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Learning to live without LaMarcus Aldridge: Inside a year of growth for the San Antonio Spurs

Aldridge led San Antonio to a win over Dallas in the team's last game before the hiatus, but after a year, the Spurs are on their clearest path yet to the future.

SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs beat the Mavericks 119-109 behind 24 points, 4 blocks and a huge fourth quarter from LaMarcus Aldridge on March 10, 2020, in what they didn't know then would be their last game before a four-month hiatus due to coronavirus.

Exactly one challenging year later, the Spurs lost to the Mavericks 115-104 shortly after announcing that LaMarcus Aldridge will no longer be in San Antonio moving forward.

Those individual game results don't reflect how much they've learned and grown in the past 365 days, and how much clearer their path further is given all their work that has made them comfortable enough to mutually part ways with the seven-time All Star in the final year of his deal.

RELATED: BIG FUN POD: Questions ahead of the season's second half & a looming trade deadline

Consider where the team was at that point last season, coming off 10 losses in 14 games, most recently giving up 139 to a superstar-less Nets and then falling to a pitiful Cavs squad in OT. They had lost to the Cavaliers twice, the Hawks twice, the Timberwolves twice, the Thunder twice, the Grizzlies twice, the Magic, the Wizards, the Pistons, and the Kings

Aldridge was second on the team in scoring at that point in the season, averaging 18.9 per game and shooting 39% from deep after changing his game to more of a complementary role, and that was opening things up for other guys on offense.

DeMar DeRozan led the team with 22.2 points and 5.6 assists per game, scoring entirely in his spots and feeding the young guys around him increasingly well as the season went on.

Dejounte Murray looked sharp in his return from an ACL injury that sidelined him for all of the previous year, putting up about 10 points, 6 boards, 4 assists, almost 2 steals and under 2 turnovers while hitting 38% on a low volume of threes.

Lonnie Walker IV had some inspired moments in the early part of the season, including a 17-point fourth quarter capped with a crazy deep three to propel the Spurs to an overtime win over Houston on a career night. Still, he was learning the game and stuck behind guys like Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli in the rotation as San Antonio’s defense looked worse than it ever really had under Popovich, giving up almost 113 points per 100 possessions. 

On a somewhat related note, Forbes played more minutes than anybody not named DeMar or LaMarcus before the hiatus. He averaged 11 points a game and hit 39% from deep with pronounced peaks and valleys, but graded as one of the worst defenders in the NBA as he routinely got targeted and torched by opposing offenses.

Belinelli showed that he was nearing the end of his NBA playing career . He was never known for his defense, but it got to a point where his playing time was unjustifiable.

Trey Lyles grew into a legitimate stretch four in the starting lineup, boosting his scoring average and three-point percentage consistently through February and March, when he averaged double-digit scoring while shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc.

Jakob Poeltl was playing under 17 minutes per game and not making a huge impact in the box score, but his hustle and advanced numbers showed promise and pointed to his underrated overall impact. 

He was part of a bench unit with Derrick White, who averaged a little over 10 points, 3 assists and 3 boards with 1.5 combined blocks and steals per game. He shot almost 36% from three on 2.6 attempts a game.

Patty Mills and Rudy Gay also averaged double-figure scoring off the bench, though both shot inconsistently and struggled to defend.

On the other end of the age spectrum, baby-faced rookies Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic had spent most of the year bulking up and learning the system with the G League affiliate in Austin. The broadly-built Johnson appeared in nine games for San Antonio with minimal minutes of any consequence, and the spindly Samanic had played in just one NBA contest.

Put all that together, and the Spurs were 27-36 with some serious soul searching to do, and the four-month hiatus gave decision makers in San Antonio an unplanned but much-needed opportunity to reevaluate.

When play resumed in the Orlando bubble in July, their new plan to play younger and faster with better defense became clear.

Part of that was necessary as Aldridge missed the Disney trip due to shoulder surgery after nagging injuries caused him to miss ten games. Lyles went home due to an emergency appendectomy, leaving the Spurs without two starting big men.

Bryn Forbes appeared to be nicked up, but it also could have been a situation where Coach Popovich knew he wasn't going to bring him back, and wanted to evaluate his other guys without hurting Bryn's appearance ahead of his upcoming free agency. He went from playing the third-most minutes on the team before the bubble to 0 minutes after.

