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2009-10 Review: LaMarcus Aldridge

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Our review of individual player performance continues today with LaMarcus Aldridge.  LaMarcus has been critiqued, crisped, and in some quarters vilified this year.  Was his performance worthy of the critcism?  It depends on what you expect from him.

Let's get one thing straight early on:  LaMarcus did not have a bad season.  LaMarcus did not have anything approaching a bad season.  LaMarcus is the second most talented, second most productive member of this team.  LaMarcus is also a player that plenty of teams would love to get their hands on.  If the Blazers left him by the side of the road with a "Free to Good Home" sign around his neck NBA GM's would have multiple car wrecks trying to be the first to pick him up.  There's disappointing and there's DISAPPOINTING.  There's falling short of expectations and then there's downright bad.  Whatever you think of his performance LaMarcus was neither DISAPPOINTING nor downright bad this year.

A quick look at his stats shows that Aldridge was pretty much on a par with last season's performance.  He got almost the same numbers of minutes and shots per game.  His field goal percentage rose from 48.4% to 49.5%.  True Shooting Percentage went up a little.  Effective Field Goal Percentage went up almost in line with his overall FG%.  Free throw attempts and percentage both dropped.  Rebounds were up thanks to improved defensive rebounding (4.6 to 5.6 per game, a +3% rise in Defensive Rebounding Percentage).  Assists rose.  Turnovers fell.  Blocks went down the drain.  The bottom line:  Last year LMA scored 18.1 per game with 7.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and a PER of 19.1.  This year he scored 17.9 per game with 8.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and a PER of 18.2.  So far the smoking gun isn't evident.

If you're looking for that gun you're going to find it in the same place you found Brandon Roy's:  plus-minus.  In 2008-09 his plus-minus averaged out to +6.0 per game.  In 2009-10 it was +3.2, a decline of nearly half.  This highlights the divide in the LaMarcus controversy.  His raw stats and play aren't anything to get upset about.  It's just LaMarcus playing like LaMarcus.  Is LaMarcus everything this team needs, though?  This year the answer was no.  Thus the angst.

How much of that angst is fair and deserved is open to debate.  The door was certainly open wide for LMA to take any role, any amount of responsibility, to up his play in any category he wished this year.  The Blazers basically needed EVERYTHING.  LaMarcus did well enough but he didn't come close to giving them everything.  One can argue he didn't give them anything new or different in their time of need. He actually gave the team more 20-point games in 2008-09 (40) than he did in 2009-10 (35).  That doesn't add up.  When a second-year guy or the sixth-best player on the team does this you don't fret.  When your second-best player is in his fourth season and is still riding untapped potential you start to worry when he plateaus during his time to shine. 

One can argue (indeed, I have) that heretofore LaMarcus has not been called upon to deliver to the extent the Blazers asked this year.  The presence of Brandon Roy and Joel Przybilla and the relatively mild expectations of the team as a whole have sheltered him.  He got exposed this season.  He had to deal with double-teams, often without a dependable outlet.  He had to shoulder the main scoring load.  At times he was responsible for the entirety of the big-man defense.  Plus rebounding.  Plus where are those fast break points?  Picks?  Paint points?  That's a lot to take on in the middle of the season on the fly.  On the other hand you look at spotty rebounding, weak lane play, and absence of clutch assertiveness and you think, "That ain't right."  Not taking the bull by the horns is one thing but you have to be somewhere near the pasture at least.  A young, budding star doesn't just say, "Dre!  Cow!  Get him!" and go about his business.

For me the archetypal moment of LaMarcus' year was watching his jumpers fall in the Game 4 playoff victory versus Phoenix, then watching him miss the first couple he took in Game 6 and understanding at that point that we were going to lose.  That's not to say the loss was his fault.  But we had no chance without him confident and dominating and he just wasn't confident and dominating enough in that game, the series, or the season as a whole.

Even so, we have to remember that LaMarcus' value can't just be measured by what he can do in isolation.  His true value comes in what he can do for this team.  This team is going to include Brandon Roy and Greg Oden and another center and a couple other scorers.  If not--if this year's injuries recur--it doesn't matter what LaMarcus does, the Blazers are sunk.  Provided that doesn't happen, however, LaMarcus fits in fine and dandy.  We won't need as much from him.  Free to play to his strengths, he won't look like he's falling short in as many areas.  He still needs to become a 20 and 8 guy who can play help defense.  (He probably should have been that this year.)  But no matter what he's going to look much better, perhaps perform much better, with his normal teammates surrounding him, when the team's destiny doesn't rise and fall with his jumper and his rebounding, when he's free to just be LaMarcus because that's exactly what the Blazers need.

Even with that, Aldridge will be put to the test again eventually.  If they are to make a deep run the Blazers are going to need a real 1A guy playing alongside Roy.  LaMarcus might develop into that guy.  Maybe somebody else on the team will.  If not, though, Portland is going to have to acquire someone.  Before this year, with the potential and the cake-baking and whatnot, that kind of move wasn't under serious consideration.  It's still not required.  It might not be on the visible horizon yet even.  But it has at least entered the radar screen.  If the opportunity came at the right price the Blazers would at least have to listen and would perhaps be willing to sacrifice more than in years past in order to secure their future.  That change in approach is based at least in part on what LaMarcus Aldridge can or can't do to bring this team a title.

Season Performance:  B  (People will ask why Roy got an A- for staying relatively even and LMA got a B.  It's because LaMarcus had more room ahead of him to grow and probably should have whereas Roy is already there.  Also for those who want to give him a D or an F, know that I'm not judging by team needs as much as what he's shown he can do.)

Trend:  Static (And that ain't good.)

Biggest Question Marks:  Aggressiveness, willingness to take contact, interior play on both ends

Future with the Team:  Solid, but less so than last year.

--Dave (