When the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year, $80 million contract in the summer of 2015, it felt like the biggest get in free agency that offseason. The Spurs were a year removed from their title, coming off a rough first-round loss in a hard-fought series against the Clippers. With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili on the decline (and Kawhi Leonard on the rise), the idea was that Aldridge would give the Spurs another legit All-Star, with Aldridge and Kawhi forming a new Big 2 as the original Big 3 faded out.
In his first year in San Antonio, things went pretty well. Aldridge was named to his fifth straight All-Star team and thrived as the second-best player on a team that won 67 games. As Leonard took on a more assertive role in the offense, Aldridge’s usage rate declined from 30.2 percent in his final year in Portland to 25.9 percent in his first year with the Spurs. At the same time, however, his shooting percentage went up from 46.6 to 51.3, and he was playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career without having to carry the team on his shoulders. If the goal of the Aldridge signing was to give Kawhi an elite sidekick, it seemed to be quite a success.
In Aldridge’s second Spurs season, however, things took a negative turn. He was still a highly competent basketball player, but he began to look a little past his prime. His shooting percentage dropped back down to 47.7, and he looked like just another Spur rather than the obvious second option. This all culmintated in an underwhelming playoff performance where Aldridge put up a Box Plus-Minus of -1.3. After years of being a quietly brilliant big man, Aldridge now seemed anonymous, and it was fair to wonder if the final two years on his contract would prove to be a disaster for the Spurs.
Then, about three weeks before the season began, Leonard suffered a right quad injury. We still don’t know when he’s coming back. As the de-facto No. 2 player, the Spurs become Aldridge’s team by default. How did he respond? By playing some of the basketball of his career. Not only is Aldridge averaging 22.3 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, he also has a Real Plus-Minus of +1.89, the sixth-best mark in the league among power forwards who average at least 30 minutes per game. After looking long in the tooth last season, Aldridge is having a career season, and looks poised to earn his sixth career All-Star selection. This begs the question: why is Aldridge suddenly so good again?
A possibility worth considering is that Aldridge is thriving because he’s relishing the chance to be the first option again. When he showed up in San Antonio, Leonard was obviously the better player, and Aldridge had no choice but to take a back seat to him. Now, the Spurs are without their superstar, and Aldridge has had to pick up the slack. He’s been more than up to this challenge, looking like the superstar-no-one-realized-was-a-superstar he was during his time in Portland. The Spurs are 10-6 without Leonard and when you consider both Aldridge’s strong play, as well as the various question marks that make up the Spurs roster (can anyone say for sure who their third best player is?), it’s clear that Aldridge deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Spurs relevant in the West while Leonard recuperates.
The question is: what happens when he comes back? Ideally, we’d see Aldridge look like the player he was in 2015-16: a strong second option who knows his role but can still take over a game when needed. The concern for the Spurs is that when they become Kawhi’s team again, Aldridge could regress into the anonymity that marked his 2016-17 campaign. For now, Aldridge looks like a reborn player who got his groove back, and has regained his title as one of the best power forwards in the league. At some point, though, Leonard will return, and he’ll have to accept the role of second banana once again. How he responds to that will go a long way in determining the fate of the Spurs, as well as Aldridge’s future with the team.