This is part of an offseason series on various things of certain natures that each Blazer can work on during the summer to prepare for the 2010-2011 title push. This is strictly about on-court performance, so topics like trades and contracts are not discussed at length. Remember to click “Continue Reading” at the jump.
You can have your Rudy’s, Jerryd’s, Oden’s and Martell’s. For my money, LaMarcus Aldridge is the most polarizing Blazer, if only because there really is no consensus on the consistent power forward. Everyone seems to want something new and different from Aldridge, few seem satisfied with what he is right now, but fewer still can argue that he shouldn’t be on the floor as much as possible.
Put all that together and you have our candidate for the most intense-yet-hypothetical Summer Reading course we’re going to prescribe.
Let’s begin with Aldridge as he is right now. You know most of what he can do offensively. You can, most of the time, throw the ball to Aldridge on the blocks and expect to have a reasonable chance at scoring in isolation situations (0.91 points per post-up possession), with Aldridge counting faceup jumpers, turnaround-jumpers over either shoulder, a running hook shot and a drop-step countermove among his repertoire. You know he prefers to work off the left block, to spin over his right shoulder and that he’s not going to create enough contact to get to the line very often (3.9 attempts per game in 09-10).
Aldridge is unselfish, but doesn’t take a lot of risks with his passes (two assists per game) and hasn’t shown, outside of a few glimpses, a knack for hitting cutters out of the high or low post. He can set decent screens, but almost always is popping out to a spot 16-23 feet from the rim for a long-two. He has the hands and speed to be dangerous in transition, when the Blazers are pushing the ball, and is improving his defensive recognition, which includes the ability to work out of the double team.
Put it all together and you have a versatile player who can score in a variety of ways, but whose team doesn’t always take advantage of his skills in the open court and who sometimes has difficulty contributing to the offense when his jumper (41 percent from 16-23 feet) is shaky.
Defensively, he’s improved in some areas and just been adequate in others. Aldridge allowed .88 points per pick-and-roll he defended, just 56 in total, and once he was paired with Andre Miller in the starting lineup, himself a good PnR defender, Aldridge appeared to gain confidence in his guard recovering and thus hedged out on the ball handler more consistently. But his aggressiveness as a help defender and in running off shooters leaves much to be desired, and his one-on-one post defense can range from adequate to strong, depending on the type of opposition.
And then there’s the sticking point: rebounding. A 13.3 total rebounding percentage doesn’t seem to cut it with most people, despite the fact that his offensive percentage dropped from 9.5 to 8.1 and his defensive percentage rose from 15.6 to 18.6. That’s a positive trend, and one we saw reflected during some exemplary stretches in January and February. It’s accept that, playing alongside offensive rebounders like Oden, Camby and Pzrybilla, that Aldridge isn’t going to be going after as many offensive boards, so if his defensive percentage can get to 20-22, that’s more than acceptable from a stretch-four. But in order to do that, Aldridge will have to become a more physical rebounder, one who consistently makes contact on the glass. Sometimes it works for Aldridge just to get to the rebounds faster, but against many better rebounders, he needs to simply prevent them from getting in the rebound race at all with strong box outs.
Now, with all that out of the way, let’s take a look the Aldridge of Christmases Past, according to his DraftExpress.com Profile in January of 2006:
Offensively, Aldridge doesn’t even look for the ball on certain possessions. He will post up, seal off his man, and look right at the guy with the ball, but won’t absolutely demand it. This problem is compounded by the fact that he doesn’t have a point guard on his team. At times he will be wide open and his guards simply can not find a way to get him the ball in time with a simple fundamental bounce pass. Despite this happening several times a game, Aldridge refuse to show frustration when almost every other talented back to basket big man certainly would. This tells you a lot both about the type of player and teammate he is. He is too passive at times considering how talented and just how much better he is than everyone else on the floor.
Aldridge is also not consistently aggressive enough as a defender or rebounder. He is good enough to be a very solid starter in the NBA just off his talent, but developing a real mean streak could make him into a superstar down the road. Like many young players, his motor is inconsistent and he can go for certain stretches without making his presence felt on the game. It would be nice to see him being more active at times rotating on defense and hustling for rebounds. He often relies on his hands and athleticism more than he does on his body in terms of boxing out and fighting for position defensively, but this could be partially due to a lack of strength. With his physical gifts, he has much more potential as a shot-blocker than he has shown at this point in his career.
