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NBA PM: LaMarcus Aldridge Still Expanding Game

LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the NBA’s best power forwards, and the underrated star continues expanding his game.

Alex Kennedy

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Underrated Aldridge Still Expanding Game

When LaMarcus Aldridge has the basketball in his hands, there’s not much that he can’t do. He can score with post moves, mid-range jumpers and three-point shots. He can finish with his back to the basket or with his face-up game. He can even get buckets if he has a hand in his face or if he’s off balanced. At times, Aldridge seems virtually unstoppable.

Kenneth Faried knows this from experience. After the Denver Nuggets’ 116-108 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Faried sat at his locker praising Aldridge, who had just dropped a game-high 28 points. He scored from everywhere on the floor, including beyond the arc for his fourth three-pointer of the year.

“He’s a stretch four – I mean, literally a stretch four since he can stretch out to the three,” Faried said of Aldridge. “He proved that tonight, stepping out and making a three. In the playoffs last year, he was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. And that turnaround jumper is no joke. He keeps the ball so high it seems like it’s going to go in automatically.”

Even though the Nuggets play Aldridge and the Blazers four times per year, they still struggle to contain the 6’11 forward in their matchups.

“We still haven’t figured out how to get to LaMarcus Aldridge and cut him down,” Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw said. “The way their team is built, it’s tough.”

This problem isn’t limited to the Nuggets, though. Just about every team that plays Aldridge has trouble slowing him down. This season, he is averaging 23.1 points and is even scarier on the offensive end than in previous year since he has added the three-point shot to his offensive arsenal.

The 29-year-old Aldridge remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Despite being a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player, his name is rarely mentioned when discussing the league’s best players.

Perhaps this is because he plays in Portland, which is just the 22nd ranked market in the nation. Perhaps this is because he has remained with one team for the entirety of his career and these days all eyes are on the players who change sceneries. This seems possible, as the most attention Aldridge ever received was when he was disgruntled two summers ago and many believed he could be traded. Perhaps it’s because Aldridge doesn’t fill highlight reels with dunks, crossover or other flashy plays.

Some fans and analysts may not give Aldridge the credit he deserves, but talk to his NBA peers and they’ll say he’s one of the toughest players to guard due to his size, length, wide array of moves and ability to score over defenders as if they aren’t even there. Aldridge is the king of the turnaround, fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face. This sounds like a terrible shot – and it would be for most players – but Aldridge makes it look easy.

Blazers center Chris Kaman, who was signed during the offseason, was recently asked if anything about Aldridge has surprised him since he arrived in Portland and he mentioned the big man’s signature turnaround jumper.

“The only thing that surprises me is that he doesn’t shoot that turnaround jumper more; I’m surprised about that,” Kaman said with a laugh. “I’ve been watching him play and playing against him throughout my career. I’ve been out West for most my career so I used to play him four times [per season]. He’s a lot stronger than you think he is and he’s heavier than you think he is, so he creates a lot of space. And he just has a knack for shooting the basketball. It’s a fun thing to see, especially when he has it going because he can be really effective.”

Aldridge and Damian Lillard form an elite one-two scoring punch for Portland, as each player averaged over 20 points per game last season and are capable of going off on any given night. Since Lillard entered the league, they’ve had 14 games in which they’ve both scored at least 25 points (only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City have had more in that span). Factor in Wes Matthews and Nic Batum making things difficult for the opposition on both ends of the floor along with Robin Lopez doing the dirty work in the paint, and it’s easy to see why teams don’t look forward to playing against Portland.

As talented as Aldridge is, he knows he can’t win games on his own. He’s the first one to say that the Blazers must have a balanced attack in order to be successful. His frustration with Portland several years ago was because the team didn’t have many weapons around him; so, he’d put up impressive numbers in a losing effort on most nights and be sitting at home come playoff time. Now, that’s no longer the case. He has a talented supporting cast and the Blazers do a very good job of spreading the ball around, averaging 23 assists per game (which is seventh-best in the NBA). Portland has four players averaging double-digit points (Aldridge, Lillard, Matthews and Lopez), and two others averaging nine points (Kaman and Batum).

“I’m just trying to make my guys better,” Aldridge said when asked about Portland’s impressive ball movement. “That’s who we are; we try to make the extra pass or the extra, extra pass. We try to make all of our guys better. I thought these last few games guys have been doing that, and that’s how we’re going to win games. I felt like earlier in the year guys were playing more one-on-one basketball, but I feel like now the ball is moving a little bit more.”

With that said, if the Blazers need a bucket, head coach Terry Stotts knows he can always dump the ball down to his reliable big man.

“It’s comforting when you can throw it to No. 12 down there,” Stotts said. “He’s been very effective on the post. The guys are doing a good job of finding him in pick-and-pop situations or different sets that we run when he’s popping to an open side. When you give him time, he’s automatic. Then on the post, he makes tough shots. He’s been doing it since I’ve been here, so I don’t take it for granted but I know what he can do.”

“That’s just him, the game comes easy to him,” Lillard said of Aldridge. “Teams know [where] he likes to get to and they can’t stop it. I think the scoring is so easy because he’s willing to throw the ball out and we knock down shots from the three-point line so it makes people scared to leave, so they let him play one-on-one. He’s done a great job rebounding the ball, so I mean, the game just comes easy to him.”