With three starters down, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, and Jakob Poeltl stepped up. White was arguably San Antonio’s best two-way player in the bubble, boosting his scoring average up to 19 points per game while shooting 39% from deep on three times as many attempts as he started the season at. He also contributed 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game while playing all-world defense.

RELATED: Spurs beat Kings on White's two-way dominance and DeRozan's clutch play down the stretch

DeRozan led the team with nearly 22 points per game, adding 5.7 assists and 4.4 boards while shooting a blazing-hot 58% from the floor. Murray continued to put up his same numbers even with other scorers in the lineup, playing well alongside them as they developed new chemistry.

Walker doubled his playing time and his scoring average to over 11 points per game as a starter in the bubble, hitting 40% from deep on a decent volume while not finishing as efficiently in the paint.

Jakob Poeltl anchored an aggressive defense, averaging about 1.5 blocks and a steal while putting up 8 points and 8 boards as the starter. He showed impressive rim protection and defensive switchability, but got into foul trouble a few times and could have finished stronger at the rim even though he made nearly 65% of his shots.

Speaking of somebody hitting nearly 65% of his shots, Keldon Johnson burst onto the scene with efficiency, intensity, confidence and swagger. In a consistent role he put up 14 points, 5 boards and a steal per game while shooting 64% from the floor and 65% on about two triples per game. Belinelli’s minutes dried up as Popovich continued to evaluate the young guys.

RELATED: Rev up 'The Mustang,' Keldon Johnson excites Spurs and fans after Orlando performance

This version of the Spurs played measurably faster than the other, played better defense, scored and shot more efficiently, and went 5-2 in the games that mattered.

They didn’t make a splashy trade in the offseason. Instead, they doubled down on what worked for them after they learned from their pre-bubble mistakes and saw promising flashes in Disney. 

RELATED: ANALYSIS: The Spurs' Gambit | San Antonio's offseason chess moves have been sneakily aggressive and boringly effective

"The bottom line, in all frankness, is I don't remember winning a championship last year, I don't remember being in the playoffs, so it's time to make a change, play a different way, demand it, and move forward," Coach Popovich said before the start of the season.

RELATED: 'Time to make a change' | Gregg Popovich speaks on internal development and the new direction for the San Antonio Spurs

Forbes and Belinelli were allowed to walk in free agency, opening up bigger roles for better defenders in White and Walker. Poeltl came back on a team-friendly deal with aspirations of soon taking over as the starting center.

RELATED: Jakob Poeltl re-signs with San Antonio Spurs on three-year deal worth $27 million

Aldridge changed his game even more to focus on three-point shooting and avoid post play that would clash with the new style. DeRozan and Murray each took a playmaking leap. Keldon Johnson earned a starting role to start the year with just 17 NBA games under his belt, none before he could legally buy Mariah Carey a drink.

The early part of the season came with challenges, as Derrick White missed time rehabbing the toe he injured in the bubble, then came back and broke the same toe by stubbing it super hard in his first game back. Just as he was working his way back into the rotation a second time, his bad luck continued as COVID sidelined him along with four others. 

Aldridge missed 11 games due to different injuries and illnesses, and Poeltl struggled to fill the role in the early going. When Aldridge was on the floor, he had some good nights but didn't consistently hit shots in his new role outside the post. The bigger problem was on defense, where opponents made it quite clear that he was 35 by torching him in pick and roll for layups and kickouts.

Still, the defense was a bit better with Walker, Johnson, and rookie first-round pick Devin Vassell playing heavy minutes. 

Walker still needs to improve on applying his tremendous athleticism to both defending and finishing at the rim, but he’s still putting up 11 points per game while hitting 36% from deep on 5 attempts per game. That puts him behind just Patty and Derrick in terms of volume. Coach Pop says he’s continuing to learn the game, and it’s showing in his maturing shot selection. He’s flashed playmaking ability far more dynamic than his 1.8 assists per game would indicate.

Johnson averaged 14 points and 7 boards per game, playing like he knew nobody wanted to get between him and the rim where he took about half of his shots and finished nearly 60% of his attempts. 80% of his shots came with two or fewer dribbles, with half of that coming directly off the catch. He held the ball rarely, shot 33% on a medium volume of threes, and attacked closeouts with fire.

