The Josh Smith backup center era apparently ended before Monday night's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Coach Doc Rivers said to Smith something along the lines of "we're going a different direction." The new direction led to University of Kansas product and NBA journeyman, Cole Aldrich. This season, Aldrich had yet to play more than seven minutes in a game, with zero meaningful. With Smith no longer an option, Aldrich became the primary backup center. Aldrich played 14 minutes, and did "what we needed him to do, " said Griffin. Aldrich did nothing exceptional, but what was special was his ability to shine in his role.
Labeled as a slow, prodding center, Aldrich stepped up a little higher than usual on a Kevin Durant-Enes Kanter pick-and-roll. Kanter nicely switched the side of the screen, catching Paul out of position. Durant rubbed off Kanter and met Aldrich. Cole used his 7-foot 5-inch wingspan to poke the ball away from Durant, igniting a fastbreak for Los Angeles.
Before the season, the Clippers adopted a modern approach to ball screen defense - have the big protect the paint, while the guard fights over the screen taking away the three point shot. DeAndre Jordan's taken the strategy to the extreme this year, conceding wide-open midrange shots. These shots are the least inefficient statistically speaking, but have a strong correlation with team success. To open the game, the Thunder had over 50-percent of their shots occur from the 8-foot to 24-foot range. The Thunder were not converting early, but had plenty of open shots.
When Aldrich checked in, perhaps he recognized the Thunder attempting these unimpeded shots and decided to take matters into his own hands. Perhaps Aldrich was just energized getting meaningful minutes for the first time. Whatever the reasoning, Aldrich forced the ball handler (Durant) to hesitate. Usually, against the Clippers with a traditional center, ball handlers come off the screen with nobody within 6 feet.
Early in the second, again Aldrich guards a pick-and-roll a little higher than usual. Dion Waiters comes off a Kanter screen, with Aldrich close enough to force Waiters to waver off the screen. As Waiters probes, Aldrich spreads his massive wings, minimizing the passing window - a little detail changing the dynamic of the play.
When Smith played backup center, the Clippers switched a lot of ball screens, a style usually associated with a small ball lineup. But Aldrich isn't a small ball center. He is a traditional, orthodox big man. He's been coached the same way as Jordan. For Aldrich to adeptly corral ball-screens so far away from the basket is huge for the Clippers smaller second unit, assuming Smith won't play power forward next to him.
Also, sidenote, shout out to Pablo Prigioni for the solid secondary rotation at the end. The Clippers give up plenty of offensive rebounds when the big steps over for helps on the drive and the opposite wing doesn't body the man under the basket. Here Prigioni recognized the help early and helped the helper.
The same possession, the Thunder run a play from the HORNS set. DJ Augustin came off the screen from Steven Adams. Aldrich, again, stepped out a little higher than Jordan would. Augustin tried to utilize his speed to get to the basket, but Aldrich slid his feet well, kept pace and blocked the shot.
With Cole stepping higher, there's a fear of leaving the bucket open, especially with him as the primary rim protector. If Cole can maintain one of his primary duties of protecting the rim while stepping out to screens all the way at the elbow, then the Clippers really did find a Christmas miracle.
The previous GIF pitted Aldrich against Augustin, not exactly a dominant scorer in the paint. In this GIF, Aldrich rejected Westbrook at the rim in the same fashion. Cole minded the midrange shot. Recognizing how far out Aldrich moved, the dynamic Westbrook exploded to the rim. Aldrich slid well and blocked the shot, again, this time against an elite player.
At the start of the second quarter, Aldrich showed what he adds to the Clippers bench unit. The Clippers started the possession with a HORNS set. Prigioni passed to Wes Johnson, then set a down screen for Jamal Crawford in the corner. Crawford came off the screen, got a handoff and then another screen from Aldrich around the free throw line.
Look at the subtle movement of Aldrich before the screen. He shuffled his feet, never setting until Crawford's defender neared. Once the two became close, Aldrich set his feet and put a body on the defender.
Such a tiny detail really allows for a role player to become valuable. Aldrich did a great job providing Crawford a little more space, but his nuanced approach didn't end with the screen. Crawford didn't get the look he wanted and swung the ball back to Johnson. As the ball moved, Aldrich sealed Kanter so well and so deep in the paint, while calling for the ball with one hand.
The guards didn't notice Aldrich, but he had unbelievable position. If Aldrich continues to fight this well for positioning, he'll get fed more in the interior.
Following a defensive rebound, Aldrich did his version of sprinting down the floor. By working so hard, Aldrich was the first player down the court on the fastbreak. By doing so, he forced Enes Kanter to guard him, creating a driving lane for Lance Stephenson. As Lance beats his man, Kanter now has leave Aldrich, standing underneath the bucket. Lance finds Cole for the easy layup.
Aldrich isn't the most naturally gifted basketball player. Against the Thunder, Aldrich succeeded by doing a lot of work early - creating opportunities that shouldn't have existed, both offensively and defensively. Although he hasn't played much early this season, he'll play later if he continues his hard work and detail focused approach.