“The king stay the king.”
Those are loaded words from D’Angelo Barksdale as he explains the nuances of chess to Bodie and Wallace, but he could easily be referring to the MVP crown, which has belonged to LeBron James four out of the last five seasons. This year, as usual, it’s LeBron’s race to lose, but there’s a whole new crop of precocious upstarts looking to unseat the throne, not the least of whom are Indiana’s Paul George, who continues his meteoric rise to stardom, and perhaps more surprisingly, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, who has quietly lead his team to the franchise’s best start in more than two decades.
LeBron’s perennial stranglehold on the award notwithstanding, the debate about MVP-worthiness is still murky territory. Is it the best all-around player in the league? Is it the best player on the league’s best team? Is it the player who is most instrumental to their team’s success? The proliferation of advanced stats certainly mitigates this process, but to many hardwood pundits, the precise criteria remain unclear.
Nonetheless, MVP arguments often (rightly) revolve around the candidate’s quantifiable value to his team. In Aldridge’s case, the Blazers are statistically a better team with him on the court: they have a plus-10.5 net rating when he plays versus when he sits. Aldridge is also posting career-highs in points and rebounds (23.4 points, 10.9 rebounds) this season, while logging just as many minutes as any other superstar in this discussion, and he’s arguably the best power forward in the league right now (getting the nod over positional counterpart Kevin Love, given the Timberwolves’ spiraling season, not to mention the fact that Love has never played a single playoff game).
Beyond the stat lines, Aldridge, and the Blazers in general, have become more adept at reading defenses and reacting quicker and more deliberately, and that increased court awareness has translated into better looks for the team’s perimeter shooters. As a result, the Blazers boast the No. 1-rated offense in the league, with their star player Aldridge currently ranked among the top 10 in both scoring (tied for sixth) and rebounding (seventh). He’s accomplished all this while sharing the spotlight with budding superstar point guard Damian Lillard (another fringe MVP candidate) and the Blazers’ hot-shooting wingmen Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum.
“It’s an honor,” Aldridge said recently about his recent MVP campaign. “It shows that my body of work is talking for itself. But it’s not just about me. It’s about my team, and we’ve been playing well this year, and I’ve been trying to do my best at leading them, but, you know, it’s an honor.”
At least some of the credit for Aldridge’s improved play belongs to head coach Terry Stotts, who is running more sophisticated offensive sets this season (light years ahead of his predecessor Nate McMillan’s) that open up more options and require a higher level of decision-making on the part of his star big man. It’s become increasingly clear that Stotts is a closet analytics wonk; otherwise, the Blazers wouldn’t run so many sequences designed to hit open wing players strategically positioned along the most efficient spots around the arc.
“They’re a very good offensive team. In many ways, it’s like looking in the mirror just in terms of how they can beat you so many different ways,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said during Miami’s visit to Portland on Saturday. “They can beat you with Aldridge in the post, his pick-and-flairs, their three-point shooting, good ball movement. They’re off to a great start. Once you get into the film, you see it’s not an accident. It’s not an anomaly. They’ve built something good here. They’re confident.”
Stotts is obviously aware of the advanced metrics showing that the midrange jump shot is the least efficient shot on the floor. Yet the league’s very best players (LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, etc.) still have it in their repertoire, and it’s a shot that’s always been Aldridge’s bread and butter. Stotts’ offensive schemes are nimble enough to use this to their advantage. More than 60 percent of Aldridge’s shots come from midrange, and he shoots right around 44 percent from this area, which is above league average.
The Blazers’ offense typically runs through Aldridge, whether they’re posting him up early in the shot clock or running a high screen-and-roll with him and Lillard that creates all sorts of headaches for defenses. He especially likes operating from the left block, where he causes nightmares for defenders with his arsenal of turnaround jump shots going toward the baseline, running hooks in the lane, and step-back jumpers near the elbow.
“LaMarcus is just doing the same thing this year as he did last year,” Wesley Matthews said.
Only he’s doing it better, more consistently, and under more scrutiny.