When Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio desperately needed someone to rise to the occasion to keep their season alive. Most would expect LaMarcus Aldridge to be that man. After all, he’s done it before. During a 2014 playoff series against the Rockets, Aldridge scored a combined 89 points in the first two games, something only Jerry West and Michael Jordan had done, as the Trailblazers upended the higher-seeded Rockets.
That man on a mission was nowhere to be seen in the conference finals against Golden State. Instead, there was a tentative player that looked like he would rather be anywhere but Oracle Arena with the ball in his hand and with time running down on the shot clock. Aldridge went scoreless in the first half of Game 2 and finished the night with a meager eight points and only four rebounds. It didn’t get any better from there and the Warriors ended the Spurs’ season in four games. Aldridge averaged 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in the Spurs’ final three games.
This started an offseason full of rumors and speculation. Supposedly, the Spurs were looking to dump Aldridge for cap space and a high draft pick. Likewise, Aldridge was doing his best to flee town, reportedly requesting a trade out of San Antonio, frustrated with his role.
But now with summer over and with training camps on the horizon, Aldridge is still on the Spurs’ roster. The question is…why?
Well, for starters, most teams drafting within the top 10 aren’t actively trying to trade their prized rookies for a 32- year old. It doesn’t help that Aldridge’s skillset isn’t aging well. Aldridge does his best work outside the paint and inside the arc, scoring on post ups and fadeaways. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a problem, but in this day and age, long two’s are one of the most inefficient ways to end a possession.
But the most likely reason that Aldridge is still on the Spurs is that the two could still use each other.
When Aldridge first joined San Antonio in 2015, it was with the belief that he wouldn’t have to be the focal point the Spurs ran through. Being able to manage his minutes and not have him be on the floor at all times was one of the Spurs main selling points in their recruitment of him. He could fade into the background, let the ball move through him and get his shots up when the offensive flow dictated it. When Leonard and Tony Parker both went down with injuries, the fate of an entire season was thrust solely on to Aldridge’s shoulders. Suddenly, Aldridge was the end-all and be-all on offense and San Antonio’s only hope of keeping pace with the Warriors. It’s disappointing that he couldn’t respond to the lifted expectations but it’s not necessarily surprising. It’s difficult to go from being a facilitator and role player for the better part of two seasons to suddenly being the go to scoring option overnight.
It’s probably true that Aldridge is more suited to a supporting role going forward, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. San Antonio already has a clear number-one scoring option in Leonard and the Spurs have won over 60 games in the last two seasons with Aldridge serving as a role player. Among power forwards, Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA in real plus-minus last season and was one of three power forwards to land in the top 15 while also averaging over 30 minutes per game. Playoffs aside, Aldridge made the Spurs a better team when he was on the floor last season.
With much of the roster from last season returning, the Spurs shouldn’t be in any immediate rush to deal their former All-Star. Any package they receive in return would be unlikely to fill the hole Aldridge would leave on their roster.
Even if Aldridge still does request a trade midseason, there’s probably not another team that is preferable to what he would be leaving behind. Aldridge cited the Spurs’ immediate ability to contend for a championship as the main reason he signed in San Antonio in the first place. Gregg Popovich remains the best head coach in the NBA. Besides swapping Jonathan Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon for Rudy Gay, the team that won 67 games a year ago is very much intact. If Aldridge really wants to win his first ring, San Antonio is his best chance.
Aldridge has a 2018 player option so if he still wants a change of scenery after this year he can opt out and take his talents elsewhere. But for this season, Aldridge is best suited to stay put and take one more crack at the title with the Spurs.
It makes sense for both sides to give this one more shot. Aldridge isn’t a perfect fit in today’s NBA but with Popovich on the bench he’s got more than enough talent to help lift Spurs to at least another conference finals appearance. Fans just shouldn’t expect him to be any more than that
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org