Aldridge’s nonconforming game.
All of this is merely food for thought. With Aldridge, fans have gone back to the old habits and pointing fingers. But unless we’ve understood how often the ball was in Aldridge’s hands, perhaps, just perhaps, those fingers are a tad bit misdirected.