The NBA All-Star break can’t come soon enough for LaMarcus Aldridge.
It’s true that the San Antonio Spurs would be the talk of the NBA if the Golden State Warriors had not become a remarkably transcendent team this season. That said, San Antonio’s decisive loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night would have made sent ripples through the NBA if the Warriors weren’t the clear favorite to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Yes, Tim Duncan was out. Yes, Gregg Popovich played a lot of zone, seemingly experimenting during a midseason game while testing the players further down his bench. Yes, San Antonio had already beaten the Cavs this season, taking away a measure of meaning from Saturday’s reunion in Cleveland. It’s not too hard — intellectually and argumentatively — to downplay the significance of the loss for the Spurs. (It’s just as legitimate to emphasize how big a moment this is for the Cavs, Kevin Love, and Tyronn Lue — take nothing away from what Cleveland did on ABC television.)
Yet, as much as many people might be inclined to shrug off this result for the Spurs, it seems that one issue — one player — is becoming a point of concern, such that if it’s not fixed this spring, it becomes very hard to see how San Antonio will win the West and earn a (likely, under that circumstance) shot at Cleveland in the NBA Finals.
That issue? LaMarcus Aldridge.
In the most high-profile games of the Spurs’ season, LMA has been largely missing in action, as this piece from Matt Moore of CBS Sports affirms.
Against the Cavs on Jan. 14 in San Antonio, Aldridge couldn’t finish plays at the offensive end of the floor. Saturday in Cleveland, he got into early foul trouble and provided no value on defense. In the Spurs’ 30-point loss to Golden State on Monday, Aldridge was a complete washout at both ends of the court.
It has to be somewhat unsettling: A central piece of the Spurs’ offseason improvement project has been regularly and conspicuously deficient in main-stage games. If he had batted 1-for-3 in these spotlight showdowns, one could point to at least some evidence that he’d be ready for the playoffs. It’s the utter absence of a remotely imposing performance which merits attention.
Magnifying the Spurs’ situation with Aldridge is that Tim Duncan has sat out the past week. One might wonder how absolutely essential Duncan is against the high-flying Warriors or the newly-up-tempo Cavs. Duncan might not have much of a place on the floor (certainly not with extended minutes) in a fast-paced game. However, he is the anchor of the Spurs on defense in ways that transcend tempo (and tempo-based concerns). He is a leader, a communicator, and someone who will be in the right position to minimize any possible deficit in footspeed which might exist.
Given Aldridge’s inability to become a consistent defender, Duncan might become more valuable to the Spurs than the organization would privately want. This is not really a testament to Duncan’t greatness, either — keep that point in mind. The point of emphasis here is that LMA creates a steep decline in the Spurs’ level of defensive toughness when he’s on the floor and Timmy isn’t.
The good news for San Antonio? The All-Star break is coming, offering a full week for Aldridge to seriously re-examine how he can fit in on defense for the Spurs. The so-called “rodeo road trip” — when the Spurs play at least eight consecutive road games if not more in the month of February — is a time when this team traditionally irons out midseason problems and forges a tighter bond in advance of the playoffs. The Spurs still have 35 games left in the regular season. Time is not yet an enemy for LaMarcus Aldridge.
He does have to use these coming months well, however. If he doesn’t, the Spurs will have a much tougher springtime climb than their 39-8 record might suggest.