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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

The Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge is the league’s most underrated player

Brandishing a smooth midrange jumper with a slight fade as his primary weapon, a move steeped in finesse, it can be easy to forget just how strong LaMarcus Aldridge is.

Only three years ago, Aldridge was the summer’s prize free agent. That’s long since been forgotten too.

Three-pointers and perimeter proliferation have basketball chasing unicorns, forgetting the value of traditional workhorses. In the San Antonio Spurs’ most trying season since the one that begat Tim Duncan, Aldridge’s performance is a reminder of everything that’s been easy to overlook.

With a career-high 45 points against the Utah Jazz and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, Aldridge is playing as well as any big man in the NBA right now.

A week ago, the San Antonio Spurs were sliding towards the edge of a cliff. A pair of losses to the Houston Rockets bookended a run in which the Spurs lost 11 of 14, dropping from comfortably in the third seed to out of the playoffs entirely.

The Spurs were a disparate collection of new bodies mingled with old heads working on even older legs, searching for answers. San Antonio repeatedly let leads slip through their fingers, the momentum of their free fall carrying them too fast to latch onto anything.

Until LaMarcus Aldridge dug in.

After a much-needed win against the Orlando Magic to push off from rock bottom, LaMarcus Aldridge set out to work against the league’s hottest player: a fully realized Anthony Davis carrying his own New Orleans Pelicans into the playoffs following the loss of DeMarcus Cousins.

Early in the first quarter, Aldridge caught the ball in his favorite spot on the left block extended. From there, he’s launched thousands of turnaround jumpers, digging in just enough to knock a defender off balance, then using his length and touch to shoot over the top.

But with the Spurs already moving away from its postseason goals at an alarming rate, adding a fade wasn’t appropriate.  Not on this night, not against this opponent.

So, LaMarcus Aldridge used his shoulder as a battering ram, bumping Davis not once, not twice, but three times; dislodging him with each dribble.

A turn to the middle and away seemed to offer Davis a respite from the physicality. A ball fake invited Davis to close the distance. With his opponent coming out of his stance for the briefest of moments, Aldridge powered through once more, finishing over the top.

Since the loss to the Rockets, the Spurs have won six in a row, moving up to sixth in the Western Conference standings. They’re now closer to home court advantage in the first round than being out of the playoffs, though both remain possibilities.

Over that span, Aldridge is averaging 32.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 57.6 percent shooting.

A night after besting Anthony Davis head-to-head, Aldridge moved on to another new age big man in Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With both teams within a loss or two of being on the wrong side of the playoff line, Aldridge destroyed Towns, posting 39 points and 10 rebounds on 14-for-22 shooting.

Aldridge beat his young counterpart in every way, shooting over the top with his signature fadeaway jumper, bullying him on the glass, drifting away from the main action to lose Towns for pick-and-pop jumpers, and even flat out beating him down the floor in a foot race.

Towns isn’t the only unicorn pelt on Aldridge’s wall either.

Players like Jokic and Towns merge the familiar and fantastical…Imbuing three-pointers and dribble drives with a level of dexterity and grace bordering on surreal for human beings of that size; warping our understanding to such a degree it can only be explained as magical.

LaMarcus Aldridge is none of those things. His game is steeped in physics…literally grounded, both to the floor and reality.

His steps carry weight, which he uses to create leverage. He doesn’t seek to redefine angles, but rather uses his knowledge of them to create openings, comfortable in the fact that no matter how his opponents push at the laws of basketball, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics still bound them to the rules of a reality he can exploit.

He averaged 27.0 points and 5.5 rebounds in two games against Kristaps Porzingis; 27.7 points and 5.3 rebounds on 57.6 percent shooting in three games against Nikola Jokic; and even held his own against Joel Embiid, averaging 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on 51.5 percent shooting in two games.

Aldridge even peppered the best defensive big man in the NBA with a number of midrange jumpers, occupying his team defensive instincts. He then attacked Gobert’s closeouts, getting to the rim with one dribble.

And, of course, he managed a few of his patented turnaround jumpers over his left shoulder. Quietly controlling the game in his own way.

And quietly has been the key word.

