Blazer's Edge Mailbag: LaMarcus Aldridge's Offense Inside and Out

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A Blazer's Edge reader questions whether slower is better or worse for LaMarcus Aldridge's offensive game. Dave looks at the possibilities.

Today we cover a Mailbag question about the offense of Portland's most important player.

Dave,

When LMA receives the ball, holds it, and looks over his shoulder pondering what to do, a little part of me dies. It usually ends up with a fadeaway in the paint after a bashing of the left shoulder. It seems that when he acts instantly-either wheeling to the hoop, spinning for a jumper, or a catch-and-shoot-he ends up with much better-looking (and I want to say better-resulting) plays.

I wonder if this is a known and/or discussed phenomenon with LMA (and maybe other players) or if I'm just wrong. But I want to say that Roy, Hakeem, Sabonis... I feel there are a lot of players for whom holding the ball leads to better shots and this is a peculiarity of LMA's game.

Neal

We're into murky waters here. Your eyes aren't wrong but observation doesn't tell the whole story. Aldridge's offensive evolution over the past three years, especially under Terry Stotts, has been complex and fascinating.

Distance

It's been clear to most everybody that LaMarcus Aldridge's offense has moved farther outside as the years have progressed. The numbers bear that out. In 2010-11 Aldridge attempted a healthy 54% of his shots from inside 8 feet. That dipped to 42% last year. This season his attempts from 8 feet and in comprise just 35% of his total shots. That's a radical change.

As one might expect, shots inside 8 feet are Aldridge's highest percentage looks. He's shooting 59% on those attempts this year against an overall shooting percentage of 48%. But that's where the simple math ends.

Aldridge's 59% clip on close shots isn't appreciably different than his 60% rate two years ago. Neither is his 42% pace from beyond 16 feet much different than the 43% he posted in 2010-11. Aldridge has made significant strides in the distance between, however. He shot 37% from 8-16 feet two years ago. This year he's at 45%. It's become his moneymaking shot.

It's easy to make the argument that 60% is better than 45%. If you're willing to commit to Aldridge as your main post player he should be banging inside more. You could also make the argument that over the last two seasons he's patched the gaping hole in his offensive attack and that his ability to score from anywhere inside 20 feet has made him the feared and prolific scorer we know and love.

Since the Blazers are begging for paint points this year having Aldridge go inside more seems obvious. But if you start looking at who Aldridge can potentially play next to when this team is fully formed, especially in a Stotts system, you start to respect his range more. This team is built around versatility. With guards and forwards able to hit from multiple ranges the Blazers are now free to plug any center into the system and have it work.

You also have to consider Aldridge's preferences. He's good in the paint but he's not a natural post player. He likes facing up, favors pick and pop to pick and roll. You can only force a player of his caliber against the grain so much. Entering into his prime now, clearly ensconced as a #1 option, Aldridge has to play the way he's comfortable. Since he's proven competence from range, the Blazers will probably be willing to ride it out and build around him rather than shoehorn him into a less natural, more confining role.

Timing and Flow

2012-13 has also brought a change in Aldridge's role vis-a-vis his teammates. You mention him receiving the ball then holding it forever while deciding what to do. That was more true in 2010 than it is now.

As the main guy in the offense Aldridge gets touches and shot attempts at all points of the shot clock. That hasn't changed. Two things have:

1. In 2012-13 more of Aldridge's shots in the early part of the clock have come off of assists than in either of the prior two seasons. 51% of LMA's shots in the first 10 seconds of the clock were assisted from 2010-2012. This year the number is 58%. With shots from 11-15 seconds the number goes from 60-ish% to 67%.

By contrast 59% of Aldridge's shots in the last few seconds of the clock were assisted in 2010-11. That number is down to 51% today.

While Aldridge isn't actually taking more shots early in the clock than he did in prior seasons, the offense is set up to get him his shots earlier than was true under the old regime. Those quicker shots are part of the plan in the Stotts scheme. This is the opposite of the "Hold and Decide" system. Quicker shots for Aldridge means more shots for everyone during the course of the game. Quicker shots also keep the ball and players moving, as opposed to the old system where Aldridge would establish position inside while the point guard dribbled in place and entered the ball with a simple pass.

