LaMarcus Aldridge's Mid-Range Game Is Key for Blazers Offense

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LaMarcus Aldridge's Mid-Range Game Is Key for Blazers Offense
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Over the last few years, as the analytics movement has swept across the NBA, the mid-range jump shot has fallen out of vogue. As teams, executives, coaches and players have become smarter about things like efficiency and expected value, most have come to realize that a shot that was not long ago referred to around the league as a "lost art" is actually the worst shot on the basketball court. 

However, just because we've come to learn that the shot is not as valuable as we once thought it was doesn't mean it doesn't still have value. Some players are still able to make a weapon out of it. LaMarcus Aldridge is one such player; this year, especially, he's made the mid-range game his stock-in-trade. 

Consider: Aldridge has made 95 mid-range jumpers this season, according to NBA.com, most in the league. Dirk Nowitzki has made the next most with 72. After that comes Carmelo Anthony, and he's "only" made 58 shots from the mid-range area. The player with the 10th-most mid-range makes in the league—Arron Afflalo—has just north of half the number of makes (48) as Aldridge has. 

It helps, of course, that Aldridge also leads the league in mid-range attempts by a wide margin. Aldridge's 228 two-point shots from outside the paint are 73 more than the next closest player, and exactly twice as many as the player with the 10th-most attempts (Evan Turner). 

The thing that separates Aldridge's mid-range game from a player like Anthony's, though, is that his attempts almost always come within the flow of Portland's aptly-named "flow" offense. 

He still takes his fair amount of shots after multiple dribbles in isolation or the post, as most high-volume scorers do, but a majority of his attempts come after copious screening and ball movement, in keeping with the Trail Blazers' offensive ideals. Head coach Terry Stotts imported a system based on constant movement, passing and screening from his days in Dallas, and it suits his personnel to a tee. 

Here, Aldridge sets multiple off-ball screens for cutting teammates before finally winding up in a side pick-and-roll with Nic Batum. He's then smart enough to see his man jumping out to trap Batum on the wing, and so he slips his roll to the area just above the free-throw line and quickly releases his jumper. 

Most Portland possessions start with Aldridge and/or the other big man on the court either setting or receiving an off-ball screen before then coming up toward the top of the key and running a high screen and roll.

If not that, a drag screen in delayed transition. If one of the players being screened for doesn't wind up with a layup or an open jumper as a result of a pick, Aldridge will more often than not wind up open from his favorite area of the court. 

Even when he's only tangentially involved in the primary action, Aldridge still gets his looks. 

Here, Aldridge gets a mid-range jumper off a handoff play for Batum, a back screen for Wes Matthews, and as the weak-side outlet man on a pick-and-roll between Damian Lillard and backup center Joel Freeland. He could force mid-range attempts off the dribble like Anthony so often does if he wanted to, but there's no need when the system so often generates the open looks for him. 

Of course, Aldridge's mid-range game doesn't just benefit him. It also helps generate open looks for his teammates. Consider these two possessions in an early-season game against the Sacramento Kings

As many Portland possessions do, the first play in this video begins with Aldridge setting an off-ball pick and then coming up toward the top of the key to screen for Lillard. Aldridge's man—Patrick Patterson—stays with Lillard a beat too long and Aldridge winds up with an open jumper near the free-throw line.

But that's not who I'm watching, here. Marcus Thornton, guarding Matthews in the weak-side corner, is my guy.

He slides all the way off his man, almost to the lane, as Lillard is dribbling left around the screen, but he backs off as Patterson begins to recover from Lillard to Aldridge. If he waits a beat longer, maybe he makes Aldridge hesitate before taking the shot so Patterson can better contest it. If he rushes out toward Aldridge, he can force a pass. 

That's exactly what Thornton does in the second play above.

This time Aldridge sets an off-ball screen for Mo Williams before running a high pick-and-roll with Batum. He slips his roll to the free-throw line and Batum delivers an on-time and on-target pass. As he catches the ball and starts to go up with his jumper, Aldridge sees Thornton directly in his face, and instead of forcing a shot over the closeout, calmly delivers a bounce pass to Matthews, who nails the corner three. 

Aldridge is never going to be a passer on the level of a Marc Gasol, a Tim Duncan or even a Joakim Noah, but he knows the right play to make and when to make it.

He's raised his assist percentage (the percentage of teammate baskets a player assists while on the court) into double digits over the last few seasons after spending the early part of his career in the high single digits, and his rookie year at just 3.2 percent. His 12.0 percent mark this year puts him on par with players like Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford and Blake Griffin, all excellent passers in their own right. 

Passing isn't the only way Aldridge can create buckets for his teammates. Consider this play in one of Portland's games against the Los Angeles Lakers last season. 

You may not notice it the first time through, but if you watch again closely, you can see Pau Gasol initially slide into the lane to protect against a pass to the rolling Freeland. As Lillard strings out his dribble, though, Gasol leans back toward Aldridge, knowing he must protect against the mid-range shot. That little lean opens up just enough space for Lillard to hit Freeland streaking toward the basket, and Freeland gets a dunk for his efforts.

Just the threat of Aldridge winding up with the ball in his sweet spot is often enough to open somebody else up for an easy look. 

It's not the most efficient shot on the court; there are almost certainly more high-value attempts that can be generated within a given possession if the ball keeps moving and finding the open man.

But that it's still a pillar of the Blazers (a team whose analytics department is considered one of the best in the league) offense says a lot about how much confidence they have in Aldridge to make the correct shoot-pass-drive decision, and make the shot if he chooses to let it fly. He's rewarded their faith in a big way so far this season, and will likely continue to do so. 

Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland, and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.

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