Two seasons ago, with Kawhi Leonard sidelined due to a mysterious quad injury that would ultimately lead to his ugly divorce from the franchise, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich empowered veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge to serve as the focal point of the offense, and to do it in his own way.
During his first two years in San Antonio, Aldridge had become disillusioned with his complementary role alongside Leonard – to the point that he approached Popovich about the possibility of a trade.
Popovich responded by taking his hands off the steering wheel. He allowed Aldridge to do what made him most comfortable, which was playing with his back to the basket and shooting mid-range jumpers. Aldridge responded by submitting arguably his finest season, posting his best per-possession scoring rate on career-best 2-point shooting en route to being voted to the All-NBA second team.
"He'd been in the league nine years and there's one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with," Popovich said at the time. "I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma – told him I was going to teach him how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over-coaching in a sense."
Last season, Aldridge continued to play his old-school game, leading the league in post-up frequency for the second straight year as the Spurs continued to run their offense through him. His production took a slight dip from its 2017-18 zenith, but he was still an All-Star and San Antonio posted the league's sixth-best offensive rating.
But the Spurs' roster has changed over the past two years, in ways that have made it less tenable for Aldridge to cram the entirety of his offensive game inside the arc. In the summer of 2018, the team traded Leonard and Danny Green (its two best outside shooters) for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, two non-threats from 3-point range.
Complicating matters further, Dejounte Murray returned this season after a year on the shelf with an ACL tear. Despite being a massively promising talent, Murray is similarly unthreatening as a 3-point shooter. That meant the Spurs couldn't put their best players on the court together without completely compromising their already-limited spacing.
For the first two months of this season, Aldridge staunchly remained within his comfort zone, even though it meant San Antonio was frequently running out lineups with three or four players who flat-out refused to shoot threes. The Spurs made it work to a certain extent – hovering around the top 10 in offensive rating – but that had a lot more to do with their bench and transitional lineups than their starters.
Then, suddenly, something changed.
More specifically, Aldridge began stepping out and letting it fly from deep. After attempting just 44 threes in his first 26 games, he's launched 50 over his past 10. Put another way, his rate of 3-pointers has more than tripled as a percentage of his total field-goal attempts.