The Spurs' addition of LaMarcus Aldridge was supposed to change the balance of power in the West. It definitely made them a better team, as they are on pace for 70 wins and have the league's best defense.
But on the day of the biggest test of the season -- the first matchup against the Warriors -- Aldridge disappointed. He looked out of place on both ends and finished the game with five points on nine shots to go with three turnovers on a 30-point blowout. Draymond Green badly outplayed him, and that memory tends to stick in fans' minds.
Since that embarrassing loss, the Spurs have largely flown under the radar, as the Warriors recaptured the attention of the basketball world. As that's happened, many have missed out on Aldridge finally getting his bearing within the Spurs' system and producing like the All-Star he was in Portland instead of the tentative mess he was at times early in the season.
Aldridge has found his spots in the Spurs' offense
Aldridge owned the left side of the court in Portland. He got to post up from there as many times as he wanted and got pick-and-pop opportunities from that area as well. In San Antonio, he must share that real estate with Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, which was a huge adjustment for him.
That has a profound effect on his shot charts. Notice how balanced Aldridge's heat map is this year compared to last (via NBASavant).
The Spurs have been using Aldridge differently. He gets shots in his preferred spot -- where he's as deadly as ever -- but he's also asked to use the right side of the court more as an off-ball threat. They also use him in hand-offs with the point guard for drives that draw the attention of the big man guarding him.
Earlier in the season, Aldridge didn't feel at home doing that. But as the season has progressed, he's become much more comfortable in that new role.
That right elbow is a new sweet spot for him, as he benefits from the attention others draw instead of having to create shots as much as his Portland tenure. He's done much better from that spot since the game against the Warriors, and his ability to now operate from all over the floor gives the Spurs more versatility on offense.
Similarly, he has also has been asked to play closer to the rim -- especially when he moves up to center -- than he ever did with the Trail Blazers. Once again, there was an adjustment period, but lately Aldridge has been scoring at a very high level near the basket. The result has been one of the most efficient scoring seasons of his career.
The transition from offensive hub to secondary option and finisher took a while, but it now seems to have benefited both Aldridge and the Spurs.
The Spurs now trust Aldridge late in games
Just as Aldridge has adjusted to the Spurs, they have also made changes to accommodate him. Earlier in the season, they gave most of his touches in the first quarter and went away from him late in games, choosing instead to run the offense through the players who had been with the team for a while. The trust simply wasn't there and Aldridge was having trouble making himself available for easy passes.
That has changed dramatically lately. Since the blowout against the Warriors, Aldridge's usage percentage (the percentage of his team's plays that he finishes through a shot, a turnover or a foul) has risen from 21 percent to 24 percent in fourth quarters. Aldridge has more than repaid that trust, as he's shooting 61 percent from the floor in fourth quarters and getting to the line a whopping 11 times per 36 minutes.
In the Spurs' comeback win against the Pelicans Thursday, Aldridge had 14 fourth-quarter points on 6-for-7 shooting.
In Portland, Aldridge was one of the most fearsome clutch performers in the league. It took a while for the Spurs to harness his late-game skills, but they finally figured it out. The trust level is much higher than it used to be as well, which suggests the assimilation of Aldridge to the Spurs Way is close to complete.
The Aldridge from the Warriors game is gone
There's no denying that Aldridge's performance against Golden State was embarrassing. Even the most optimistic Spurs fan was worried after it. Yet since then, Aldridge's numbers have perked up significantly and he's clearly more comfortable with the team, and they with him. He was having a solid season before that night. Now, he's having a great one.
The Spurs will face the Thunder, the Clippers and the Warriors in the stretch of one week, from March 12 to March 19. Those games will tell us a lot about how San Antonio matches up with their direct competition. If these last few weeks are any indication, Aldridge should be ready to contribute more than he did in past games.
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