The elephant in the room had another superb season worthy of his large mammalian status.
Coming into this season, LaMarcus Aldridge had been an All-Star in his previous three campaigns. Since those accolades started coming in, the evaluation, expectation and perception of his game has remained largely the same. The man is steady, almost to the point that he can be overlooked. Many consider him underappreciated and it's really only obvious how important he is when he's not there. In that way, this season has been more of the same.
Any conversation about Aldridge has to begin and end in the post. He's one of the tallest power forwards in the game and he uses his size, along with a host of moves and counter moves, to score over, through and around defenders. LaMarcus had the second most post ups and scored 0.96 points per possessions. That's good for the ninth best rate in the league but no one ahead of him was even close in terms of volume.
When he first came into the league, Aldridge relied on his fadeaway so much he was almost a one trick pony. The last few years, that has flipped and he tries to get to the middle first, using the fadeaway as a counter. He's started using his up and under more frequently these past few years, but all of that was true last year. In the post, Aldridge was as dominant as ever using mostly the same arsenal we've come to know and love.
Moving forward, Aldridge said in a Bleacher Report feature that he wants to focus on his left hand.
I feel like my right hand is pretty good in getting to the middle, making plays and doing up-and-unders. But I feel like if I can have a consistent left-hand jump hook or left-hand drive, that's going to take my game to the next level.
Next level would be right. Pretty much the only way people handle Aldridge is to overplay him to the middle and force him into his fadeaway. That works, sort of, but trading more of those fadeaways for spin moves and easy jump hooks could make him even more unguardable.
What goes less noticed is the job he does on the other end. His elite size for the power forward position bothers people. He combines that with active hands and good positioning to limit opponents to a paltry 0.67 points per possession. That's second best in the league (minimum 100 possessions). Only Blake Griffin really came close to matching Aldridge's efficiency on both ends. Given how many more possessions Aldridge spent on the block, it's fair to say he was the best post player in the league this season.
Speaking of things Aldridge doesn't get enough credit for, the guy is a great rebounder. Not only does he average over 10 rebounds a game, he dominates the offensive glass and rebounds his area better than almost anyone. LaMarcus secured 72.2% of his rebounding chances, defined as anytime Aldridge is within 3.5 feet of the rebound. That's fourth in the league (minimum 300 total rebounds). If he's near it, he's getting it. That's huge for the Blazers and the team rebounded much better with him on the floor as a result.
LaMarcus' job in the pick and roll was a little shakier. The Blazers' defensive philosophy is sound, dropping back and encouraging mid-range jumpers. However, lots of teams employ this strategy and few drop as far back as Aldridge and company. This gives opposing ball handlers more room to operate and puts a lot of pressure on Portland's guards -- pressure they haven't been able to handle yet. Aldridge allowed 0.88 points per possession when defending the roll man, right around league average. By no means is LaMarcus bad at defending the pick and roll, but he's not exemplary like he is in other areas. The team's struggles to contain pick and rolls falls partly on his shoulders.
Ideally, Aldridge could mix up his pick and roll coverages, dropping against some matchups and hedging others. It's unclear if this is a decision by the coaching staff or a limitation to Aldridge's game but some matchups are more difficult because the Blazers can only defend one way. They can only drop.
Unless they switch. Another thing LaMarcus doesn't get enough credit for is being one of the few bigs who can defend the post at an elite level and contain guards along the perimeter. His exceptional mobility also helps him defend rangier, quicker bigs like Ryan Anderson. He can blow up small ball matchups by competently checking small forwards on one end and taking them down to the block on the other. This gives LaMarcus an interesting versatility. He does some things few others can but almost never hedges, something many other bigs can do.
Even if hedging is never a part of Aldridge's game, the ability to change the level he meets opposing ball handlers would go a long way to pressuring opposing teams. Marc Gasol almost never hedged but he picked up Lillard near the three point line making it difficult for Damian to get to his pullup. Aldridge could do something similar in certain matchups. This is a team decision as it changes the extent of weakside help that's required but it's something to look for next season. Given his success switching pick and rolls, he should be capable of meeting guards higher up the court and this would give the Blazers a new defensive wrinkle they lacked this season.
By the numbers, Aldridge isn't a great pick and roll player on offense either. He scored 0.83 points per possession as the roll man. That puts him right between Roy Hibbert and Zaza Pachulia in the rankings. This isn't necessarily surprising given his propensity to pop for long two's. However, it misses the hub effect he has on the offense.