While Aldridge has worked hard to add improve his three-point shot and expand his already-versatile game, he insists he won’t change his style of play too much. He wants to limit his three-point attempts, using it to keep defenses honest rather than relying on it often. This season, he has only shot 11 three-pointers (1.6 attempts per game) and he’s hitting 36.4 percent from beyond the arc.

“I can shoot them,” Aldridge said. “Coach doesn’t mind. I’m not going to live out there, but [I’ll shoot them]. When guys don’t close out on me, I just take my time on it and [shoot]. I’m not going to live out there though, that’s not me.”

The Blazers are now 5-3 on the season, which is the fourth-best record in the competitive Western Conference. They have wins over projected playoff teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder (before the injuries), Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. Aldridge is obviously a big part of Portland’s success – whether he gets the respect he deserves or not – and has helped turn the Blazers into a legitimate contender.

Gasol Getting Acclimated in Chicago

Despite being limited by injuries and adjusting to new pieces, the Chicago Bulls hold the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 6-2.

Now, with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah returning from injuries and Pau Gasol getting increasingly comfortable alongside his new teammates, Chicago will likely elevate their game even further and continue their winning ways.

Gasol has been excellent for the Bulls early in the season, averaging 18.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. Those are the best stats that Gasol has averaged in four years, proving that he’s still a dominant force when healthy and used correctly.

After the Bulls’ last win over the Detroit Pistons, head coach Tom Thibodeau praised the play of Gasol and Noah, who combined for 30 points, 29 rebounds, 10 assists and four blocks in the impressive win.

“He and Pau were outstanding inside, battling,” Thibodeau said of his frontcourt duo. “They played very well off each other. Jo had some of the multiple effort plays, which is huge for our team.”

Gasol was just excited to see the team at full strength, since Rose, Noah and Jimmy Butler have all missed multiple games even though the season is just two weeks old.

“It was great to have everyone,” Gasol said. “A full roster available and healthy. I hope we can keep it that way.

“It was great to have [Rose] on the floor. He’s a difference maker. He’s very explosive and gets to the hole. A key player for us.”

Gasol has stated that one of the main reasons he joined the Bulls last offseason was to play alongside Rose. Because Rose has only played in four of Chicago’s eight games, he and Gasol are still trying to get on the same page. However, Gasol is optimistic that they will complement each other well and both emerge as playmakers for the Bulls once their chemistry improves.

“The more we play, the more we will understand each other,” Gasol said of Rose. “We will find each other on the floor and make our teammates better. I look forward to playing more games with him.”

The first eight games of the season haven’t gone quite as planned for Chicago, but they have found a way to make it work (as they always do). With that said, the best is likely still to come for the Bulls and this team has the pieces to be the top team in the Eastern Conference if they can remain healthy and play to their full potential.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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NBA Daily: Ujiri Leading Golden Era of Raptors Basketball

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has taken big risks in going all in for the 2019 season and – with a potentially shortened window – it’s the right move, writes Lang Greene.

Lang Greene

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The Toronto Raptors (43-16) are on pace for their fourth consecutive 50-plus win season and barring a collapse of epic proportions will shortly secure their sixth straight trip to the playoffs.

Make no mistake, this is the golden era of Raptors basketball. Period.

The easiest thing in the world to do is play a situation safe. Minimize risk and accept the near certain outcome. Heading into the season, as previously constructed, the Raptors were already on a trajectory to reach 50 wins and secure a playoff berth. However, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri made the risky decision to turn off cruise control and go all in on a championship this season.

The reason was simple – five straight trips to the Eastern Conference playoffs netted only one trip past the second round and some seriously embarrassing postseason eliminations. So sure, the franchise could have stayed the course with the previous roster framework, but realistic title aspirations were a stretch at best.

To begin the roster reconstruction, the Raptors traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.

Green and Leonard immediately provided Toronto with championship heart and grit, something lacking from the team in year’s past. The trade was a huge risk for Ujiri with free agency looming this summer for Leonard (and Green) and having to say goodbye to DeRozan, a homegrown talent and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Toronto rolled early this season and have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but Ujiri doubled down at the trade deadline by acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick.

In just over six months, Ujiri was able to acquire two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners while gutting his roster of familiar faces fans came to know during the team’s recent run to prominence.

The Raptors currently sit one game out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The moves are driving results and most believe the Raptors are legitimate title contenders. But the risk for the franchise is most definitely real. Gasol, Leonard and Green are all expected to hit the unrestricted free agency market this summer which could leave the franchise facing a real possibility of losing all for nothing in return.

The prospect of losing Leonard and Gasol would undoubtedly take Toronto from the top of the East to a club scrapping to even make a playoff run in 2020. Ujiri went all in for a title this season. Leonard’s future is uncertain and so is Gasol’s. But the prospect of truly competing for a title was too tantalizing to pass up after years of setbacks around playoff time.

Inevitably all teams must go through a time of rebuilding or reloading. Despite Toronto’s previous success, their window was limited in nature and closing rapidly, so you have to admire Ujiri’s daring to be great mindset.

For reference, the Atlanta Hawks reached the postseason 10 consecutive times from 2008-2017 but the franchise’s front office played it relatively safe during their run devoid of any major moves. The Hawks watched All-Star performers Al Horford and Paul Millsap ultimately leave for nothing in return. Atlanta’s rebuild is in good shape with guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and an additional lottery pick this season.

However, the team never swung for the fences during their run – something Ujiri wouldn’t let happen – despite the huge risks needed to be potentially a champ.

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