He used his big body to defend multiple positions well, including stars like Zion Williamson, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard. A year and a half after falling all the way to 29th in the draft and a perfect situation with San Antonio, Johnson earned a spot on the Rising Stars roster with the rest of the best young players in the league.

RELATED: Keldon Johnson earns NBA Rising Stars honors

Vassell made a name for himself as a 3-and-D wing in college with long arms, sharp shooting, and tremendous upside as a playmaker, and he’s shown all of that at 20 while just getting his feet wet at the highest level.

Mills and Gay have both averaged double figure scoring while improving their individual defense on a team with fewer liabilities around them. As Patty continues to bolster his interior game, shooting 60% when he gets to the rim, Gay has gotten more consistent with his three, hitting almost 37% on 4.3 attempts per game, which is fourth on the team. 

Mills is still a sniper, hitting 40% from deep on team-high volume. Gay can still get you a bucket in isolation, but this year continues a years-long trend toward playing more in the flow of the offense.

Lyles didn’t look sharp in the preseason and barely played after Johnson earned the starting gig. Samanic went to the G League bubble where he averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds in a promising jump.

As a grueling season went on, Poeltl established himself as a viable starter in Aldridge’s absence. He isn’t a shooter outside of 10 feet, needs to improve his free throw badly, and should dunk a little more often when he gets to the cup. despite his limitations he’s been exactly what San Antonio needed by simply doing his job. 

He’s averaging over 8 points and 8 rebounds per game while adding 2 assists and 2 blocks as a starter. The box score always fails to capture his true impact, as he’s been near the top of the league in terms of shot contests and screen assists per game, which makes things a whole lot easier for his teammates. He played so well that when Aldridge made his return, it was off the bench with mixed results as he adjusted to his new role. 

The Spurs were 16-11, cruising after two big wins to start the Rodeo Road Trip. They had won eight of their last eleven games, and to that point in the season had beaten the Clippers, Lakers, Trailblazers, Celtics, Nuggets, and Warriors. They’d also lost to the Timberwolves twice, the Grizzlies twice, and the Rockets. They went 0-4 on the second night of back-to-back sets, playing some of their worst games of the year on short rest.

Despite all that, they were overperforming and things were just starting to click when COVID once again paused San Antonio’s season, this time due to multiple positive tests. Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Rudy Gay and Quinndary Weatherspoon all had to remain in quarantine, and the team’s next four games got rescheduled.

When San Antonio returned to the court, they hadn’t played in ten days. In addition to missing those five players, they were also without DeMar DeRozan who was away from the team to grieve the loss of his father.

In their first game they played Oklahoma City, and Samanic and Lyles started and unheralded acquisition Keita Bates-Diop played 20 minutes off the bench. Without five of their best players they had a chance to win on the last possession, but coughed it up and lost at the buzzer instead.

RELATED: FINAL: Shorthanded Spurs lose heartbreaker at the buzzer 102-99 in Oklahoma City

In their next game DeRozan returned, leading that same shorthanded team to a close win over the Pelicans with 32 points and 11 assists. When that same depleted squad faced off against the Nets with James Harden and Kyrie Irving, they rolled with every punch and ripped off a 10-0 run to end regulation as Dejounte beat the buzzer to tie. San Antonio ran out of gas in OT, and they had a game the next night against the surprising Knicks.

RELATED: FINAL: Spurs close fourth quarter on 10-0 run, but lose to Nets in overtime 124-113

The Spurs won their second game of a back-to-back for the first time, thoroughly dominating one of the best defensive teams in the league. Lyles had his best game of the season with 18 points, and Samanic had a career-high 14. DeRozan and Murray combined for 17 assists and just one turnover, and on the season they’ve led the team to a league-leading assist to turnover ratio of 2.25.

RELATED: FINAL: Spurs demolish Knicks 119-93 after strong second half

In their last game before the All Star Break they had a chance to atone for that loss to the Thunder with DeRozan and four games of chemistry under their belt. They took a double-digit lead in the second half, but couldn't sustain the effort for long enough to win in a disappointing end to the first half of the season.