The threat of Aldridge's mid-range jumper creates an easy way for the Blazers to swing the ball from side to side and force defenders into tough closeouts. It's a relatively simple pass to hit Aldridge once he's popped. This forces weakside defenders to stunt, bothering LaMarcus and then recovering to their men if Aldridge swings the ball. LaMarcus took the highest number of spot up attempts of any big man in the league and nailed a solid 46% of them. These recoveries are difficult and the extra movement from the defender can be enough to help Portland's wings beat their men off the dribble, get into the paint, and keep the offense humming.
This effect can be most easily seen in the on/off numbers. Aldridge had the largest effect on the Blazers' offense, except for Arron Afflalo. Afflalo's time with the Blazers loosely matched the stretch when they started to get their offense going during the second half of the season, so his numbers are a bit inflated. LaMarcus was certainly Portland's most important offensive player this season.
Probably the biggest change Aldridge made to his game was moving some of those spot up attempts out to the three point line. Aldridge shot seven times as many threes as last year and made a career high 35% of them. Interestingly, he took about the same number of long two's in the 20-24 foot range but traded 15-19 footers for threes. Even so, his effective field goal percentage rose as a result and his continued progression out to the three point line is another to thing to watch for.
All of that is to say, while Aldridge might not be the league's most efficient scorer, he's still the most important player in one of the league's best offenses. This becomes obvious anytime he misses a game.
On January 19th, LaMarcus tore a ligament in his left hand. At the time, the Blazers were 30-11, comfortably ahead in the division. They would lose two in a row to the Suns and Celtics before Aldridge made the courageous decision to postpone surgery and return against the Washington Wizards. Not only would he return, he would string together three monster performances in a row.
Besides his first two games against Houston, those three games are probably the most memorable stretch of his career. Aldridge took a huge risk, gutted through significant pain and somehow came out a better player. Both his shooting and rebounding percentages actually rose after the injury. Aldridge didn't just give what he could. He gave everything the Blazers needed.
Without Matthews, Afflalo, or Wright the odds were stacked against the Blazers versus a Grizzlies team whose defensive performance against Golden State might indicate the first round had more to do with the Grizzlies' brilliance than the Blazers' struggles. However, a few themes remained true.
Against Houston, Aldridge found success in the post and in isolation, winning games, forcing doubles and then passing out of them. Against the Spurs and Memphis, they used bigger players to bother him on the block and hedged screens to contest his pick and pop jumpers. This limited two of LaMarcus' strengths and put him in a four on three with the ball in his hands.
When a team aggressively hedges a pick and roll, they double team the ball handler for a short period of time. If he can pass the ball to the rolling big man, they have a brief four on three (because two defenders are guarding the one ball handler). It's the big's job to attack and make the right read before the defense can recover.
Aldridge has never been a good passer off the dribble or in the pick and roll, and the Blazers have struggled to burn teams in those situations. In that same Bleacher Report article, LaMarcus said he thought he was a better passer out of the post than in pick and rolls and I have to agree. It's a part of why Portland struggled against teams like Memphis and the Clippers all year.
As is typical in basketball, the Blazers were as successful as their best player and their identity as a team mirrors their star's strengths and weaknesses. They play through the post and out of the pick and roll but struggle when teams trap. They play solid defense in isolation and rebound well but could improve against the pick and roll. They're one of the best in the league but are just on the fringes of the elite. You could say all the same things about Aldridge.
In some sense, LaMarcus' season was a confirmation of what we already knew. However, he also showed some new wrinkles that should give fans hope that he, and by extension the team, can continue to improve and reach the mountain top. His three point shooting is a big deal. Improving his left and passing could take the offense to a whole new level. His mobility could help the team increase its defensive pressure and control pick and rolls better. The potential is all there. It's just a question of if Aldridge wants to continue on this journey.
If he does, then this season will go down as the year he sacrificed his health and his financial security for the good of the team. It will go down as the season when he chose to be a Blazer for life and took a big step towards being the franchise's greatest player. If he leaves, this season will be a final goodbye. A heartwarming campaign that was fleeting and came up short. Everything changes with his decision, including the legacy and interpretation of his season.
It may not be fair, but that's what happens when you're the biggest animal in the room.
*All stats are from stats.NBA.com