The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
The NBA media cycle, I think we can all agree, has been flowing at hyperdrive speeds for the last few years.
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Decades ago we’d get a month to wonder if Dennis Rodman would fit in with the Bulls or possibly two months to guess at how Charles Barkley would fit alongside Hakeem Olajuwon. At this point, even with a month to go before the actual games start, we’ve had nearly three months to digest LaMarcus Aldridge on the San Antonio Spurs. And his free agent tour, by 2015 standards, was relatively lengthy.
So you can imagine the Spurs’ annoyance, however cleverly articulated it might be, after having to answer a summer’s worth of questions about how, exactly, Aldridge and Tim Duncan will play alongside each other. Wonder about whether or not Aldridge has the temerity to lead a team that leads itself year in and year out, whatever the length of its playoff run. Worries about the offensive fit and the possible defensive holes in the wake of the team jettisoning two centers to clear cap space.
Questions about a team that basically did everything right in the offseason in its ever-expanding Spurs Era (thought to be dead, quite literally, nearly a decade ago), a franchise that somehow added an in-prime superstar while retaining its other aging superstars while inking its next superstar-to-be to a deal that takes him into his prime.
All the stars save for Aldridge, famously, take care of themselves with no muss or even fuss.
LaMarcus? He’s not exactly a headcase, but he’s got to get this right.
As is usually the case with San Antonio, the coaching staff will ensure that its players will have a suitable atmosphere in which to create. As it was when he was 23 and as it will be at age 40 next spring, Tim Duncan can adeptly handle both low and high post responsibilities as the situation calls for. Defensively, the shifting trend toward smaller lineups won’t bother the Spurs all that much. Not just because the two 7-footers on hand can bang with the best of them, but because they have the smarts and length to weather any type of Draymond-ish onslaught.
The real worry here is Aldridge’s possible insistence on deferring. Stars don’t usually move into situations like this. The closest comps aren’t giants like Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain switching from one team to another, but types like Barkley heading to a Houston team some 14 months removed from a title, or Earl Monroe doing the same in New York early in the 1971-72 season.
Monroe, playing with Walt Frazier in a crowded backcourt, wouldn’t even be an All-Star in his next two seasons but he nearly won a title in his first season with the Knicks, and was part of New York’s last championship the year after. Barkley may have clashed with Clyde Drexler in Houston, and his “your turn, now my turn”-left low post game with Hakeem Olajuwon wasn’t always the easiest to watch, but he was two wins away from making the Finals in his first year with Houston.
Aldridge and the Spurs can’t bother with two wins from the Finals, though, and they can hardly bother with losing in the Finals only to win it all next season. That win would take place 21 months from now, and though Tim Duncan’s late-30s descent has been measured in centimeters the same can’t be said for his fellow 2003-champions in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Even the most bullish on Kawhi Leonard’s ceiling would probably admit that he isn’t yet equipped with the all-around offensive abilities needed to lead the Spurs to the title as a swingman.
No, this comes down to LaMarcus. Yes, the Spurs won their last title with all out ball movement and sharing, a new hero every night, bigger than the sum of their parts, all that Commie crap – but Aldridge has to run this.
(Hack sportswriter alert.)
If you don’t believe me, ask Tim Duncan. From the Bleacher Report:
“I'm not worried about him benefiting my game; I'm going to worry about me benefiting his. I'm going to let him do his thing and just see where I can fit in and help. I'm going to ride his coattails and I'm going to push him.”
LMA has to set screens, find the open man, move the ball and flow within the sharing system, but at some point he’s going to have to act as a damned black hole in this Spurs offense. Just as Tim Duncan did – again with the hack alert – when he slid into David Robinson’s spot in the low post following a rookie season of acting as the Admiral’s apprentice. Robinson’s 1999 season wasn’t entirely made up of throwing entry passes into Duncan, but he did happily abdicate his literal post in order to benefit The Future. And he got a ring for his efforts.
At age 30, Aldridge isn’t nearly as young as Duncan was in 1999 and he isn’t as potent. He’s not too far off in either respects, though, and lucky for him this year’s Spurs aren’t starting Jaren Jackson. Nor are they wondering if Avery Johnson can be trusted to hit an open 15-foot jump shot. This is one hell of a supporting cast.
That’s where the luck ends, though. You can point to the slog of an 82-game season as the space to acclimate, but in the killer Western Conference you have to tick up those W’s early and often. One crappy December could prove fatal come spring, and nobody knows this better than these Spurs – a championship-caliber club that saw its season end two weeks before the Washington Wizards’ run ended last May.
Tougher for Aldridge is his usual form when acting as a called-for black hole. He holds the ball, even though he isn’t nearly as efficient when glomming onto the leather for so long. Cutters shift and fade into oblivion. The shot clock ticks away. Tim Duncan turns 40. LaMarcus has to move quickly and efficiently, while still not playing as a scorer that has made up his mind about a move seconds before actually receiving the ball. Portland wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for bad habits, and his last coach (the clever Terry Stotts) encouraged the sort of movement that made San Antonio champions 15 months ago, but LMA will have to re-learn some things.
And? So what?
In Aldridge, the newly-signed David West, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw, the Spurs will be fielding perhaps the brainiest batch of big men in NBA history. And don’t think Gregg Popovich hasn’t been staring at the salt and pepper shakers (or, more likely wine bottles) all summer, concocting plays for the fabulous lineup he’s been afforded.
LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs can’t afford to wait, and LMA will have all eyes on him even on a TNT Thursday in November. That’s just fine, though. It has to be nice to be burdened with such lofty expectations.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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