The San Antonio Spurs were DeMar DeRozan’s team during the first trimester of this season.
Through the first 27 games, his averages were 24.8 points and 6.1 assists per game and his true-shooting percentage was at 55.3. A lot of what San Antonio did revolved around his offensive abilities.
In that same trimester, LaMarcus Aldridge found himself out of rhythm and ineffective on both ends of the floor.
Now a month later, LMA is ruling the paint, while DeRozan’s scoring production and efficiency have both plummeted. The former Raptor is no longer playing even close to the level he was at in October and November. In fact, despite a significant early lead, DeRozan now trails Aldridge in Player Impact Plus-Minus Wins Added by a margin of 3.1 to 2.2.
The Spurs have gone an excellent 13-6 so far in the unofficial second trimester of the season after a 13-14 start. But it’s obviously not ideal that only one of their star duo is playing well. Let’s assess the situations of Aldridge and DeRozan and discuss some potential solutions.
LaMarcus Aldridge has turned his season around
Early in the season, Aldridge and the rest of the team looked like they didn’t know his place on offense. A large share of his usage was pick-and-pop midrange jumpers and post turnaround jumpers from 12 to 15 feet out. Both options were inefficient.
But Aldridge has figured out how to thrive on offense with this Spurs team. The key for him has been working hard off the ball.
His favorite scoring move in the last several weeks has been sealing his man deep in the post, then dropping in point-blank shots after receiving accurate entry passes from teammates. DeRozan and Derrick White have been his most common quarterbacks. Many of these opportunities are coming because Aldridge is hustling in transition and forcing the opposition to defend him with a smaller player.
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He’s been a more frequent screener and is opting to roll rather than the pop on the majority of his picks. This makes the transition easier when rim-running reserve Jakob Poeltl takes his place on the floor.
Not many players can match Aldridge’s combination of a 9’2″ standing reach, elite strength and soft touch. That makes him one of the league’s toughest covers around the basket.
Overall, his average field-goal attempt in the second trimester has been taken 7.2 feet from the basket, per NBA.com’s Advanced Box Score data. In the first trimester, he averaged 9.3 feet from the basket on his shots. His screen assists per 36 minutes have also increased from 3.7 to 4.8 in that timeframe.
But ultimately, his efficiency improvements are the most jarring. In the last 19 games, his points per 36 minutes and true-shooting percentage have improved from 19.7 and 51.3 to 27.1 and 63.9, respectively.
Aldridge still posts up a lot, and that’s fine. His league-wide percentile in post play is 99.4, per BBall Index’s talent grades. But now he’s prioritizing easier shots to get him in a rhythm before looking to back down his opponents. He’s attacking the rim more with spins and drop steps from the post, rather than always settling for the fadeaway jumper.
Defensively, he looks energized by what’s happening on offense. He’s communicating well with teammates and is moving better in space.
What’s contributing to Aldridge’s turnaround? There are several reasons.
Obviously, the six-time All-Star has made a mental shift to make his game more interior-oriented. The improving team chemistry also has to be a factor, as his teammates are consistently looking for him inside and meshing well with him on defense.
But we should also give Gregg Popovich credit for decreasing Aldridge’s minutes starting in late November. On November 22, Aldridge was averaging 35.4 minutes per game. That’s a lot to ask for from a 33-year-old playing center full-time for the first time in his career.
Since then, though, LMA’s minutes are down to 30.7 per game. Popovich has trusted Poeltl off the bench more than he did at the beginning of the season. That’s keeping Aldridge fresh enough to bump bodies in the paint and move nimbly on both ends.
DeMar DeRozan has fallen off
Aldridge’s ascension has coincided with DeRozan’s decline.
Using that 27-game point as our dividing marker once again, DeRozan has averaged 17.8 points per 36 minutes on a 48.6 true-shooting percentage in the season’s second trimester. Compare that to 24.9 points per 36 minutes and a 55.3 true-shooting percentage in the first trimester, and you see the problem.
DeRozan is handling the ball less than he did at the beginning of the year. NBA.com’s time of possession data is not available anymore, but the eye test shows that Derrick White is doing a lot more initiation from the perimeter than he did earlier.
Aldridge has also taken over as the No. 1 scoring option, which cuts into DeRozan’s usage. The fact that LMA is playing closer to the basket takes away some driving lanes for DeRozan.
The former Raptor isn’t adjusting well to these changes. DDR’s shot selection has been pretty frustrating as of late.
Aldridge is finding his rhythm with his close finishes and free throws, then using that rhythm to do other things on offense. DeRozan isn’t doing that. Instead, he’s relying too heavily on contested pull-up jumpers from midrange to work himself into a rhythm. Most of these shots are reasonably early in the shot clock, too.
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Instead of looking to bully smaller, weaker players in the post or scoot past bigger, slower players, DeRozan is bailing out defenders far too often by rising up to shoot from 15 to 20 feet.
DeRozan’s average points in the paint per game have decreased from 11.3 to 9.3 points this trimester. He’s making just 3.4 free throws per game, compared to 5.9 in the first trimester. His percentage from the stripe has also dropped from 85.9 to 74.7.
His assists have gone up in the second trimester, but his turnovers have risen more drastically.
Despite all of this, DeRozan still regularly plays close to 40 minutes in games. He’s averaging 35.5 minutes for the season.
What needs to happen?
The Spurs would love to have both of their stars playing well simultaneously. It’s the only way San Antonio will be able to advance somewhat deep in the playoffs this season.
Of course, it’s notable that the team is finding more success with Aldridge playing well compared to when DeRozan was playing like an All-Star. A motivated Aldridge dominating the interior is a more efficient No. 1 option than DeRozan at his best.
It’s up to DeRozan to alter his game to accommodate Aldridge and the rest of the team. He needs to accept that he’s not probably not going to be average 25 points a game when Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Derrick White and the other Spurs role players are contributing positively, as they have been.
DeRozan has the facilitating chops to be a more pass-first wing. BBall Index’s player grades give him a league-wide percentile of 96.6 in playmaking. The Spurs have a plethora of plus shooters to place around him.
In terms of shooting, DeRozan just has to cut down on the tough midrange jumpers. Sure, he is in a bit of a shooting slump right now, but even when he’s hitting better, it needs to be the side salad of his offensive game, not the entree. Getting into the lane for a finish, free throws or a kickout pass should be his priority.
Off the ball, he needs to stay active and look for timely cuts, He’s in the 73rd percentile in roll gravity and the 79th percentile in off-ball movement, so he can contribute positively there.
Popovich can do his part by playing the 29-year-old DeRozan fewer minutes, as he’s already done with Aldridge. DeRozan is the first Spur since 2003-04 Tim Duncan to average at least 35 minutes per game. All that playing time and his heavy offensive load from the first trimester seem to be affecting his legs on his shots. This is probably contributing to his increased turnovers.
White is a 30-minute-a-night guy who can be the primary ballhandler when DeRozan is out. Pop can trust White and his team’s strong depth to survive without DeRozan. In fact, the team has a plus-8.9 net rating with DDR on the bench this season.
The Spurs are in good shape right now. But if Aldridge continues to dominate and DeRozan adjusts his role, the team can be even better.
Note: All stats are from NBA.com. Video clips are courtesy of 3ball.io.
Title graphic by Aidan Lising