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Spurs need to solve their Lamarcus Aldridge-Paul Gasol problem

The San Antonio Spurs have two very skilled post players in their starting lineup.

LaMarcus Aldridge is a very strong pick-and-pop big man who also possesses a nice array of post moves. He has the size and strength to bull through defenses, the touch to finish inside and a generally reliable fadeaway.

 

Next to him is Pau Gasol, who remains a deft inside scorer and strong mid-range shooter at 36 years old. One of his specialties is passing,

In tandem, these two are just not working for the Spurs.

In 35 minutes together (that’s more than one-third of San Antonio’s court time this season), Aldridge and Gasol have accumulated a net rating of minus-33.9. That’s the worst mark of any of the 51 two-man combinations that the Spurs have played this season, and it’s especially puzzling considering the team is 2-0 and has a league-best net rating of plus-20.7 as through October 28’s games. When your second- and third-best players are 54.6 points per 100 possessions worse when they’re on the floor together than the team as a whole, that’s a problem.

Sometimes, numbers like these can be anomalies. I’m not totally ruling that possibility out because both players are very talented and have the veteran savvy to adjust their games. Gasol is new to the Spurs, after all. These numbers will probably normalize a bit after awhile, especially offensively.

However, there are some inherent problems with the combination that probably won’t get better with time. I had reservations about San Antonio’s signing of Pau initially, and the team’s first two games have confirmed them and more.

Gasol has very, very slow feet on defense. This was never a secret. What I’ve been surprised by is his utter lack of awareness.

Like, how does this happen? DeMarcus Cousins is maybe the best scoring big man in the league, and you consciously choose to give him an easy path to the rim by fronting him very half-heartedly and in the wrong spot?

Admittedly, Gasol has had two terrible defensive outings against some of the worst matches for him. The Warriors are just too fast, and the Kings have Cousins, who demands a lot of attention.

But he’s being paired with Aldridge most of the time. LMA, unlike Tim Duncan (may he enjoy his retirement in peace), is not a guy who makes up for other players’ defensive miscues. When teams inevitably put Gasol in pick-and-rolls, Aldridge is left to defend closer the rim and be the back-line communicator for the team. He’s not terrible at that, but absolutely nobody is scared of attacking him, and he’s never been a defensive anchor before.

The problems aren’t just defensive. On offense, there’s a trickle-down effect that seems to be problematic. Aldridge came to San Antonio as a No. 1 offensive option and became a second option because of Kawhi Leonard. Gasol came to San Antonio as a No. 2 offensive option, and he’s now becoming a third or fourth option because of Leonard, Aldridge and arguably Tony Parker.

Gregg Popovich has been smart to give Leonard the lion’s share of touches so far, but that does affect the rest of the team’s rhythm. Aldridge still needs his touches, too, and he’s not afraid to jack shots up to make his presence felt as the No. 2 option. If Gasol is touching the ball a lot less than he’s used to, that will affect his ability to contribute on offense.

There isn’t an easy solution to the problem, unfortunately.

Dewayne Dedmon has been very good (plus-59.2 net rating!) through two games as a rebounder, designated defensive player and low-usage offensive player. He’s the best fit in two-big lineups next to both Aldridge and Gasol, who prefer to focus on offense. Should Popovich start Dedmon? If politics weren’t an object, he would be the smart choice.

It’s doubtful Gasol would actually accept a bench role, though. Dedmon did play next to Aldridge in Gasol’s place at the end of the Spurs’ narrow win over the Kings, and nothing negative resulted from that…yet. If it becomes a theme, though, there would probably be some frustration on Pau’s part.

For now, I think Pop’s best option is to start Aldridge and Gasol together, but have Dedmon and Pau both play quasi-starter minutes, probably around 25 per game. When the team does play Gasol after the game’s opening stretch, it should be mostly when Aldridge isn’t playing, and more against bench-heavy lineups than starter-heavy lineups. And if Gasol’s paired with David Lee–another poor defensive player–it should DEFINITELY be against bench players.

Of course, matchups will dictate the minutia of all of this (Pau can get his 30-plus minutes against slower and/or weaker teams), but Popovich needs to keep an eye on the questionable fit among his starting bigs.

And I trust he will.

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