In Tim Duncan’s retirement, Kawhi Leonard was pegged as the perfect successor. An emotionally devoid robot whose only concerns extended to the court and team. Certainly, Leonard is the Spurs’ future until the moment he decides he isn’t.

But in Kawhi’s absence, it has been LaMarcus Aldridge who has been the dutiful soldier. He’s propping up an entire Spurs team more than any other player since peak Duncan in the stretch between San Antonio’s first and second championships.

And he’s not getting enough credit for it.

From Danny Green via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

“It’s already been a struggle,” said guard Danny Green, contemplating a hypothetical life without the Spurs’ All-Star power forward. “Without him, it could be very ugly.”

Relative to his big men contemporaries, Aldridge doesn’t receive the same public standing in the league despite a talent deficient Spurs looking down on the Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, and Denver Nuggets in the standings after Friday night’s games.

Where Aldridge’s value begins and the Spurs’ vaunted system and culture end are up for debate.

Vestiges of the culture Duncan set will always linger like ghosts so long as Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford run the Spurs. But apparitions still need a medium to interact with the physical world.

And Aldridge, who was once a hub of quality offenses and multiple 50-win season in Portland, is a more than viable option.

These Spurs are not even last year’s Spurs. With young players like Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans, and Bryn Forbes—and new addition Rudy Gay—stepping into the forefront, this is not a roster bolstered by Spurs-ian corporate knowledge.

Coaching and discipline help to lighten the load, but LaMarcus Aldridge is still very much carrying this team. That he’s doing it in ways now thought to be too outdated for the NBA probably emboldens the “Spurs’ exception,” arguments.

Aldridge is known as a volume scoring big man who converts at middling efficiency. His shot profile doesn’t space the floor but also isn’t confined to the rim, working primarily from spots deemed inefficient via play types thought to be expendable.

In short, he’s like a high value contractor working in real estate long since abandoned.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Towns, Porzingis, and Jokic are lauded for their ability to extend their range to the three-point line, making life easier for teammates. Or to move from one high value skill to the next, spacing, dribbling, posting, and playmaking, often on the same possession.

But the Spurs way has always been to find the best, most consistent use of a player’s talents. Duncan also once faded into the public background amidst power forwards like Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki who could do more different types of things.

Streamlined and economical movement is rarely as touted as the dynamic type.

But it’s dependable. And San Antonio can do a lot with dependable. Even in Portland, Aldridge was able to carry an offense with the threat of his scoring without dominating the action to such a degree it limited his teammates’ talents.

He does this, in part, by not wasting possessions. His 6.9 turnover percentage is miniscule for someone with a 29.0 percent usage. The absence of negative plays can be just as fruitful as the presence of more spectacular ones.

Knowing where to be, what skill to utilize, and when to use it goes a long way.

And San Antonio has added facets to Aldridge, most notably on defense.

Aldridge is an underrated deterrent at the rim, holding opponents to just 52.6 percent shooting on shots less than six feet from the rim. His defensive rating is 101.3 and he’s been a key part of one of the league’s best defenses since his arrival in San Antonio; helping to prop up lineups with players like Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, or David Lee.

He’s learned Duncan’s art of absorbing an opponent’s momentum with his chest and redirecting the shot with his long arms.

But it’s important to note San Antonio didn’t invent or reinvent Aldridge. Trying to move him out to the three-point line or into the Spurs’ beautiful game motion offense.

He leads the NBA in post frequency at 43.5 percent, taking 7.6 attempts and scoring 0.98 points per possession. His ability to produce shots from nothing help buoy lineups with limited offensive skill—a reversal of trends from the previous two seasons in which Popovich tried to change his new star.

Via Michael Singer of USA Today:

“As discussions went on, it became apparent to me that it really was me,” Popovich said. “He’d been playing in the league for nine years. I’m not going to turn him into some other player. I could do some things defensively or rebounding-wise. But on offense, I was going to move him everywhere. That was just silly on my part – total overcoaching, So, we took care of it, and he’s been fantastic.”

LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t the easiest person to move. It took the Spurs a few seasons to remember that and stop trying to move him.

Now, Aldridge isn’t just strong, he’s the Spurs’ rock.