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Yes, he gets to play basketball for a living and, yes, he gets paid handsomely to do it, but it’s easy to understand why LaMarcus Aldridge might just be a little shot after what was a pretty wacky summer. Even if his new team doesn’t really do “wacky.”
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Aldridge left the Portland Trail Blazers as an unrestricted free agent in July to join the San Antonio Spurs, a fabulous pairing that vaults San Antonio right back up to the status of championship contenders (assuming last year’s defending champions, though they were ousted in the first round, ever left that realm). LaMarcus was drafted by Chicago but immediately dealt to Portland in June of 2006, and he enjoyed an All-Star career there that, for whatever reasons, never made it out of the second round in the loaded West. San Antonio, by comparison, has made it past that round five times in Aldridge’s career span alone.
This is why he joined the team after nine seasons in Portland. That decision was easy. The rest of the process, however, had to be a little jarring. Aldridge talked up as much in a local appearance with his new squad on Sunday. From Jeff McDonald at the San Antonio Express News:
"I don't like change," Aldridge said. "That's been a little bit difficult for me, trying to get used to a new city. I got lost like twice yesterday. That's not fun.
"In the end, it should be great for me. Right now, it's been tough because everything is so new."
Aldridge, who turned 30 on July 19, has spent most of the summer decompressing from a stressful free agency chase that left him – in his own words – "mentally drained."
Again, imagine taking to a new job at age 20, working in the same city the entire time, before deciding to make a massive jump to a new job in a new city after nine years. Co-workers and even group goals can change within the context of your job, but the gig and the location are the same, and then you have to start all over – all over again – at age 30. You don’t have to bust out the tiny violin for Aldridge to understand why it could all be a bit draining.
Especially when you toss in his work at Team USA’s mini-camp, the weirdness of his swift fallback on the whole “best Blazer ever”-thing to this within a year. Then the weirdness of the Lakers’ first failure of a pitch (that missed connection did both the Lakers and Aldridge favors, those two didn’t need each other), and the idea that San Antonio, out of nowhere, would emerge as a destination. That they were able to offer Aldridge the max while retaining free agents Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili? Wow.
"I see a lot of easy shots," said Aldridge, a career 19.4 points-per-game scorer who thrives from midrange. "Pop's really good at misdirection, and the team is so unselfish that the ball moves around."
Aldridge is not the only one who believes his adjustment on the court, at least, should be seamless.
"Our game is not as much Xs and Os as people think," guard Danny Green said earlier this summer. "It's just playing in the flow of the game. He's going to make it a lot easier for us."
Green is correct. Because San Antonio has the relative luxury to field both cerebral and talented players, coach Gregg Popovich’s offense has less to do with structured sets and more to do with developing the option behind the option. He’ll run a killer set play out of a timeout, to be sure, but by and large the players are left to their own devices within the realm of the spacing and movement Popovich has already encouraged.
That could be daunting to a player like LaMarcus Aldridge, as talented and cerebral as he no doubt is. He’ll have to work the balance between stepping on the toes of the established San Antonio stars (Duncan, Kawhi, Manu and Tony Parker, with former All-Star David West thrown into the mix) and doing his thing.
The issue here is that all the stars listed above want LaMarcus Aldridge to do his thing, and to look for his shots. There’s a reason he’ll make four times as much money as Duncan this season. He’s really, really good.
Aldridge was one of the most prolific and efficient post players in the league last season. Only Al Jefferson finished more possessions in the post, according to Synergy Sports stats. Among players with at least 300 post possessions, he was the second more effective behind Jonas Valanciunas. It all has to do with his versatility on the block.
If he receives the ball in the mid post, he can go over his right shoulder on fadeaways or create space by pushing his defender off with his left shoulder. If his defender plays him too close, he can blow by him and finish with a right runner or a baseline dunk. He doesn't typically overpower defenders but he can when faced with undersized defenders. As long as he's on the left side of the court when he receives the ball, he's hard to stop.
What separates Aldridge from other elite post players is his range. Last season he shot 40 percent outside of 10 feet from the basket. From eight to 14 feet, his percentage was even better. He started to develop a three-point shot, taking more field goals from beyond the arc in 2014/15 that in his previous eight seasons combined and connecting on a solid 35 percent of them despite rarely shooting from the corner. Teams simply can't leave Aldridge open from outside.
The situation somewhat remind of Tim Duncan’s rookie season in 1997-98. When, despite being at worst an offensive force on par with the returning David Robinson, Popovich asked that Duncan concentrate first on defense and rebounding while Robinson received the bulk of the touches. The following year, with Duncan more comfortable and with the two switching roles, San Antonio went on to win a championship.
Aldridge is not a 22-year old rookie, however, and while he is an adequate rebounder and defender, he’s no Tim Duncan on that end. Even 22-year old Tim Duncan. He’s going to have to figure out how to score, and right away.
Luckily for LaMarcus, by signing in the first week of July he’ll have nearly three whole months to settle himself (he even mentioned getting lost in downtown San Antonio in McDonald’s piece) before training camp hits.
And the rest of the league has six more weeks to figure how to stop these guys.
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