What's Next for LaMarcus Aldridge

A few weeks back I asked "What's next for Brandon Roy?" and tried to identify five ways for "B" (lol) to take his game to an even higher level.  After his contract extension signing press conference, I got Brandon's thoughts on the matter as well.  While Brandon will likely remain the most valuable Portland Trail Blazer until he decides to hang up his Nikes, he is just one of the team's foundational players.  Number two on that list, by a mile at this point, remains his 2006 draft classmate LaMarcus Aldridge.

Like Brandon, LaMarcus has already developed into a remarkably complete player on both ends of the court.  Unlike Brandon, however, he's managed to do it with just two years of college experience under his belt. Aldridge just turned 24 last month. Please take a moment to process that fully. Unless you prefer Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph or Blake Griffin, and at this point I'm not sure why you would, there's not a better, younger Power Forward currently playing basketball. Although at first glance it might sound absurd given the season B. Roy put together last year, I tend to agree with those who have argued that LaMarcus has a greater ceiling than Brandon. 

But this post is not an attempt to compare these two players.  Rather, it's an attempt to compare last year's LaMarcus to Future, Ideal LaMarcus.  So here are the five developments I would love to see from LMA, developments that I believe are attainable, developments that would combine to put Aldridge in a two-man battle with Chris Bosh for the title of Best NBA Power Forward from 2012-2017. 

1. Compel a True Two- Man Game

It's one thing to start every game determined to get LaMarcus going early.  It's another thing entirely to ensure that he remains in the flow throughout his time on the floor and that his efficient scoring is being utilized, even late in games. The only person that can ensure the first situation (what we saw last year) morphs into the second situation (what we should see from today onward) is LaMarcus himself.

One of the more surprising moments of last season came during a post-game conversation with Brandon Roy in which Brandon flat out stated that he preferred working without screens and admitted that he often called Aldridge off of plays in order to break down his man off the dribble.  Last year, it's hard to argue that this was a very effective, perhaps the most effective, strategy.  But going forward I would like to see their two-man game evolve drastically, mostly for LaMarcus's sake.

Turning once again to Synergy Sports' excellent player breakdowns, I was not surprised at all to see Aldridge rated as "good" when it comes to overall scoring effectiveness.  Unlike Brandon, however, he wasn't consistently good across all areas; It should come as no real surprise that Aldridge became less and less efficient the further he moved from the hoop.  

Here's what jumped out of his profile for me: Aldridge rates "excellent" as a "jump shooter off the dribble" (cashing 50% of those shots, regardless of distance) yet rates "below average" when it comes to catch-and-shooting (40% of those shots, regardless of distance).   Coincidentally (or not), Tim Duncan, the Greatest Power Forward Ever, also rates "excellent" and "below average" in those respective categories.  What separates Master from Pupil? Duncan took less than 1/2 the catch-and-shoots that Aldridge did last season; in other words, Duncan's liability was significantly less impactful.

Interestingly, Duncan also took less jumpers off the dribble than Aldridge did.  And the percentage of their offense that occurred while single covered in the post was nearly identical.  So where did Duncan's points come from? Obviously: pick-and-rolls.  For mobile big men with both the athletic ability to take a few dribbles and the mobility to set quick, effective screens, there really isn't an easier way to get involved in the offense and get easy points.  It should come as no surprise that Tony Parker ("very good") and Manu Ginobili ("excellent") grade out well when it comes to their own pick-and-roll effectiveness. When done right, it's a win-win for ball handler and post man. 

Ideally, Andre Miller should be able to immediately impact this situation for the better given his innate feel for his teammates' tendencies and a veteran's understanding of proper court spacing.  Indeed, it could very easily turn out that Miller more positively affects Aldridge's development than he does Greg Oden's, simply because Miller has a lot more to work with when it comes to LMA's range and mobility. 

Long-term, though, an inability to develop a cohesive, steady two-man game between Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge will become a limiting factor for this team's title hopes.

