HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The early season controversy that swirled around LaMarcus Aldridge and his shot selection has cooled over the last six weeks, to no coincidence, as the Portland Trail Blazers have reversed a rough start into a 14-5 record since Dec. 1.
Terry Stotts imported his “flow” offense from his Dallas assistant days and it requires Aldridge to often begin offensive sets at the elbow, a la Dirk Nowitzki, and to shoot a lot of mid-range jumpers.
In previous seasons under former Blazers coach Nate McMillan, Aldridge was the primary post man and McMillan ran loads of isolation sets through him, the kind that grinded away at Nowitzki when Avery Johnson called the plays, and eventually led Dallas to trade for point guard Jason Kidd and fire Johnson and hire Rick Carlisle.
J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard serve as the primary post man in Stotts’ scheme, giving Aldridge more freedom to roam and and pull his defender out and, yes, take far more shots from outside of the paint, where Aldridge does possess one of the prettier fadeaways.
Still, initially, the result was a drastically lowered shooting percentage and plenty of skepticism.
“In some ways they’re similar, obviously their size, they both have a great touch, they’re unique for their position,” Stotts said earlier this season, comparing Aldridge to Nowitzki. “LaMarcus is a great block player, but if I can get him on the elbow a little bit more — it will probably take time to get him as comfortable as Dirk is up there — but that’s one way, utilizing him in spacing the floor a little bit, not necessarily to the 3-point line, but he’s a good 18- to 20-foot shooter.
“So LaMarcus is his own player and he’s his own man, but I think there are some similarities that we can take advantage of.”
Through 33 games, according to NBA.com advanced stats, Aldridge has attempted 352 mid-range shots. In 55 games last season, he took 494 and in 81 games in 2010-11, he shot 564. On pace to put up 875 in 82 games this season, it is obviously a steep rise and a significant change to his game that has required time to adjust.
Overall, Aldridge’s shooting percentage continues to rise from the lower 40s of the early season. He’s still at a career-low 46.4 percent (he was at 50 percent or better the last two seasons and never below 48.4 percent), but Aldridge actually is making the mid-range jumper at the same rate he has the last two seasons, right at about 41 percent. This season, he’s down a few percentage points on shots in the restricted area under the rim and in the paint, contributing to his lower overall shooting percentage.
And, the Blazers just keep winning, their latest conquest being Thursday’s come-from-behind victory over Miami.
With point guard Damian Lillard putting a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year Award, the Blazers have put together a four-game win streak, including road wins over the Knicks and Grizzlies, to improve to a season-best five games over .500 at 20-15.
They’re doing it primarily with a starting five that all averages double-digit scoring and with little help from arguably the lightest bench in the league.
Aldridge is on an All-Star pace once again, leading the Blazers in scoring at 20.6 points a game, about a one-point dropoff from the past two seasons, and is second in rebounding at 8.6.
Portland’s schedule isn’t terribly unmanageable moving through January, but things get trickier starting tonight with another road game at Golden State followed by Oklahoma City at home and Denver on the road. Two games against the Clippers come later this month.
For now, skepticism has cooled as Aldridge and the Blazers have grown more comfortable in Stotts’ system.