“The king stay the king.”
Those are loaded words from D’Angelo Barksdale as he explains the nuances of chess to Bodie and Wallace, but he could easily be referring to the MVP crown, which has belonged to LeBron James four out of the last five seasons. This year, as usual, it’s LeBron’s race to lose, but there’s a whole new crop of precocious upstarts looking to unseat the throne, not the least of whom are Indiana’s Paul George, who continues his meteoric rise to stardom, and perhaps more surprisingly, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, who has quietly lead his team to the franchise’s best start in more than two decades.
LeBron’s perennial stranglehold on the award notwithstanding, the debate about MVP-worthiness is still murky territory. Is it the best all-around player in the league? Is it the best player on the league’s best team? Is it the player who is most instrumental to their team’s success? The proliferation of advanced stats certainly mitigates this process, but to many hardwood pundits, the precise criteria remain unclear.
Nonetheless, MVP arguments often (rightly) revolve around the candidate’s quantifiable value to his team. In Aldridge’s case, the Blazers are statistically a better team with him on the court: they have a plus-10.5 net rating when he plays versus when he sits. Aldridge is also posting career-highs in points and rebounds (23.4 points, 10.9 rebounds) this season, while logging just as many minutes as any other superstar in this discussion, and he’s arguably the best power forward in the league right now (getting the nod over positional counterpart Kevin Love, given the Timberwolves’ spiraling season, not to mention the fact that Love has never played a single playoff game).
Beyond the stat lines, Aldridge, and the Blazers in general, have become more adept at reading defenses and reacting quicker and more deliberately, and that increased court awareness has translated into better looks for the team’s perimeter shooters. As a result, the Blazers boast the No. 1-rated offense in the league, with their star player Aldridge currently ranked among the top 10 in both scoring (tied for sixth) and rebounding (seventh). He’s accomplished all this while sharing the spotlight with budding superstar point guard Damian Lillard (another fringe MVP candidate) and the Blazers’ hot-shooting wingmen Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum.
“It’s an honor,” Aldridge said recently about his recent MVP campaign. “It shows that my body of work is talking for itself. But it’s not just about me. It’s about my team, and we’ve been playing well this year, and I’ve been trying to do my best at leading them, but, you know, it’s an honor.”
At least some of the credit for Aldridge’s improved play belongs to head coach Terry Stotts, who is running more sophisticated offensive sets this season (light years ahead of his predecessor Nate McMillan‘s) that open up more options and require a higher level of decision-making on the part of his star big man. It’s become increasingly clear that Stotts is a closet analytics wonk; otherwise, the Blazers wouldn’t run so many sequences designed to hit open wing players strategically positioned along the most efficient spots around the arc.
“They’re a very good offensive team. In many ways, it’s like looking in the mirror just in terms of how they can beat you so many different ways,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said during Miami’s visit to Portland on Saturday. “They can beat you with Aldridge in the post, his pick-and-flairs, their three-point shooting, good ball movement. They’re off to a great start. Once you get into the film, you see it’s not an accident. It’s not an anomaly. They’ve built something good here. They’re confident.”
Stotts is obviously aware of the advanced metrics showing that the midrange jump shot is the least efficient shot on the floor. Yet the league’s very best players (LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, etc.) still have it in their repertoire, and it’s a shot that’s always been Aldridge’s bread and butter. Stotts’ offensive schemes are nimble enough to use this to their advantage. More than 60 percent of Aldridge’s shots come from midrange, and he shoots right around 44 percent from this area, which is above league average.
The Blazers’ offense typically runs through Aldridge, whether they’re posting him up early in the shot clock or running a high screen-and-roll with him and Lillard that creates all sorts of headaches for defenses. He especially likes operating from the left block, where he causes nightmares for defenders with his arsenal of turnaround jump shots going toward the baseline, running hooks in the lane, and step-back jumpers near the elbow.
“LaMarcus is just doing the same thing this year as he did last year,” Wesley Matthews said.
Only he’s doing it better, more consistently, and under more scrutiny.
MVP candidates are also judged for how they perform in marquee matchups against other elite players and teams, and Aldridge has proven on multiple occasions that he’s more than ready for the challenge. He had 31 points and 25 rebounds versus Houston earlier in the month, 38 points and 13 rebounds versus OKC, and 28 points and 10 rebounds against Indiana and one of the league’s most venerated defensive units. He also had 30 points and 21 rebounds versus Golden State back in November.
Despite having three wisdom teeth removed earlier in the week, Aldridge once again put up MVP-like numbers (32 points, 10 rebounds) in an overtime win against the Clippers last Thursday night. Chris Paul, another legitimate MVP candidate, had a monster game as well (34 points, 16 assists, six steals) and almost singlehandedly won the game for the Clippers with clutch shot after clutch shot in the waning moments of regulation. It was Nicolas Batum (off a pass from Aldridge no less) who sent the game into overtime with a last-second three-pointer, but in the end it was Aldridge who helped gut out a tough win by leading the Blazers with seven points in the extra period.
As the clichÃ© goes, great players and great teams find a way to win close games, which is something the Blazers have managed to figure out this season, but Saturday’s heartbreaker against a depleted Heat squad was a grim reminder that you can’t win them all. More important, it was a lesson sorely learned about championship-level basketball: a costly turnover here and a missed rotation there are what separate the contenders from the pretenders. After last year’s Finals, nobody knows better than the Heat that it’s the minutiae of the game that is the difference between winning the title and going home empty-handed.
Initially billed as a primetime showdown between the defending champs and the league’s newest darlings, Saturday’s game would not, however, feature reigning MVP LeBron James, who was in street clothes (and hipster-y nonprescription glasses) after injuring his groin against the Kings the previous night.
With Erik Spoelstra and the Heat carefully managing their aging veterans’ minutes, both Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen sat out the first night of their back-to-back Friday against the Kings, presumably to preserve their energy for the red-hot Blazers.
Going into the game, Aldridge (No. 4) was tucked just two slots below LeBron (No. 2) in NBA.com’s Race to the MVP Ladder, but it was Chris Bosh (the MVP of videobombs) who would ultimately put in an MVP-level performance, eviscerating the Blazers for 37 points, 10 rebounds and the go-ahead game-winner.
Despite a few flourishes, Aldridge looked flat against the Heat, and that was at least partly due to Bosh’s aggressiveness early in possessions at pushing him farther away from that left block were he’s normally so effective. He finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists on 9-for-20 shooting, but it was a relatively lackluster performance considering what we’ve come to expect from him (and every other MVP candidate) on a nightly basis.
If Aldridge and the Blazers want to be taken seriously, they must figure out how to actually defend opponents as opposed to simply outscoring them. The Blazers still rank among the bottom of the league defensively (26th in opponents points per game), and they let the Heat explode for 60 points in the paint.
“We didn’t defend as well as we needed throughout the game. We did in parts, but not as often as we needed to,” Stotts said. “It was a loose game in the first half. I didn’t think we communicated well defensively. We let it be a loose game in the first half, and I thought that kind of set the tone.”
Some of that responsibility has to start with Aldridge. MVPs don’t have any glaring weaknesses in their game, and Aldridge can’t continue to rely solely on Robin Lopez to pick up all the slack defensively.
Saturday was a stark reminder of just how good the defending champs can be, even without the best player in the world in their lineup. It also points to the fact that life isn’t going to get any easier for the Blazers. Their recent success is something of a double-edged sword as they’re guaranteed to get everyone’s A-game from here on out. How they respond in the coming months will determine whether Aldridge is a legitimate MVP and whether the Blazers are real contenders.
Will someone other than LeBron win MVP this year?
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