I would hope to see serious development in this area in 2009-2010 and the onus for this development falls primarily on Aldridge.  Brandon has proven that the 1-4 offense is an effective strategy; Aldridge should make it his season-long mission to prove that a two-pronged attack is even more deadly.  

2. Become an Elite Pick and Roll Defender

Just as Nic Batum helps lessen the defensive responsibilities that Brandon Roy faces on a night-in, night-out basis, I think it's fair to expect Greg Oden to bear a brunt of the post defense burden, thereby relieving Aldridge.  LaMarcus gets knocked for his somewhat modest rebounding numbers and there's no doubt he trails behind some of his peers in terms of being able to influence a game from the defensive block. When it comes to post defense, Aldridge pretty much is what he is.  Improvement is possible but a full makeover is unlikely.

Given his body type and skills, I'm not sure it's best for Blazers fans to expect Aldridge to become a serious low-post defensive threat.  Rather, I'd prefer to see Aldridge utilize his lateral quickness, length and Basketball IQ (arguably the most underrated aspect of his game), to become an elite pick-and-roll defender.  Think KG without the kneeling, woofing and, hopefully, facial hair.  Aldridge is one of the few young players with both the physical tools and the raw intelligence to seriously disrupt an opposing team's offensive flow.  Have we seen much of this from him yet?  I would say no.  Some of you might say "never!!!!"  But we have seen intensity and dedication. Those are critical first steps.

Pick and roll defense is a part of Aldridge's game that should improve as he continues to grow into a vocal leadership role on this team.  No question about it: posts and guards were regularly not on the same page defending screens last season.  That responsibility falls on everyone's shoulders but the issue is ultimately resolved if the post defender is confident, clear and consistent in how he manages his own movements and, through verbal communication, those of his teammates.  Although Portland still lacks what you would call an elite backcourt defender, a developing Aldridge has the capability to make his teammates look much better this season. 

In the longer-term, Aldridge's wingspan and foot speed have the potential to be game-changers in the team's halfcourt defensive sets.  Just as Brandon has turned his attention to studying film of LeBron and Kobe working in the pinch post, Aldridge should watch Garnett defensive tapes until he's green in the face. 

3.  Learn to Love the Fast Break 

There has been a non-stop discussion this summer about picking up the pace thanks to the Andre Miller signing.  This is another area in which Aldridge stands to be a big-time beneficiary of the Miller acquisition.  

Last season, despite playing on the league's slowest team, Aldridge was rated "excellent" in transition by Synergy Sports and he scored well in every phase they measure: leak outs, left wing, right wing, and trailer.  Think back through last season and you can probably remember seeing LaMarcus flying down the court with his signature long-stride, catching and finishing with soft hands around the hoop, and throwing down powerful dunks as a trailer.

It's fair to call LaMarcus a multi-threat weapon in transition. His fluidity in the open court, forcefulness at the rim, and ability to draw fouls and convert free throws combine to make him by far the team's most influential big man when it comes to setting and upping the tempo. Whether it's looking to make more forceful outlet passes, creating turnovers that lead to break outs by improving his pick and roll defense as discussed above, or simply enjoying the ride in Miller's slipstream, Aldridge can make a pretty complete case to Nate that he should feel comfortable opening things up.  

Great players have a transformative ability to force the game, and sometimes their coach's preferences, to bend to their strengths.  LaMarcus wants to be a great player and the transition game is one of his strengths.  The table is set. 

4. Abandon the Three; Open the Bank 

If Aldridge has made observers slap their foreheads and shake their heads over the past few seasons, it's happened when he drifts beyond his 18-20 foot comfort range.  And while I've personally witnessed impressive pre-game and practice 3 point shooting displays, Aldridge does a disservice to his team's overall offensive efficiency, not to mention its rhythm, by even considering hucking up treys.  

Just because you can make more three pointers than most Power Forwards doesn't mean you should attempt more threes than other Power Forwards.  Outside of Dirk, is there a single 4 in the league that you want shooting from that distance?  I would say no.  Throw on top the fact that his teammates include sharpshooters like Steve Blake, Martell Webster and Rudy Fernanzed (to say nothing of Nicolas Batum, whom Kevin Pelton projects to shoot 97% from distance in 2009) and there really isn't an excuse for Aldridge to roam the deep perimeter.

