San Antonio Spurs have transformed from borderline playoff team to a force in the West.
We should all have got used to Gregg Popovich’s teams going on such spring jaunts, but this was a surprise given the strength of the Western Conference, the backcourt injuries and the trade which saw Kawhi Leonard depart last summer.
LaMarcus Aldridge was excellent in Leonard’s absence in 2017/18, as the Spurs continued their postseason streak that began back in 1998. Four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan joined Aldridge in the controversial Leonard trade, and the pair have combined to power San Antonio on an 8-0 run in March.
Neither Aldridge nor DeRozan are in that upper echelon of NBA star, though DeRozan was a perennial All-Star in the East. Aldridge has been a model of consistency, a master of the mid-range, living around the 20 point-per-game mark.
Not many people will name Aldridge in their dream starting five. Few will have him in ‘favourite to watch’ shortlist. It’s not glamourous in flair or physique.
Aldridge at his best is an efficient scorer, despite being somewhat of an anachronism. While the rest of the NBA is chucking up threes, he’s posting up, working mismatches and popping in hook shots (which he’s shooting 55.4% on this season).
It’s easy to fall on Aldridge doing it all again after last season. DeRozan’s role is significant too.
The former Raptor has never been a good three-point shooter, but he’s been dreadful from beyond the arc this year. His production has remained high, though, with 21.6 points per game. Like Aldridge, DeRozan thrives in mid-range, shooting over 40% on shots between 10-feet from the basket and the three-point line.
With injuries to Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker, Manu Ginobli retired and Tony Parker now a Hornet, the playmaking duties have fallen to DeRozan. He’s responded, currently sitting at a career-best 6.1 assists per game.
DeRozan has adapted to the situation like the experienced veteran he is. His anger at the trade has not impacted his game, and he’s settled into a leadership role in his new team.
There’s one curious thing about the duo.
In over 1900 minutes on the court together, they are -0.2 points per 100 possessions. The two stars of the team are not thriving when sharing the floor. Sure, only so much can be taken from on/off numbers, but that’s not nothing.
Bertans and White help to stretch the floor, opening driving lanes for DeRozan and allowing Aldridge space to post up. It is, though, a relatively small sample.
The similarities with DeRozan and Aldridge do not end at their mid-range adoration. Neither are great defenders, which contributes to the Spurs ranking as the 19th in adjusted defensive rating.
Aldridge struggles against some centres. DeRozan, standing at 6’7”, can find it hard against longer wings. San Antonio’s defence ranks around the same level as the Houston Rockets, speaking volumes for the efficiency of their offence.
Popovich has worked his magic, allowing his two best players to thrive in the mid-range and finding necessary perimeter shooters from elsewhere. They still shoot the fewest threes but shoot them at the highest percentage.
In White, Murray and Walker, the Spurs have a bundle of upside on their roster. DeRozan and Aldridge could have a couple of new contenders for the ‘best player’ mantle in the next year or so.
For now, though, it is pretty much a dead heat.