RELATED: FINAL: San Antonio Spurs blow double-digit lead, lose to OKC Thunder 107-102 in last game before All-Star Break

They went 2-3 in five games they could have won even without a handful of key players. It was a forced development showcase, and the guys who hadn’t had much opportunity to start the year showed why they're in the league.

Lyles averaged 12 points and 7 boards per game in that stretch, shooting 51% from the floor and 46% from deep on 22 attempts, attacking decisively off the catch. Samanic added 7 points per game and over 5 rebounds, hitting 35% of his 17 long-range attempts. Most impressively, he showed remarkable defensive switchability for a wing near 7 feet tall. Bates-Diop played with fantastic energy, hitting 5-10 from deep and showing two way versatility on the perimeter. Drew Eubanks played serviceable minutes as the backup center.

DeRozan averaged 20 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and a steal per game in the first half on the only team over .500 without an All Star. Adam Silver passed him over twice as an injury replacement, selecting Devin Booker and Mike Conley instead. He showed just how silly it was that ESPN ranked him as the league’s 82nd-best player, then continued to get slept on at the highest level.

Dejounte Murray isn’t happy about that, and he’s putting up 16 points, 7 rebounds and over 5 assists per game with 1.7 turnovers and 1.6 steals. He may not win Most Improved Player, but he’s finally grown into a consistent, smart, reliable, well-rounded threat after years of building toward it. He’s still just 24, and shares a birthday with Brandon Clarke.

So, where are the Spurs after this transformative year?

San Antonio is 18-14 with as many impressive wins as they have disappointing losses despite some horrible injury luck. After shedding poor defenders and banking on internal growth from everybody else, they’re a better a team with a new spin on the old-school Spurs identity of tough defense and crisp ball movement, but faster and with more threes to match the modern NBA.

Popovich, his coaching staff and the front office took too long to address the root cause of the defensive porousness last year, and that’s one of the main reasons they came up short of the playoffs on the last day of the bubble for the first time in over two decades. 

Before this year they patched the main leaks, and when another one presented itself clearly in Aldridge, Popovich surprised many by sending the seven-time All Star to the bench. It was the right move for all parties involved, but Pop has become notorious for relying on aging veterans.

The announcement that Aldridge would be leaving the team was an even higher level of logical but surprising. San Antonio has been preparing for life without LaMarcus, and if he's going to be a bench guy he'd probably rather do it for one of the league's top teams. Popovich called it a win-win, and it certainly appears to be, it's just one that the Spurs seldom take.

RELATED: LaMarcus Aldridge and Spurs have agreed to part ways according to Gregg Popovich, will explore trade opportunities

Most of San Antonio's changes in the past year have been positive and purpose-driven in the face of difficult circumstances. What comes next is a brutal second-half schedule, compacted due to coronavirus delays. They won’t have two nights of rest or more for the remainder of the year, and they’ll face the dreaded back-to-back ten times.

RELATED: San Antonio Spurs release schedule for second half of season

It’s not all scary, though. Reinforcements are coming, and when they do the Spurs will have a roster that’s genuinely 15 players deep. Given how well they played before the break, they should be able to give everyone nights off when they need them and feel confident in the next man up.

In the first game of the post-Aldridge era, San Antonio fell apart in the second half, missed 11 shots in a row in the fourth quarter, and got killed on the boards, wasting 30 points, 11 assists and 4 steals by DeRozan. 

RELATED: FINAL: San Antonio Spurs fall to Dallas Mavericks 115-104 after second-half collapse

Poeltl didn't have a good game, struggling a bit with the size and shooting ability of Porzingis, but any suggestion that Aldridge would have fared better doesn't hold water.

Derrick White returned to the starting lineup for the third time this season and shot an abysmal 1-8, which shouldn't really happen again once he gets his legs under him. Dejounte Murray had a poor shooting night as well. If they can stay healthy, this could be the true beginning for a talented young backcourt pair.

Lonnie Walker IV moved to the bench, where he’ll be more of a primary playmaking option with a greener light and less pressure on defense. He scored 12 points, knocking down a few triples and more impressively creating contact and finishing inside, though he played just 18 minutes and none in the fourth.

After an impressive stretch that showcased this team's depth, Pop shortened the rotation and rolled with the veterans late. 

There are absolutely still some kinks to work out, but if there's anything the Spurs have shown us in the past 365 days, it's that they're committed to solving problems.

