Congratulations to the San Antonio Spurs, now quite clearly the biggest winners of the 2015 NBA free agency period. As reported by Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, four-time All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge will join the five-time champions on a four-year, $80-million contract with a player option for the final season. While the Portland Trail Blazers were expected to lose Aldridge, the Spurs beat out a host of suitors, including the de facto runner-up Phoenix Suns.
Aldridge confirmed the news in a tweet Saturday:
I'm happy to say I'm going home to Texas and will be a Spur!! I'm excited to join the team and be close to my family and friends.
— Lamarcus Aldridge (@aldridge_12) July 4, 2015
The addition of Aldridge immediately makes the Spurs, perennial title contenders anyway, one of the three biggest favorites to win the championship next June alongside the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Aldridge, who turns 30 on July 18, averaged 23.8 ppg and 10.4 rpg, the second consecutive season in which he posted 23 and 10, and logged a career-best 22.8 PER. He is one of the league's best mid-range big men, taking 57.1 percent of last season's attempts from between 10 feet and the three-point line, and excels in the pick and roll. A poor first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies ended his career in Portland on a down note, but the Blazers were extremely shorthanded and Aldridge proved his postseason worth by eviscerating the Houston Rockets in a 2014 series win.
Put more bluntly, Aldridge was considered the top player on the free-agent market for good reason. He has consistently been one of the best scorers in the NBA, rebounds well, and plays a style that would have allowed any new team to depend on him without totally overhauling its system.
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Aldridge should slide right into head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs' plans with minimal friction. He has made no secret of his desire not to play center, which might seem like an issue until you realize that Tim Duncan usually plays as a power forward in name only. Whereas Duncan thrives in the paint, Aldridge can occupy the mid-range to space the floor. He will also ease the Big Fundamental's workload, a notable concern given how much Duncan had to do in San Antonio's epic first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Yet this is a reciprocal partnership — Duncan will cover for Aldridge's defensive issues by guarding superior interior scorers and serving as a chief rim protector. Plus, Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard is perfectly capable of defending bigger forwards when called upon.
The benefits extend to many other players. Apart from general, team-wide positives like occupying defensive attention to free up open shots, the presence of Aldridge will lend the 24-year-old Leonard, himself the bearer of a brand-new max-level contract, a few more years of wiggle room to develop into the franchise's chief star. Leonard alternately thrived and struggled in that role in the Clippers series — there's little reason to be pessimistic about his future, but he looks like someone not quite ready to supplant Duncan and 33-year-old Tony Parker at the head of the pack. The latter figures to be very excited to have a new partner in the pick and roll after an inconsistent season of nagging injuries. It's also fair to expect Popovich, the best coach in the sport, to roll out some new wrinkles to amplify the impact of all these relationships.
These projections get a little cloudier whenever Duncan retires. Although the Spurs pitched Aldridge as the inheritor of the franchise icon's legacy, he is a different player whose skills won't easily replace those of Duncan. That's particularly true at the defensive end, where Duncan has served as an anchor for nearly two decades. San Antonio will also have to hope that Aldridge ages gracefully and healthily, always an unpredictable process. The good news is that the rising cap will give the Spurs the chance to bring in another top free agent, although they may need several as Parker also takes on a more minor role.
Yet these worries most certainly do not outweigh the positives of the Aldridge acquisition, particularly given that many West rivals look weaker than they did just a week ago. That assessment couldn't be more true of the Clippers, now a terribly unbalanced group with center DeAndre Jordan heading to the Dallas Mavericks. Meanwhile, the Blazers are certain to drop out of the upper tier of playoff teams and the Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Memphis Grizzlies have all made only minor moves.
It wouldn't be imprudent to name the Spurs the favorites to win the West. They have a stellar roster with a new star, the best coach around, and the experience and professionalism necessary to make it all work. Aldridge may not be the next Duncan, but he's a huge addition for a franchise who championship window just opened much wider.
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