LaMarcus Aldridge takes a lot of mid-range jump shots. In 2013-14, nobody made or took close to as many. Even though he’s an excellent shooter from this distance, relative to league average, these are still not especially efficient shots. The equivalent 3PG% for Aldridge’s midrange shots, in terms of points per shot, would be around 28.1%, a recognizably poor rate.
But substituting Aldridge’s midrange attempts for 3-point shots isn’t necessarily as simple as taking a few steps back. While that would more than likely greatly help Aldridge’s individual efficiency (which middling in 2013-14, though he grades out much better once his absurdly low propensity to turn the ball over is factored in), would Aldridge shooting more threes help the Blazer’s overall team offense?
Looking at a breakdown of Aldridge’s shooting locations in 2013-14, it’s not simply a matter of taking one more step out. His “office” is pretty well-established at 17 feet from the free throw line area, to the left elbow/high post, to the left baseline short corner.
From this area, Aldridge is a threat both to stick the jumper, or drive to the basket.
Aldridge’s odd positioning on the court forces the defense to some odd decisions. He’s not in an location to be easily doubled from the perimeter or the weakside, especially when the Blazers give him the entire half of the floor to work with:
Above, once Dorell Wright (here at the top of the key having just dumped the ball into Aldridge) cuts through the paint, the remaining Spurs defenders will have a tougher time helping and recovering to Aldridge in the high post than they might on the low block, and with no offensive player on the left corner or wing, Aldridge will have a simple pass out of any double team:
Diaw’s attempted dig down allows a simple kick out to Wes Matthews, who relocates to the open strong side wing for an open three.
Further, Aldridge not having to drive the whole way from the arc to the basket almost certainly helps prevent his dribble from being picked. His low turnover rate might come as a surprise given the ungainliness of his ball-handling: Aldridge’s height and erect posture mean he keeps an unusually high dribble, normally an invitation for defenders swipe at the ball for steals. But since he can get to the basket from his “office” in one or two comfortable dribbles, even when starting with his back to the basket, the mid-post set up reduces the likelihood of this pressure.
Finally, Aldridge being 15 feet away from the basket rather than 23 feet for the majority of offensive possessions makes him substantially more of an offensive rebounding threat. In fact, as he’s moved further away from the basket over his career, Aldridge has dropped off in this area. (Click here for interactive version of this graph.)
Moving even further from the hoop to shoot more threes would only exacerbate this trend. Note Kevin Love’s drop in OREB% from 11.6% in 2011-12 to a career low 8.5% in 2013-14 as his average shot distance (12.3 feet to 14.3) and three point attempt rate increased (26.6% of his total FGA to 35.5%). Offensive rebounding was a large part of Portland’s offensive proficiency last season, as they ranked third in the league in team offensive rebounding rate.
That’s simply by the numbers. Looking at the X’s and O’s the Portland offense would require substantial alteration to incorporate more threes for Aldridge, raising the question of whether this would crowd Matthews, Damian Lillard and Nic Batum’s ability to get off a high volume of quality three point looks. This visualization from Matt d’Anna at Nylon Calculus helps illustrate how little additional space there is around the arc in the Blazers most used lineup (note the visualization is flipped left to right for some reason, but the overall effect is the same):
Portland ran a majority of their half court offense out of a “horns” alignment, usually with Aldridge in his preferred spot on the left elbow:
From this basic alignment, Aldridge is often the axle around which the Blazers’ offense rotates. One preferred action is this simple two-man play between Aldridge and Lillard:
This is a simple looking action that actually gives Portland a ton of options, based on players moving around Aldridge. After Lillard enters the ball to Matthews on the left side, he runs a UCLA ball-side cut using Aldridge as a screen:
From there, Lillard can either cut to the basket for a layup, fake the basket cut and pop to the corner for 3 or use a downscreen from Aldridge at the elbow to return to the wing for 3:
This action is aided by the fact that Kevin Garnett, who would normally be responsible for “checking” Lillard’s cut to allow the defender to stay in contact with Lillard, feels that he can’t help off of Aldridge in that spot:
Garnett staying attached to Aldridge in this way sets up the final wrinkle in this play, which is Lillard reversing course and setting a back screen for Aldridge:
Aldridge cuts off the screen to receive the ball in a short corner post up (given the Dallas-based provenance of much of the Blazers offense, I like to call this the “Dirk Post” even though Nowitzki prefers the right side of the floor):
As shown above, Aldirdge actually misses a trick in this example – he has a clear line to the basket if he can catch the ball cleanly and spin over his right shoulder to the baseline. If, in the initial action, Aldridge had spaced to the top of the arc or wing as would be necessary to make himself a three point threat, neither this opportunity nor most of the options illustrated would have been available to Portland:
Lillard would not be able to either receive a downscreen from Aldridge nor set a back screen for him. Further, given that lower perceived threat of Aldridge in that area, Garnett might feel comfortable bumping Lillard’s initial cut a little harder, shutting down much of the initial action.
Similarly, the following staple action requires Aldridge to operate from the elbow rather than the top of the arc or at the left wing area above the break and outside the arc:
This play simply doesn’t function if Aldirdge is trying to find shots from downtown:
If Aldridge were in position (1), he couldn’t set the backscreen for Batum at the wing (as happens in the .gif above) since the additional distance traveled would make the play take too long to develop, and a screen at that location wouldn’t force Batum’s defender into the screen enough due to the extra spacing that would be on the floor. The top of the key (position 2) is also unavailable, because Lillard’s defender will prevent any pass to Aldridge for a shot.
Making that initial backscreen a threat is a key to this action working, as it forces Aldridge’s man to either help on the lob (as Ekpe Udoh does in the example above) or to stay connected to Aldridge, allowing a possible layup for the Portland cutter, as Joakim Noah opens the lane for Wes Matthews (#2) in the example below:
If Portland really wanted to get a 3-point shot from Aldridge after starting him at the elbow, Aldridge could pop to the wing after setting the backscreen:
This is certainly a viable option, often used by “stretch” bigs like Love or Ryan Anderson get themselves three point looks. But this would largely end the continuity of the play. If Aldridge receives the ball on the wing and doesn’t have an open look, the ball is stopped in his hands 25 feet from the basket, with around 12 seconds on the shot clock, and nothing else happening on the possession. If the pass isn’t available, Portland has to reset the offense with the shot clock running down and Lillard 27 feet from the hoop.
Instead, Portland takes advantage of how Aldridge’s man has helped on the first screen as they run the ensuing pick-and-roll at the top of the play:
Udoh is several steps late in defending the PnR, leaving the ballhandling Lillard in a very advantageous situation to attack:
As Aldridge pops out, this is probably the one point in the play where Aldridge would probably be best served by staying behind the arc rather than stepping into the free throw line area, which is what he ultimately decides to do:
However, given how much of Portland’s offense is geared around Aldridge’s ability to move involve himself in many areas of the floor by sticking to that 17-foot distance, it’s not hard to see why he wants and has perhaps been coached to return to his comfort zone in the midrange. There’s also his apparent lack of confidence in shooting 3-point shots: last year, he only attempted 15 of them, and made just three.
There are numerous other examples from Portland’s common sets where Aldridge could probably help his own efficiency by hunting three point shots. But, as is the case in the above illustrations, this could have deleterious effects on the ability of the Blazers’ offense, as a whole, to function at the high level they reached in 2013-14.