If you watched TNT's broadcast of the TrailBlazers win over the Heat last night, you may have heard a discussion regarding who is the best power forward in the NBA right now. Steve Kerr, the color analyst at the game, argued for LaMarcus Aldridge of the Blazers as the best in the league. Back in the studio in Atlanta, Kenny and Charles et al felt it was Blake Griffin.
These debates are ultimately pointless of course. People are entitled to their opinions, and there are thousands of factors that impact the discussion. If you were to ask Neil Olshey, who had a hand in drafting Blake Griffin for the Clippers and then built a contender around him as VP of Basketball Operations before becoming Portland's GM where he is now trying to guild a contender around Aldridge, he would give you a hyper-diplomatic answer that probably leaned a bit towards LMA, because that's his guy now. BUT, if you took him behind closed doors and offered him a straight up trade of Aldridge-for-Griffin, no strings attached? Of course he'd take Griffin.
It's still not fair of course. Griffin does plenty of things that help you win basketball games, but he also does things that put fans in seats, and Aldridge will never be able to compete with Griffin in generating Sports Center highlights. I'm not criticizing LaMarcus Aldridge here. I think he's a tremendous player, I really do. I am saying it's not easy making the case that he's better than Blake Griffin at this point.
Consider Kerr's argument last night. He pointed to four things that I can recall: (1) Aldridge is a better free throw shooter (81% to 63%); (2) Aldridge is one of two players in the league averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds; (3) you can iso Aldridge in the post late in a game; (4) Blake Griffin depends on Chris Paul to set him up.
Of those four arguments, it seems to me that one of them is valid. So if your overriding concern in a power forward is that he be able to shoot free throws, then by all means, pick Aldridge. Or better yet, pick Ryan Anderson, who shoots 89% from the line.
As for the others, well it's a stretch to argue for Aldridge based on scoring and rebounding considering that Griffin scores more and rebounds more on a per minute basis. In Portland, where the backup power forward is Jared Jeffries, Aldridge is playing almost 38 minutes per game, 13th most in the league. Griffin, with Lamar Odom capably backing him up, is averaging fewer than 32 minutes per game, a career low. That's almost 20% more playing time each game for Aldridge, so it stands to reason that he'd have higher per game averages.
Per 36 minutes played, Aldridge averages 19.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, while Griffin is at 19.8 points and 9.7 rebounds. Frankly, any argument in favor of Aldridge that even mentions rebounding is off base given that he is 43rd in the league in rebounds per minute among qualified forwards. Bottom line, using a points/rebounds argument for Aldridge over Griffin is a non-starter, since Griffin does both of those things better.
The argument that Aldridge is a better post up option late in a game seems more than a little arbitrary. Kerr didn't offer any specifics to back it up. Griffin actually scores a much higher percentage of his points near the rim than Aldridge and we know that he's a good post up option. Should the fact that the Clippers have a better end of game option in Chris Paul be held against Griffin?
The argument that Griffin depends on Paul to set him up is an interesting one. We've certainly seen many examples of big men who were very productive playing with a great point guard who dropped way off when they no longer had that point guard. Kenyon Martin without Jason Kidd and almost anyone on the Suns without Steve Nash immediately come to mind. The thing is, we know a bit about Blake Griffin without Chris Paul, and if you want to talk raw numbers (as the 20/8 argument seems to suggest) then Griffin's single most productive season in scoring and rebounding was his rookie season, before Paul joined the Clippers. So the idea that Griffin is wholly dependent on Paul is demonstrably false.
And of course this is just providing a rebuttal to Kerr's arguments for Aldridge, to say nothing of the positive arguments in favor of Griffin. Griffin gets significantly more steals and more assists than Aldridge, though Aldridge blocks more shots. But the obvious advantage for Griffin is in shooting percentage. Griffin is making 53% of his shots this season while Aldridge is making 46%. It seems like if free throw percentage is going to be Kerr's big differentiator then field goal percentage would at least get a mention.
Putting both of those percentage into real terms, if Griffin shot free throws as well as Aldridge, it would equate to one additional made free throw per game. If Aldridge shot field goals as well as Griffin, it would equate to one additional made basket. So that's a two point versus one point edge for Griffin.
Surprisingly, Kerr didn't base his argument on defense. Last season, I might very well have given the overall edge to Aldridge based on the fact that he's a better post defender than Griffin. But Blake has made such significant strides this season I no longer see an advantage for Aldridge on the defensive end. I think Aldridge is still better in the post, but Griffin has become a monster defending the pick and roll, particularly at blitzing the ball handler. And let's face facts -- with the Clippers ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency while the Blazers are ranked 24th, it would be tough to sell Aldridge as a significantly better defender this season.
Ultimately there are a lot of other players you'd have to consider in this discussion. A healthy Kevin Love puts up better numbers than anyone, though there's room to question the value of all those numbers and his defense leaves much to be desired. David Lee is another statistical juggernaut who plays little defense. Tim Duncan (if you consider him a four) is having one of his best seasons ever, but if age is a factor then the 37 year old Duncan and the 36 year old Kevin Garnett are probably ruled out. Zach Randolph? Chris Bosh? There are some good power forwards out there. And Griffin stacks up well against any of them.
I like LaMarcus Aldridge a lot as a player. His midrange shot is deadly, he's solid on the block -- he's one of the most complete scoring bigs in the NBA. He's clearly better than Blake Griffin at some things, perimeter shooting being the most obvious. But Steve Kerr is a former GM -- and it strikes me that if you asked all 30 GMs which player they'd rather have right now, no questions asked, no strings attached, we all know what they would respond. And yes, if Kerr were still the GM in Phoenix, he'd pick Griffin too.