What must LaMarcus Aldridge do to elevate himself and his team to the next level?
Nestled in the corner of the country in Portland, Oregon, LaMarcus Aldridge is approaching the prime of his career, but it will take a team effort to help him shine this year.
This 28-year-old power forward has carried the Portland Trail Blazers for seven seasons. During each of the past three, Aldridge averaged more than 21 points and eight rebounds per game. We are looking at the prime of arguably the best power forward in the NBA. Only, one thing is missing.
You know it and I know it. A ring is what can elevate him to Nowitzkian status and kick-start the argument about where Aldridge should be placed in the hierarchy of all-time great power forwards.
So what does he need to do to get there?
Consider this graphic by Grantland's analytics guru Kirk Goldsberry, in which he compares Aldridge to Tim Duncan.
Granted, this is comparing one of Aldridge's prime seasons and, well, one past Duncan's best-used-by date. But what has made Duncan great is his ability to continue to hit those post-up and short-to-mid-range shots. Aldridge can, and will continue, to make those same shots.
Diverse Post Game
If working in the post was working the stock market, Aldridge's portfolio is well diversified. Aldridge has it all: the hook shot, spin move, step-back jumper, bank shot, baseline drive, the turnaround jumper and face-up jumper and he can hit them all efficiently.
In fact, of all active forwards who played from 2010 to 2013, Aldridge is the only one to average 20 points on at least 48 percent shooting, at least eight rebounds per game and a free-throw percentage of at least 75 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.com. (Blake Griffin meets all of the criteria except free-throw percentage.)
The best scorers get open the way a great chef can create a dish on Chopped. He can call on any move or recipe without hesitation and deliver results that make a viewer's mouth water. Aldridge can call on any of the above post moves at any time to score. If a defender is playing up on him, he can hit him with a blender-blade spin move or a turnaround jumper. If the opponent plays off of him, he will fire off a face-up jumper that's hotter than an Outback Steakhouse grill.
Sorry, I'll turn off Food Network.
Aldridge can sometimes rely too much on his jump shot. He would be wise to build a pillow fort in the post and try to boost his shooting percentage to Duncan-levels of 49 and 50 percent.
That could happen, depending on how he is utilized on offense. Remember, Aldridge has been, by far, the best scorer on the team since the loss of Brandon Roy. Now the Trail Blazers have second-year standout guard Damian Lillard and new acquisitions C.J. McCollum, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright to shoulder a lot of the scoring load.
Speaking of Lillard, he and Aldridge emerged as a very productive and efficient offensive duo last season. According to Stats/NBA.com, the two had the highest net rating as well as the lowest turnover ratio of any other heavily used Trail Blazers duo, and trailed only the Nicolas Batum-Lillard duo in regards to offensive output.
Much of that has to do with the pick-and-roll.
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge Pick-and-Roll
This video demonstrates the high pick-and-roll that head coach Terry Stotts utilized last season. It is a terrific way for Stotts, who worked with such pick-and-roll prodigies Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, to utilize Aldridge's length and Lillard's speed.
On this pick-and-roll, Aldridge sets the pick for Lillard above the three-point line. Like so many NBA teams, the Houston Rockets switch to the ball-handler and drop back on the pick-and-roll to prevent the drive to the basket. Like I said, Aldridge has the jumper in his portfolio. This movement gives Aldridge an open jumper that he can make.
However, if a defense should be so inclined to play up on and challenge Aldridge's jumper, he is a big man who can dribble with his head up and attack the basket without hesitation.
Here, he blows by Golden State Warriors forward David Lee after Lee decides to attack the pick-and-roll. Aldridge is able to penetrate and use his length for a half-step-back, half-hook (add that to the portfolio!) over Andrew Bogut.
Now, maybe Lee, who often struggles on the defensive end, wasn't supposed to play up on the pick-and-roll. But teams must respect Aldridge's jumper, and even that respect could cause a moment's hesitation and allow Aldridge and all of his moves to take advantage. In that scenario, it is a much better idea to force Aldridge to take the jumper rather than allow him to drive and open up the opportunity for him to attack the basket or pass out to a teammate on the perimeter.
The Passing Game
Which leads us to my next point. We've covered his post game. We've covered his pick-and-roll prowess. Aldridge has got those down.
But what part of his game can he improve? Other than upping his field-goal percentage, he should work on utilizing a now-dynamic supporting cast. That is where passing the ball comes into play.
Before being teamed up with perimeter scorers, Aldridge had little reason to develop a Bill Walton-like passing ability from the low post. In fact, Aldridge has never averaged three assists in a season. If the Trail Blazers want to open up chances for points in transition and get out from the bottom half of the league in three-point percentage, part of that involves Aldridge developing his skill at spotting and delivering the ball to open teammates.
Being able to score in a myriad of ways is one thing, but being able to make teammates better is what separates players like LeBron James and Chris Paul from the rest at their respective positions.
This video is from when the Trail Blazers won their first NBA championship in the 1977 NBA Finals. Check out Walton's pass to Bob Gross, a wing player. This next-level passing—a gift that guys like Walton, Unseld, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo and LeBron James had or have—is hard to develop. But here, it is as much a result of practice and scheme as it is natural ability.
Walton first sets the screen for Gross and gets a favorable switch—Julius Erving comes off of Gross and gets pinned behind Walton as Gross gets matched up with center Darryl Dawkins. Walton calls for the ball from the point of the screen. Gross passes to Walton who has his back to the basket. Gross loops around, beating Dawkins easily and Walton finds him as he cuts in the lane for the layup.
Walton was an accurate passer and his timing was exceptional. However, the scheme also set him up with these opportunities. Stotts utilizing Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and the others in this way could boost Aldridge's value and elevate the team.
The next play in the clip shows one of many examples of Walton finding his teammates in transition, passing to them in the lane the way Joe Montana led his receivers to get yards after the catch. This is a result less dependent on scheme and more about seizing opportunities when they present themselves. Can't you see Aldridge blocking a shot or grabbing a rebound and finding Lillard in the lane for an easy layup?
So much of Aldridge's continued and improved success relies on a better team and coach that puts him in positions to win. Doing so could help Aldridge shine with a ring.