2. The effective field goal percentage on Aldridge's late-clock attempts has dropped precipitously between 2010 and today. The '10-'11 number was .463. Now: .404. Once upon a time the offense was designed to get Aldridge a late, high-percentage shot. Today any possession where he's holding the ball with 3 left on the shot clock is considered a mistake. You'll find him out of position, unable to dribble well enough to escape for a clear shot.

In this sense, Portland's new offense is designed to answer your concern about catching and holding. The Blazers don't like the ball stopping either, even if it stops in the hands of their best offensive player. But the cost of speeding up is designing an offense that gives Aldridge shots from range instead of in the paint. You can have a higher percentage for LMA or you can have brisk tempo and ball movement, not both.

Type of Shots

Examining the type of possessions in which Aldridge excels helps illustrate why this is true.

The post up has always been the meat of Aldridge's offense. It remains his single biggest source of shot attempts. The margin is shrinking though. In 2010-11 43% of Aldridge's shot attempts came from posting. This year it's down to 34%. Post plays take longer to develop. To his credit, Aldridge has become more efficient in these sets even as their place in his repertoire has dwindled. His field goal percentage from the post has risen from 41% to 47%, his points per possession from .87 to .94.

The spot-up jumper has replaced some of those post possessions. Only 8.5% of Aldridge's attempts came from the spot-up in 2010. That's almost doubled to 15.6% this year. Again his shooting percentage is up, from 40% two years ago to 43% today. Points per possession have risen from .79 to .88.

Aldridge's attempts off of screens have also risen from 12.7% in 2010 to 18.4% today. Here, though, percentages and efficiency have dropped. His percentage off of screens in 2010-11 was 54%, his points per possession 1.11. Today those numbers are 48% and .95. The reason? More pick and pop farther out on the court, less pick and roll and diving to the paint.

In every case the offense has shifted from slower to quicker. The cost of speed has been distance from the hoop and efficiency of shot, made up for partially by Aldridge's development as a player and natural offensive gifts. Moving him inside would bump the efficiency back up at the cost of time and ignoring the development Aldridge has shown as he has grown.

Missing from this list? The isolation play. Aldridge has been uniformly bad in isolation from the get-go. Those shots comprised 4.7% of his attempts in 2010-11 with a 34% success rate and a .70 points per possession. This year they're 7.3% of his attempts with 33% success and .66 points per possession. The rise in attempts as a percentage of total shots is not intentional. The Blazers are getting stuck in bad offensive positions and Aldridge has been left bailing out the team more than was true in 2010. (By comparison 2010-11 Brandon Roy attempted 38% of his shots in iso sets, hitting 44% and producing .99 points per possession.)

Aldridge is a power forward and isn't expected to get a huge number of iso sets but his dismal production shows why you can't afford to leave him late-clock offense in any position but the most secure. The more time you bleed off the clock the more you narrow down Aldridge's effective options. He'd better be open for the jumper or in unassailable, deep post position because he's not going to create something himself. This is the "Fadeaway of Doom" scenario outlined in your original question. "Slow" equals "slow death" unless you revert to the old McMillan system and force Aldridge to go inside every possession.

Where To From Here?

Frankly the old system of high efficiency, slower pace might be better for Aldridge in a vacuum. Though he's a Top Ten scorer in the league all of his shooting percentages and his point per minute production have dropped this season. The coaching staff will argue that Aldridge doesn't play in a vacuum. He's still producing and the people around him are also producing. Nicolas Batum's assists and Damian Lillard's magic wouldn't be as evident if the offense was centered around LaMarcus slow-posting. With the team not yet at full strength we might not have seen Aldridge's full impact yet. In the meantime 21 points per game is enough to get by with as the rest of the roster develops around him.

If the original question is indicative, fans prefer the new way as well. After all, you're decrying the slowdown even if you've slightly misidentified that it always leads to poorer shots. It does now because of the system. It didn't used to be so clear when the offense was based on slow and inside.

Whether the new way actually gains the team enough to offset the loss to LaMarcus' efficiency remains to be seen. It'll depend on what kind of players they're able to put around him.

Thanks to mysynergysports.com, basketballreference, 82games.com, and nba.com for statistical reference.

Keep the questions coming to blazersub@gmail,com. Please put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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