Prior to practice at the Los Angeles Clippers training facility yesterday, I was talking with some beat writers, and one of them put forth an argument (one he'd heard elsewhere) that if Portland finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference, then LaMarcus Aldridge would have to be voted the Most Valuable Player in the league. Indeed, Aldridge has consistently appeared on MVP rankings this season (he is currently fifth on the MVP Ladder at NBA.com), as respect for his game increases around the league.
The irony is that Aldridge is having the least efficient scoring season of his career.
Just to close the loop on the MVP argument, the basic premise of Aldridge winning the MVP, pretty much regardless of records, is a non-starter. I've said it many times, but there are only two names in the MVP discussion at present and for the foreseeable future. It's been a while since anyone thought that Portland had a legitimate shot at best record in the West (if indeed anyone ever really thought that) and perhaps this idea was originally floated before Kevin Durant completely lost his mind, but as of now the MVP race is Durant in first, LeBron James in second, and everyone else might as well be playing baseball. So no, Aldridge is not an MVP candidate beyond the fact that voters fill out a ballot with five players on it, so they are forced to come up with three other names. I suppose Aldridge is a legitimate candidate to come in third.
Now let's get back to Aldridge's season. A little over a year ago, I wrote a post discussing the relative strengths of Aldridge and Blake Griffin. At the time I pointed out that Griffin was a better rebounder and shot a higher percentage. In fact, through his first seven seasons in the NBA, Aldridge averaged around eight rebounds per 36 minutes, a rather anemic total for a power forward. This season he's made a huge jump up to over 11 rebounds per 36 -- quite a bit better than Griffin. So good on him, that's a massive improvement and a fix to a problem with his game.
However, while his rebounding is at a career high level, his shooting percentages are all at career low levels. So while he's averaging a career high in points per game, that's strictly a result of more shots. Of the three and a half additional shots he takes every game, he's missing two of them.
Aldridge is a great mid-range jump shooter. Not a good mid-range jump shooter; not good for a 6'11 guy. Great. He's not Dirk Nowitzki, but he's about as close as it gets. However, there's a reason that long twos are the least efficient shot in basketball -- it's because long twos are the least efficient shot in basketball. Mid-range jump shots are just a bad deal from a risk-reward standpoint. Take a step out to the three point line, and the reward increases by 50%; move into the paint, and the risk decreases significantly.
Now, I'm not a Dave Berri-esque fanatic when it comes to shooting efficiency. I have a great appreciation for the value of shot creation, and I would say that my appreciation has increased significantly after watching a player like Jamal Crawford for 130 or so games. You're not going to get a great shot every trip down the floor, and someone has to take the tough shots; so it's great to have a player who can make a good percentage of difficult shots.
So let's consider Crawford for a moment. He has a reputation as a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer. He plays on the perimeter, he takes tough shots, he takes some bad shots. As a designated bench scorer for the last five seasons, his role has often been to carry weaker units and generate offense on his own. Crawford's career true shooting percentage (TS%, the best measure of scoring efficiency since it accounts for three pointers and free throws) is .529. In his first season with the Clippers, his TS% was .559 and so far this season it's .551. During his disastrous season in Portland, his TS% was .506. Dreadful, right? What a chucker.
LaMarcus Aldridge has a TS% of .512 this season.
Of the 37 NBA players averaging at least 18 points per game as of today, Aldridge is tied with Kemba Walker for last place in TS%. Tied for 36th out of 37. Rudy Gay has a TS% of .538. Those people pointing to LA's increased scoring this season should really be pointing to those extra shots he's taking, and asking if they should instead be going to Damian Lillard or Wes Mathews or Nic Batum -- or any of the seven other Blazers who score more efficiently that Aldridge. His .512 TS% is significantly worse than his team's .548 average. Again, I fully understand the value of shot creation, but it's not as if Lillard can't create shots also. So can we not agree that Aldridge's 22 points on 17 shots from two seasons ago was a better outcome than his 24 points on 21 shots this season? He's not having his best scoring season -- he's just having his highest volume scoring season.
Portland fans are going to read this, and they're going to get pissed off at me and call me a hater. I think Aldridge is terrific. I love the fact that he has gone from a mediocre rebounder to an elite rebounder this season. That was always my biggest complaint about him, and he has addressed it. He's a very good post defender and uses his length well on both ends of the floor. And I get the value of shot creation, I really do. But let's not ignore the fact that Aldridge has become the reigning king of the NBA's high-volume, low-efficiency scorers. Carmelo Anthony hasn't had a TS% lower than .512 since his rookie season. Russell Westbrook has looked down at .512 for four seasons now. For a little historical perspective, 23.9 points per game at a .512 TS% is a little less efficient than the 82-83 season of World B. Free -- 23.9 points at .519%. Aldridge is a terrific player, but he's certainly not having his best scoring season.