Who is LaMarcus Aldridge?
As many of us know, basketball is an evolving sport. Since the birth of the NBA, much has changed. Luckily for viewers, players no longer sport mutton chops, afros, thigh-high shorts or Technicolor uniforms. And much like fashion, strategies of the game have advanced as well. Since the arrival of the three-point line in 1979, the game has gradually evolved to become a quicker-paced game focused on three-point shots, fast break possessions, and statistical efficiency. In recent times, analysts have determined that the most inefficient shot in the sport is the midrange jumper. It makes sense — why settle for a jump shot when you could easily layup or dunk the ball? If not, moving a few feet out makes the shot worth an additional point. As time has progressed, NBA teams have slowly turned to this strategy deemed “Moreyball” — after Houston Rockets owner Daryl Morey.
Thus, with new advancements in statistical analysis and the subsequent rise of Moreyball-esque strategies, midrange jumpers and technical, footwork-based post moves have become a lost art. Even the Memphis Grizzlies, known for their grit, grind and hustle have opted to change and adapt to the new ways, electing to add effective three shooters Jeff Green and Courtney Lee to their starting lineup. Those who stray away from said strategy are typically among the worst teams in the league. However, a few players keep the lost arts alive, one pretty post move and one silky midrange jumper at a time. LaMarcus Aldridge is the epitome of this dying breed. He lacks the flashy style of superstars like LeBron James or Russell Westbrook, but his technical skills and knowledge of the fundamentals separate him from the rest as an extremely interesting anomaly. To a casual basketball fan he may not be the most enthralling player to watch, but to those who have studied the game, he’s an absolute pleasure. After living in the shadows of his idols, Aldridge has emerged as an exception — but this time for the better.
LaMarcus Nurae Aldridge was born on July 19th, 1985 in Dallas, Texas to Georgia and Marvin Aldridge — a local basketball legend. LaMarcus was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a rare heart condition. Shortly after he was born, his heart stopped; he stopped breathing and he was technically dead for a few seconds. However, thanks to the help of doctors he was resurrected, as he battled his way into his first breaths. Throughout his childhood, Aldridge struggled with the disease, commonly experiencing what he calls “flutters” in which his heart rate would spontaneously speed up. As a result, LaMarcus was awkward, shy and unathletic.
Life didn’t get any easier for Aldridge later in childhood either. His father Marvin had a fairly serious drinking problem, which complicated his family life. And to escape from the chaos in his household, LaMarcus turned to the same game that made his father a temporary hometown hero — basketball. Urged by his older brother LaVonte, LaMarcus would go to the playground daily, to play in pick up games and practice his wobbly shot. However, basketball was a humiliating endeavor for Aldridge as he was the unskilled, clumsy kid who was picked last on the playgrounds. Incidents resulting from his heart condition would often leave him lightheaded and gasping for air. The kids laughed, heckled and mocked LaMarcus’ condition. And to make things worse, his brother always seemed to be the star. LaMarcus lived in his brother’s shadow from a young age. However, LaMarcus took the humiliation and turned it to motivation, emerging quickly into the light.
Thanks to LaVonte’s help, LaMarcus eventually developed a more consistent jumper and finesse filled footwork on the low block. Soon it was LaMarcus, not LaVonte who was the better player. And by the time he enrolled in Seagoville High School, Aldridge was seen as an asset on both sides of the court. However, Dallas basketball was dominated by Lincoln High School’s Chris Bosh. Throughout high school, Aldridge found himself in a familiar position — on the fringes of Chris Bosh’s stardom.
After going head to head with Bosh his freshman year, Aldridge solidified himself as the second best forward in the Dallas region. But second best wasn’t enough. Aldridge dedicated the offseason before his sophomore year to avidly study Bosh’s game film, looking for any potential weaknesses. Additionally, Aldridge used his free time to add more moves to his post game, and bulked up, adding more muscle.
By his junior year, Aldridge had transitioned from the gangly, uncoordinated boy into a man. And by his senior year, Aldridge proved himself to be an extremely dedicated student, both on and off the court, as he was named the Dallas ISD Scholar Athlete of the Year Award, and the 4A high school player of the year (source). Additionally, Aldridge was named an All-American and participated in the Olympics for the Under 18 team. His intelligence is an instrumental part of the game, as he provides a unique level of court awareness and leadership. Unfortunately, Aldridge never had a chance to shine in the postseason, as Chris Bosh and the Lincoln High School Tigers won the Texas state championship following an incredible 40–0 season.
Thanks to his fantastic high school career, Aldridge was ranked as a top five center in the nation and top twenty player. Letters poured in from colleges nationwide, all begging Aldridge to join their teams. Aldridge eventually decided to stay in state, electing to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
During his two years at the University of Texas, Aldridge established himself as one of the most effective midrange shooters in recent memory. Despite minor cardiac episodes, Aldridge battled hard and perfected his post moves to become an extremely valuable asset to the Longhorns. His freshman year, Aldridge struggled and his shot was far from perfect, often straying to the right.
