With the injury bug hitting the Portland Trail Blazers yet again this past season, taking out Greg Oden (again) and Brandon Roy (again), LaMarcus Aldridge seemed to be the only constant, helping the Blazers make the playoffs yet again. Even though Aldridge saw his usage rate increase last year, he was able to still be even more efficient, posting a the highest True Shooting Percentage (TS%), 54.9 percent, and highest PER, 21.6, of his career.
What He Did Well
What's interesting about Aldridge's season last year is that he didn't really improve anywhere by leaps and bounds. Instead, the Blazers were smarter about how they used him, putting him in positions where he could use his best skills and keeping him away from situations where he struggled. This was a big improvement when compared to two years ago.
This past season (and two years ago as well) Aldridge had success posting up, running the pick-and-roll, and cutting to the rim (According to Synergy Sports, Aldridge was in the top 50 percent in terms of PPP among all NBA players in all three of those categories), but he really struggled with his spot-up jumper. Looking at points per possession, Aldridge found himself in the bottom 20 percent among all NBA players in that category the past two seasons.
While you would expect a big who is good with his back to the basket and good at finishing to struggle a little bit with his jumper, that's not the problem. The problem was that in 2009, Aldridge was spotting up 12.6 percent of the time, making it the second most used play type in his arsenal. In 2010, the Blazers' staff recognized that problem and made some changes as Aldridge only took spot-up jumpers 8.1 percent of the time, good for fifth among all play types - behind post ups, pick-and-roll, and cutting to the rim, all of which Aldridge does very well.
It's not too often that you see a player like Aldridge, who was performing well and getting plenty of minutes already, increase his production without really adding anything to his game. His post game was still the same, as was his roll game out of the pick-and-roll and how he cut to the rim. The coaching staff (and probably Aldridge as well, realizing he struggles in catch-and-shoot situations) did a fantastic job of noticing where he struggled, and taking it out of his repertoire. The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for the jump in production, but Aldridge deserves credit as well. It probably isn't easy to hear that you aren't good at something and you should abandon it, but that's what Aldridge was asked to do, so that's what he did, and he was a better player because of it.
What Needs To Change
While Aldridge is successful on the offensive end, if he wants to be a complete player, he is going to have to improve on the defensive end a bit, especially in the post. For the most part, Aldridge was OK in the post, holding opponents to a PPP of 0.770 on 39.7 percent shooting. These numbers could be even better if Aldridge wasn't fouling so much against the post. According to Synergy, Aldridge committed a foul when defending post-up situations 15.1 percent of the time, 66th among the 78 NBA players who have defended at least 100 possessions in the post.
When watching the tape, you notice why he commits so many fouls--he's trying to:
Whenever Aldridge is beat or is put in a bad position he takes the foul and sends his man to the line. While that is effective to a point--I'd rather have a big shooting free throws instead of getting a wide open dunk--I think Aldridge does it a little too much and not always when it is needed. There are situations where Aldridge is in good position to get his hands up, contest the post strong, but he still feels the need to commit the foul.
So now, Aldridge is sending his man to the line instead of having him try to finish over his long arms, which doesn't seem so effective. Additionally, every foul that Aldridge picks up on purpose limits the number of fouls he can pick up playing real defense. This means Aldridge gets in foul trouble and finds himself on the bench, or he is less effective on defense while playing with foul trouble. Fouling instead of giving up baskets, especially to centers, is a solid strategy; I just would like to see Aldridge use a little more discretion.
So will Aldridge continue to improve? I think he can. The Blazers are starting to use him correctly, allowing him to take what he does best and do it the most. He's becoming a guy that's really hard to stop on the block and he knows how to find the open space when his teammates are penetrating. He's also improving on the defensive end, and with fewer fouls, he can be even more effective on that end.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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