Rather than spending practice time going around the stripe, I'd like to see Aldridge devote himself to adding bank shots to his repertoire.  Do I expect Duncan-level proficiency?  No.  But an increased comfort level with the backboard from a few different spots on the floor would strengthen his face-up game immeasurably and, over time, create more space for his power dribbles and drop steps.  It would also force more double teams which, you guessed it, frees up the team's more proficient three point shooters.

Is developing a weapon of this sort something that happens overnight?  Absolutely not.  It could realistically take 5 years. But it would be well worth it.  Good news: in 5 years Aldridge won't even be 30.

5 . Trust His Handle

One of the more interesting, and promising, notes from his Synergy Sports profile: regardless of whether he's posted up on the left block or the right block, Aldridge chooses to turn to the baseline and to the middle at roughly equal percentages.  In other words, he trusted himself to go both left and right no matter where he was in relation to the basket.  Greg Oden, by comparison, turns right almost twice as often as he turns left, regardless of whether he's on the left or right block.  Same thing for Joel Przybilla.  Obviously, Aldridge is a more fluid, coordinated player than both of those guys but hopefully those numbers help given you an idea for exactly how outstanding his versatility and maneuverability is for a player of his height.  

So if you're guarding Aldridge, you're preparing for him to go left and to go right.  You're also hoping, above all, that he settles for his jumper.  Sure he makes a lot of them.  But man, he makes a lot of his dunks and layups too. As mentioned above, his scoring effectiveness decreases demonstrably the further he gets from the hoop and his face-up shooting -- even when unguarded -- is the least efficient aspect of his offensive game.  

What should Aldridge take from this?  That when it comes to putting the ball on the deck, something many seven footers are discouraged from doing, he has a complete green light.  Power dribble through the key for a jump hook?  Do it.  Spin move and drop step to the baseline even in heavy traffic?  Do it.  Face up, take a between-the-legs dribble or two to get a rhythm or to catch a bigger defender leaning out of position?  Do it. Almost anything that involves the ball bouncing on the hardwood then bouncing back up into his hand that moves him in the general direction of the hoop?  Do it. Good things will happen: Fouls will be called, dunks will be thrown down, spot-up shooters will be licking their lips.

This is a case where the advanced number breakdowns absolutely support what the inebriated guy in the very last row of the stadium is yelling: "GO TO THE HOOOOOPPPP!"  Seriously, do it. Do it. Do it. Do it until every single Rose Garden drunk is satisfied.

Final Thoughts

You've probably noticed a major difference between the steps I've just laid out for LaMarcus and those I listed for Brandon.  While I believe this season stands as the time for Brandon to fully embrace the team leadership position, my expectations for LaMarcus are focused exclusively on developing aspects of his own game.  Part of that is because, as Kevin Pritchard pointed out, it's easier to lead a team from the backcourt.  But a huge part is simply that, as good as Aldridge already is, he still has that much room for improvement.  It wasn't that LaMarcus got screwed last year when it came to All-Star voting.  He simply wasn't an All Star.  

That said, time and again during the second half of last season -- you remember the stretch when every home game seemed like a twenty point blowout --  I was sitting there dumbfounded (as Brother Wendell and the Mercury's Ezra Caraeff can attest), watching LaMarcus do things we'd never seen him do before: truly take over a game, glare at the opposing team's bench after a big dunk in traffic, get in someone's face and have that person back down first.

On more than one occasion this spring, I found myself thinking (often thinking aloud, spraying spit with excitement) that Aldridge is really not that far from becoming the single most entertaining Blazer in franchise history.  His combination of pure skill, hustle, length, determination and intelligence is arguably already unmatched.  

And that's what makes this post kind of scary.   Question: can you imagine watching a LaMarcus Aldridge with these improvements? Better question: is there really anything standing in his way?  

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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