During his sophomore year, Aldridge suffered a hip injury and was unable to walk for a significant time. Aldridge used this time to fix the kinks in his shot, and spent large stretches sitting on a stool, practicing his shooting form with his right hand. Additionally, Aldridge developed exceptional upper body strength crucial in battling through tough defense in the low post.
Upon the return from his injury, Aldridge’s shot was seemingly flawless and NBA scouts took notice. In the 2006 draft, he was selected by the Portland Trailblazers second overall, behind only seven foot Italian sensation Andrea Bargnani. Aldridge arrived at the tail end of the “Jail Blazers” era in Portland, on a team, which has been dubbed “the worst behaved team in professional sports history”. Rasheed Wallace commonly lead the league in technical fouls, Zach Randolph broke a teammate’s eye socket in practice, Shawn Kemp dealt with cocaine and alcohol abuse before heading to rehab, and many other teammates received multiple DUIs and Marijuana charges (source). But in the midst of all of the disciplinary issues, Aldridge brought about a cultural change in Portland, establishing himself as the ideal citizen, staying out of legal trouble and maintaining an approachable yet low-key personality. And in the years since the “Jail Blazers” era, Aldridge has undergone another resurrection, this time returning basketball to the days of old…
As of this year, I see Aldridge as one of the most complete big men in the league. That might seem like a bold statement, as players such as Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love (despite his smaller role this year) seem to be among the consensus. However, Anthony Davis is still young and lacks playoff experience, Serge Ibaka lacks a consistent post up game, and Dirk, although still effective, is creeping towards the twilight stages of his career. Leaving us with LaMarcus Aldridge. This shot chart says it all:
As you can see, LMA can score from most spots on the floor. His favorite shot is the midrange jumper, which he hit at a rate of about 43% last season. This season, he’s also added a solid 3 to his arsenal. He still takes it somewhat rarely (1.4/game) but it’s there when he’s wide open. In last year’s playoffs, LMA exploded in one of the most phenomenal shooting efforts in recent playoff memory. Let’s take a look at his series against HOU:
During last years’ playoffs, Aldridge solidified himself as an exceptionally well-rounded player. When matched up with the defensive prowess of superstar center Dwight Howard, Aldridge had two of the best games of his career, scoring from essentially every spot on the floor.
EXAMINING THE MIDRANGE
What’s most surprising is that LMA thrives as an anomaly. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition — he excels where he should not. His game relies on the midrange, which is the most inefficient shot in basketball — worth just 0.8 points per shot. If he were to take a few steps back, his percentage would drop, but it would be worth 1.08 points per shot. If he were to drive toward the hoop, it would be worth 1.11 points per attempt.
Why, then, does Aldridge not just drive into the paint? Why not just step back and take a three? After all, Aldridge takes the most statistically inefficient shot more than any player in the league. The simple answer is he’s extremely good at it. Aldridge has made his trademark midrange jumper at one of the highest rates in league and has done so for the past three seasons:
Although the midrange shot is discouraged in the league, Aldridge’s efficiency makes it almost as valuable as stepping back and shooting threes. According to NBA statistics, a 45% midrange shooter scores about as many points as a 30% three shooter (source).
Seeing as Aldridge shoots around 30% from three and 43% from midrange in his career, would it actually benefit him to step outside of the arc? This isn’t a simple answer. Let’s do some math to figure this out.
If Aldridge took 8 midrange shots a game (not unreasonable, as he averages about 9 2PA/game), he would cash in on 3.44 of them, resulting in 6.88 points. On the other hand, if he took 8 threes a game (although he only shoots 1.4/game this season), he would cash in on 2.4 of them, resulting in 7.2 points. However, league leader Steph Curry is the only player who shoots 8 threes a game. So expecting 8 threes a game from Aldridge is a huge stretch.
Let’s decrease the numbers a little bit to see if it still makes a difference. If he instead shot 7 threes a game, he would cash in on an average of 2.1 a game, resulting in 6.3 points. If he took the same amount from midrange, he’d cash in on an average of 3.01 a game, resulting in just 6.02 points. Not a big difference, and that would once again require Aldridge to shoot a ridiculous amount of threes to surpass his current average. Thus, Aldridge should probably stick with his midrange game, unless he significantly increases his three shooting. Statistically, it would only help his game minimally. I have summarized the following below in a chart.
It should also be noted that without his presence near the paint the team would suffer offensively. Part of Portland’s success the past few seasons has arisen from their rebounding. So far this year, the Trailblazers rank 2nd in rebounds, both total and per game, 1st defensively and in the middle of the pack offensively at 15th. However, it should be noted that this has been accomplished with center Robin Lopez missing significant playing time this season. Last season, with a healthy Lopez, the team ranked 3rd in offensive rebounding. Thus, if LaMarcus Aldridge strayed from his position in the post and midrange, the team’s offense might falter significantly.
In addition to his midrange shot, LMA has another rare skill in today’s game — a complete arsenal of post moves.