Ah, you see where we’re going with this, don’t you? (Nods head). Though you can’t deny he’s a better player now, many of the same traits which defined Aldridge during his sophomore year of college apply today. Four years into the league, that’s a small cause for concern, as even though Aldridge has returned with a better post-game every year and shows gradual improvement in most areas, it’s tough to say he’s leaps and bounds better than who he was in 2007, if only because he has refined what he does well without re-configuring his shortcomings.
Not that that’s a crime, as again, the player Aldridge is now is very, very good, but you don’t want a 24-year old just given a contract-extension to already be in the refinement stage of his career. You want a better return on your investment than that. No, Aldridge doesn’t need to come out in 2010-11 trying to dunk on everyone and leading the league in rebounding, but here are some things he can work on to make his followers think, “Whoa…” next time they see him:
- The Way of the Dribble: One thing opposing teams know about Aldridge is if they give him an open look from 18 feet, they can fly at him with abandon knowing he’s not doing anything but shooting or passing out. So there’s the baseline lane, or the middle of the paint, wide open, begging to be used. I’ve heard people say that Aldridge just isn’t confident enough in his handle to drive the lane, and if that’s true, the solution is to just get more reps in during the offseason. Go into practice mode in NBA 2K10, watch yourself driving and finishing, then go out on the practice court and repeat. Then do it while coaches throw things at you and hit you with football pads. This is the easiest, and most obvious, way to get to the free-throw line more. Put yourself in motion and force the defense to make a direct response. Aldridge doesn’t need Dirk Nowitzki’s handles, but without better ballhandling, his offense is at danger of becoming too Kevin Garnett 2009-2010.
- The Way of the Vet: The other way to get to the line more, and thus earn easier points, is to just manufacture more medium contact in the post. Aldridge went in the right direction with his drop step this season, as that move led to majority of his and-one calls, but sometimes that leads to a bad shot when the contact doesn’t come and Aldridge has to double clutch. He’ll always lean on that fallaway jumper, but a better head-fake and getting the ball under his defenders arms (The Duncan Special) before he shoots — just small veteran tricks — could earn him 2-3 more points off free throws a game.
- The Way of the Pass: Introducing Greg Oden back into the equation pushes Aldridge further from the hoop and gives him fewer opportunities on the left block. Last November, that worked for Greg, not so much for LaMarcus. Then, it was too much of an either/or scenario. Post Oden one possession, Aldridge the next quarter. Those two need interplay. It’s not going to happen automatically, as you need exact timing to go from flashing to the high post to getting the center the ball under the hoop before the three seconds whistle, but it has to come some time. Just watch Pau Gasol and a healthy Andrew Bynum interact. Against shorter teams, they can just keep the ball high and play hot potato until someone gets a shot they like. Ideally, if they can develop the proper spacing and timing for a two-man game, then you can introduce more cutters and motion. Assists. Ball movement. Easy buckets. Oh my.
- The Way of the General: We’ve already addressed how Aldridge can be more physical — by boxing out more, to start — without requiring a change in brain type, but mentally it’s going to be a little tougher. As with Roy, it doesn’t appear to come naturally to Aldridge to be an emotive on-court leader. That’s fine, but as he was critiqued by Draft Express, there are times when he needs to shut his teammates up by demanding the ball on the block, or by directing the defense. This comes from leadership, both by example of other means. Kevin Garnett is unique, but somehow the man can inspire his team hitting 18-foot jumpers and bolting around on defense. There’s no offseason practice prescription for this, and we won’t pretend to be inside Aldridge’s head, but much of that accountability we’ve been speaking of needs to come, in some way, from Aldridge. And eventually, you’d like to see him inspire his team to the point that they’re thinking, “Dammit, we need to get LA the %*^&^* ball”, rather than “OK, Coach called this set for LA, let’s throw him a catchable entry pass”. Though there’s little tangible evidence of this, sometimes it feels, as it often is with non-legendary post players, the truth is closer to the latter way of thought.
Who to watch? Well, Aldridge already emulated Garnett’s offense fairly well, and though just a spoonful of Garnett’s defensive tenacity would vault Aldridge onto another level, we’re opting with the more balanced — in terms of who presents more things Aldridge can learn, now — Tim Duncan. The post offense. The free throws. The passing. The work with David Robinson. The defense. The unique leadership. If Aldridge wants to bore the heck out of “casual fans” for the next decade, that’s perfectly fine, he just can’t fall in to a pattern of offseason refinement without expansion and growth of his skillset and leadership.
And a final, quick shoutout to Pau Gasol, from whom Aldridge can also learn, but who might not be the best subject for discussion, given his play in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and the general audience of this blog.