The players have all shown improvement that is reflected in San Antonio’s team performance, but they’d all tell you that they personally have room to grow and this team has another gear they can reach for.

So how do they get there? Some would tell you a trade is the best way to move the needle, but the ones being discussed for San Antonio don’t seem like something they would do.

Take Nikola Vucevic of the Magic, for example. Recent reporting suggests that Orlando isn't interested in trading him, but it's still a good thought experiment.

RELATED: BIG FUN POD: Questions ahead of the season's second half & a looming trade deadline

A fringe All Star on a poor team in the East, he’s put up an efficient 24 points and 11 rebounds while hitting 41% from three. His offensive tools are diverse and impressive, but he isn’t known as a defensive stopper. If he came to San Antonio he’d likely shoulder less of a scoring load and play more of the role that Aldridge was trying to by picking and popping and scoring in the flow of the game.

The Spurs are said to be interested in acquiring him, and he’d be a fun offensive fit with the ball handlers assembled in San Antonio, but Orlando reportedly wanted a haul in return. One suggested package involved Murray, Poeltl, and picks, which would almost certainly make the Spurs worse both in the short and long term.

A chunk of people have decided that Walker is the young first-round pick they’d be willing to package with LaMarcus Aldridge to acquire Vuc. That’s a question of whether or not you’re willing to swap a talented, explosive wing who fell to 18 in the draft halfway through his first year with a consistent role at the NBA level for a 30-year-old big putting up inflated career-high numbers on a 13-23 team that gets outscored by 8.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

Even if Vucevic would be a good on-court fit, it wouldn’t be enough to make the Spurs legitimate championship contenders much more than they are right now. It’s not a move that would make all the national outlets say, “Wow, they’re now a genuine threat to the Lakers, Nets, and everyone else.”

Those moves are very hard to come by. The problem hasn’t really been scoring for this team, as success has mostly been determined by whether or not they can slow their opponents. San Antonio’s young core and current center have built a winning style on that end of the floor after a year of growing together and working on it, building up from rock bottom.

Murray, White and Johnson all spent time in Austin before eventually earning roles in San Antonio. Samanic could be close behind given the minutes cleared by Aldridge's departure, though he barely played in the loss to Dallas. Vassell looks like he’ll never need to make the trip up I-35, a combination of rare talent and unprecedented circumstances. 

Walker is just 22, which is a year younger than Derrick White was on draft night. He has a floor as a steady wing spacer, and so much room to continue growing his game. Sending him away in a trade now would be selling low on his untapped potential. 

We saw him completely take over a game on both ends against James Harden and Russell Westbrook, showing incredible guts in a glorious glimpse of what could be. He has a superstar frame, superstar bounce, a reliable shot, and that feeling that he’s built for big moments.

He still needs to work on using those long arms and his built-in moon shoes to finish stronger inside and play smarter defense, but if he can manage that achievable development goal, he’ll be a complete and scary young star. He could thrive as a featured sixth man, and if DeRozan heads elsewhere as a free agent, Walker would be the logical choice to replace some of his playmaking.

It doesn’t seem like the Spurs would want to move on from Walker this early in his development without receiving a franchise-altering player, and Vucevic doesn’t appear to be that. Making a significant move without gaining a significant advantage isn’t really how they do things, willingly at least.

As the trade deadline approaches, it seems most likely that the Spurs retain their young guys and Patty Mills. Teams may target Rudy Gay, and the Spurs might be willing to flip him to a contender for a first-round pick if they want to clear up minutes for guys like Samanic, Vassell and Lyles.

The only way they would trade DeRozan would be if he communicated that he’d be out at the end of the year. There’s no indication that’s the case, and there’s probably mutual interest in a reunion for the right price. It’s hard to think of a better way for San Antonio to spend their money this offseason, and DeRozan said  that he came back to keep building on what they’ve been building.

The biggest difference between March 10, 2021 for San Antonio versus a year before was not the lack of Aldridge, or that they lost to Dallas instead of beating them. 

It's that 365 days after quiet, methodical, purposeful steps in the right direction, the Spurs have their strongest identity and clearest path forward since trading the disgruntled Kawhi Leonard for as much as they could, acquiring DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and the pick that they used on Keldon Johnson.

Expect them to just keep marching, as they always seem to do.