The Portland Trail Blazers offense has been exquisite this season.
Despite a defensive efficiency that ranks in the bottom third of the league, Portland been tearing through its opposition and piling up the league's fifth-best win percentage at the All-Star break. The reason the Blazers have been able to put that together is their fantastic offensive efficiency.
To date, they are averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions, which is the third-highest mark in the league this season. At the center of that potent offense is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
While Aldridge has had a very good season, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game, his efficiency is way down and he's posting a career-low True Shooting Percentage. So how have the Trail Blazers been able to assemble one of the league's most efficient offenses when their biggest scorer is bottoming out in the efficiency department?
The first thing to note is that, although he doesn't actually play center, Aldridge is undoubtedly the center of the Trail Blazers offense. He uses 29.3 percent of the Trail Blazers' possessions when he's on the floor, by far the highest of any player on the team and one of the highest marks in the league.
According to the NBA's player tracking statistics, he also ranks second on the team in touches per game at 69.9. The only Trail Blazer who touches the ball more often is Damian Lillard, the point guard responsible for receiving nearly every inbounds pass and advancing the ball up the floor.
Early this season, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears how much Aldridge means to the team:
"He has gotten off to a great start and he's remarkably consistent," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I know his teammates know how important he is. He is the foundation of everything. His presence on the court affects everybody and how well they play on the court."
But for all those offensive opportunities, Aldridge's True Shooting Percentage is just 51.3 percent, about the same as that of Andrea Bargnani or Anderson Varejao. It's a surprisingly low mark of efficiency for such a high-usage player.
Of the 19 NBA players this season who have played at least 1,000 minutes and used at least 27.0 percent of their team's possessions, Aldridge's True Shooting Percentage ranks 17th behind Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and John Wall.
Andres Alvarez of Box Score Geeks pointed out how troublingly low that shooting percentage is:
Except, Aldridge' True Shooting Percentage (which factors in a players three point shooting and free throws) is a full 2.1% worse than the average PF. In fact, it's worse than the average at every position in the league!
While those players are regularly lambasted for their relative inefficiency, characterized as flawed offensive players, Aldridge is seen as an offensive force.
One of the reasons he's viewed differently is that he has a history of much higher levels of efficiency. However, the other piece of the puzzle is how his offensive game opens things up for his teammates and raises the level for everyone—even when he's not making shots himself.
Aldridge is one of the best mid-range shooters in the game and that offensive threat can cause all sorts of problems for opposing defenses.
Here, the Trail Blazers are running a side pick-and-roll with Aldridge and Earl Watson. Aldridge makes no attempt to roll to the basket and catches the ball just a step inside the three-point line. His defender, Ian Mahinmi, is actually in fairly good position to recover, but Aldridge's shooting touch is so threatening that it pulls Paul George off of Damian Lillard to help.
From there, the Blazers are able to swing the ball around the perimeter for an open corner three-pointer.
This example is especially illustrative of Aldridge's importance because it comes against the Pacers. Indiana's defense this season has been phenomenal, in large part because it uses a strategy that involves having its big pick-and-roll defender sag to the basket.
The photo below shows an example of the Pacers using this strategy against the Utah Jazz earlier this season. The blue arrows show how the defensive attention is focused on denying penetration, but allows room for a mid-range jump shot.
Several other teams have had great success defending the pick-and-roll that way this season, but Aldridge's shooting touch is so threatening that it essentially negates this strategy.
In the clip above, we saw that the Pacers had adjusted their strategy, having Mahinmi jump out on the pick-and-roll instead of sagging, and it still wasn't enough to contain Aldridge and the Trail Blazers.
In this next example, we see the same phenomenon in a slightly different orientation. The Trail Blazers are running a high pick-and-roll, this time with Lillard and Aldridge. As Aldridge fades to the elbow, an extra wing defender needs to rotate to him, leaving the corner wide open.
Aldridge's mid-range jumper is so dangerous that opponents don't feel comfortable letting him catch the ball around the top of the key.
In an ideal world, the defense would be able to continue its rotations to cover Aldridge and recover to shooters, but the Trail Blazers have been excellent at patiently finding the open man as the defense gets pulled apart.
This next example uses an interesting wrinkle, known as "shorting" the pick-and-roll. As Aldridge dives to the rim, he pulls both his defender and a weak-side wing defender. Instead of swinging the ball right to the open shooter, the ball instead goes to Meyers Leonard who is popping out on the block. Leonard then swings it back across the court to the open wing.
Three-pointers have been a huge part of the Trail Blazers' arsenal this season, and although Aldridge is essentially not a three-point shooter, he's one of the main reasons they've been so good.
When Aldridge is on the bench, the Trail Blazers are shooting 36.6 percent on three-pointers. When Aldridge is on the floor, that number climbs to 38.6 percent.
With that said, the Trail Blazers don't just use the space opened by Aldridge's presence to create three-point shots.
Here, you can see the Washington Wizards' Nene and then the New York Knicks' Tyson Chandler pulled in two different directions by an opening at the rim and the threat of leaving Aldridge open on the perimeter. In both cases, indecision results in wide-open layups.
Aldridge has been getting more attention from opposing defenses than ever before. While that extra attention has dragged down his own efficiency numbers, he and his teammates have become adept at leveraging that extra defensive attention into open shots.
However, as the Trail Blazers' strong start has turned into a strong season, opponents have continued to make adjustments. The Trail Blazers' average points per 100 possessions has declined in each of the last two months, all the way down to 103.9 in their seven games in the month of February.
As the playoffs approach, Portland will need to continue experimenting and adding new wrinkles. As opposing defenses become more decisive, often allowing Aldridge to shoot long two-pointers, what worked in the past may not generate the same results.
Aldridge's efforts this season show that the offensive impact of a player can extend far beyond their own makes and misses.
But if the Trail Blazers are going to push for a deep playoff run, that impact will need to expand—both from increasing his own efficiency and continuing to help his teammates increase theirs.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com/stats.