In purely relative terms for a group of athletes in their 20s and 30s, the San Antonio Spurs are old and slow. They have an average age of 28.9, the oldest in the NBA, and the age is only higher when it is considered that some of the younger players bringing the average down (Matt Costello, Derrick White, Darrun Hilliard, Brandon Paul) do not actually play in the rotation. The rotation as it stands is an elder one.
It is true that veteran stalwarts Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are bringing up that age average quite considerably. But it is also true that the rest of the Spurs' rotation around them is quite old and slow. Indeed, it is built to be old and slow by design. To sign Pau Gasol and draft Kyle Anderson is to acquire and start (at least until recently in Pau's case) possibly the two slowest players in the game at their respective positions; with Danny Green also starting to slow down (recent off-the-dribble resurgence notwithstanding) and Rudy Gay into the back half of his career, the Spurs are not trying to build a team that can run the ball.
To carry that off, then, requires a half-court hub who can keep the offence efficient and the defence effective. And so that is why LaMarcus Aldridge is a 2018 NBA All-Star.
Earlier this season, in an unusual display of candour, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich revaled that Aldridge had that summer asked Popovich for a trade away from the Spurs, a team he had only signed with in the summer of 2015. Magnanimously citing his own role in Aldridge's dissatisfaction, Popovich vowed to fix things with his star big man, rather than accommodate the request and set his team back.
"So, we had some dinners and meetings and laughed," Popovich said. "I was very candid with him. I told him, 'I'd be happy to trade you. You get me a talent like Kevin Durant, and I'll drive you to the airport. I'll pack your bags. And I will drive you there, get you on the plane, and get you seated.' He laughed you know, that kind of thing. I said, 'But short of that, I'm your best buddy because you're here for another year, and you ain't going nowhere. Because we're not gonna get for you talentwise what we would want. So, let's figure this thing out.' And we did. That's what we came to."
And figure it out, they did. Indeed, in only the first week of the regular season, Aldridge signed an extension with the team he had just that summer being vying to leave.
Popovich cited his role in creating Aldridge's discontent as being one of 'overcoaching'. Over his near-decade long NBA career to date before joining the Spurs, Aldridge had developed comfort zones on the court, and in a bid to accommodate both his other players and the general direction of the NBA as a whole, Popovich had sought to shift him away from them. To tinker with the comfort zones of your star big man and second best player is to fix something that isn't broken.
And this year, they put it all back.
Aldridge at his best thrives offensively with the very type of shot that the NBA groupthink has sought to move away from. Ideally on the left block, Aldridge likes to catch the ball just inside the arc, with his back to the basket. From there, he has options, but the primary option he turns to is the turnaround jump shot. Aldridge can go over either shoulder, but prefers to go over his right shoulder. And that steady diet of left side, right shoulder has served him pretty darn well so far.
Hitting a two-point jump shot from 22 feet away at a 40.9% shooting clip is, normally, less efficient than hitting a three-point jumpshot at a 35.7 clip (which Aldridge also does). Hence the groupthink. But as with any trend, there will always be anomalies.
Dirk Nowitzki's career went from very good to All-Time great when he eschewed the outside jump shot and instead made the most of the mid-range area in which he was most comfortable. The advantage of the turnaround two-point jump shot by a near-seven footer is in how undefendable it is.
What Aldridge does is unblockable. At best, there is a hand up. But even when defends know his predisposition is to fall away and turn to that right shoulder, Aldridge does enough to set up the other options. He will go left shoulder if the defender overplays. He will use bumps and hesitations to get that few inches of shooting room. He will drive if he needs to, and either turn the jumper into a pull-up or get all the way to the basket for a running hot. Aldridge does have overwhelming proclivities on the court, yet not to the point that he is a one-trick pony.
Last year, in 'overcoaching' Aldridge, Popovich tried to overly employ the other options. He wanted Aldridge to play more from the elbow, drive the ball more, and face up more than back down. This year, however, Aldridge is back where he wants to be, doing what he knows how to do. And it is working - Aldridge is scoring 22.4 points per game, his highest mark as a Spur, his third-highest single season mark of his career, and a whole 5.1 points better than last year, And he is doing so on a 56.3% true shooting percentage that is also the second-best mark of his career.
The true shooting percentage is still not as efficient as the league's love of efficiency would have you believe is sufficient. But the Spurs are an old, slow, grind-it-out team. They do not have pace and space. Those shots Aldridge is making are tough. And he is making a lot of them.
Defensively, Popovich still vowed to work Aldridge more. Never a strong suit as a Blazer, Aldridge has always been a reluctant anchor around the basket hitherto, being willing to defend the post but being much less willing to constantly be rotating over and protecting the rim, as well as getting out to shooters. This season, however, he is playing like the anchor. Spending more time at centre than usual, Aldridge is grittier when contesting shots around the rim, and while his slowing feet make him exposable when defending switches (and are seeing his defensive rebounding numbers start to tail off), his improvements on this end have made him into the two-way player that Pop always wanted. The offence, he agreed, can take care of itself.
Spurs President RC Buford has in the past openly worried about what to do when the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retire. Duncan is now gone, Manu nearly is, and Parker has been moved to the bench in an ominous precursor of the end being nigh. The time for such reckoning has already begun.
Aldridge, however, is going a long way to assuaging those doubts. He is carrying the fragile Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard into respectability and yet another playoff season. And he is back to playing like an All-Star.