What’s possibly most unusual about Aldridge is how frequently he’s utilized. Gone are the days when an offense has significant low post players, nevertheless runs through one, but Aldridge once again remains the exception. Among players that had played at least half the season up to this point (to exclude outliers), LaMarcus Aldridge ranks 7th in the NBA at post up frequency at 36.6%. And out of players with at least 250 post up possessions this season — those being primarily post centric players — Aldridge ranks 12th in FG% at 45.6% and 4th in points per position at 0.97. Also, it should be noted that his TO% in those situations is the second lowest, at just 7.4%. Thanks to the consistency of Aldridge, Portland so far is third in offensive post up possessions, third in post up frequency, third in points per post up possession and fourth in post up FG% in the NBA. Simply put, Aldridge is an absolute monster in the post and the team statistics reflect it.
Thus, Aldridge can provide quite a nightmarish matchup for opposing defenses. I noticed it right away upon watching Aldridge for the first time. I was stunned — “he can do it all” I said to myself. Aldridge can post up efficiently — either scoring by moving inside for an easy layup or dunk, or face up and shoot a fadeaway. Additionally, he can effectively score catch and shoot in the midrange, or move outside and hit a three when necessary. And he isn’t too bad off the drive either. While it’s exciting to see LeBron James’ freakishly athletic dunks, James Harden’s killer crossovers and John Wall’s creative passing, I found LaMarcus Aldridge’s game to be the most fascinating in last year’s playoffs. While others have been essentially reinventing the game with their athleticism, Aldridge has been revitalizing the game with his technique-driven fundamentals. Yet he’s overlooked, which I find shocking.
The craziest part is that this season, Aldridge has been dealing with a torn ligament in his left thumb for approximately a month. Aldridge selflessly put the team’s interests before his own, and opted to postpone surgery in hopes of a strong playoff push. In the 15 games since his thumb injury, Aldridge has managed to average 22.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, all while shooting 49.2% from the field and 81.3% from the free throw line. Not too shabby.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, what can we expect from Aldridge? Thus far this season, the Trailblazers have dealt with their fair share of injuries. Robin Lopez missed almost 30 games with a broken hand; Thomas Robinson, another promising big man, was traded to the 76ers. Three point shooter and defensive specialist Wes Matthews went down with an Achilles injury just a few weeks ago. After the Blazers brought in Aaron Afflalo as Matthews’ replacement, he strained his shoulder just in time for the playoffs and is expected to miss up to two weeks. And just this week, third string two guard CJ McCollum and small forward Nicolas Batum went down with injuries against the Thunder. Which leaves the dynamic duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in charge of a devastated Blazers squad entrenched in turmoil. The Blazers have locked up a fourth seed in the Western Conference, but we’re yet to see how they’ll fare under pressure in the playoffs. Their weaker squad last year had a strong performance against the Rockets, and put up a surprisingly solid effort against eventual champions San Antonio. But who knows how much the absence of a strong 3 & D specialist will affect them when they reach the postseason.
Much of the pressure will now lie directly on the shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge — who is far too familiar with this situation. A few seasons ago, when the Blazers had future franchise superstars in Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, their careers were cut short by freak genetic conditions. By the time Roy gained a spot in the spotlight, the cartilage in his knee had actually eroded, leaving him in shambles. The last few years of his career, Roy was running almost literally bone on bone, and by his seventh season in the NBA, he was forced to retire. Oden, a generational talent at center faced an almost an identical fate. After a series of knee surgeries, he retired at just 27. Aldridge has dealt with his fair share of health concerns as well. At the end of his rookie year, Aldridge had minor surgery to monitor some issues associated with his condition. And just prior to the 2011–2012 season Aldridge once again underwent surgery to correct his faulty heart. However, his heart problems seemed to have disappeared in the past few years, leaving him able as ever to face any challenges that come his way.
In both situations, Aldridge was left with no other truly consistent scoring threats, and he was to pick up the pieces and salvage whatever success he could along the way. LaMarcus thrives in these situations and has averaged 22.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks, all while shooting 45.7% in those playoff series’.
Hopefully, we see the same high level of play and intensity out of Aldridge this postseason.
Through and through, Aldridge is an anomaly. In a game that is evolving to eliminate his style of play, Aldridge is thriving, becoming one of the top scorers in the league. As the NBA has gained traction and popularity, the league has invested more money into analytics, which have allowed us to understand more about the game. Ironically, it is this technological evolution that both pushes teams to follow Moreyball and allows us to understand the opposite strategy, which makes Aldridge so successful.
Aldridge is a successful player in a way he shouldn’t be, just as he’s living a life he shouldn’t be. Since his miraculous resurrection on the day of his birth, he’s provided us with yet another — the resurrection of the forgotten techniques. While most fans will be awestruck by the flash, glamour and excitement of possible stars of the sports future, I find solace in LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the league’s forgotten.
-Charlie Wooley, FanJam Featured Writer
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