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NBA Saturday: Aldridge Discusses Free Agency

LaMarcus Aldridge discusses his impending free agency at All-Star Weekend, and praises New York City.

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LaMarcus Aldridge Discusses Free Agency

Entering their matchup against the Sacramento Kings on January 19, the Portland Trail Blazers were riding high. They were 30-11, ranked second in the Western Conference and looking every bit like a true championship contender.

Then, star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a major thumb injury, which would reportedly require surgery and force him to miss six-to-eight weeks. It was a devastating blow for a team that had already successfully played through significant injuries to other key players.

Less than 48 hours after the team announced that Aldridge would require surgery, he was out on the practice floor testing his injured thumb to determine whether he could play through the pain.

“I just want to try and play with it,” Aldridge told Yahoo Sports in a text message on January 24. “We are having a good season and I want to keep it going. I’m going to try and play with it, if I can, and go from there.”

Forget trying to play with it, Aldridge has been just as good, if not better than his usual self since the injury. In his first game back, Aldridge tallied 26 points and nine rebounds in the Trail Blazers’ 103-96 victory over the Washington Wizards. Portland fans chanted “MVP” each time Aldridge went to the line toward the end of the game. Portland head coach Terry Stotts also recognized the significance of Aldridge’s performance.

“You can’t say enough,” Stotts said about Aldridge’s return. “That was big time. Not only coming back and playing through the injury but then not favoring it, going hard, not shying away from contact, being aggressive on both ends of the court – I mean, that was big time.”

Part of Aldridge’s success playing through the injury comes from being assertive and not shying away from contact.

“That’s just my mindset,” Aldridge said. “I’m not going to tiptoe around it, I’m not going to be wishy-washy. Once I knew I was in, I was in. I went through the process of, ‘Am I going to be in or am I going to be out?’ But they said I was in, so I was in.”

Since Aldridge’s return from injury, the Blazers have won five of their last nine games and, at 36-17, are ranked third in the Western Conference playoff race. Aldridge is currently in New York, set to represent the Blazers in the All-Star game along with teammate Damian Lillard.

Part of the usual chatter that takes place during All-Star weekend revolves around top players recruiting one another to team up the following season. Last season, it was Joakim Noah who was reportedly courting Carmelo Anthony to join the Chicago Bulls. As arguably the most talented and sought after unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason, Aldridge will likely be recruited while in New York

However, on Friday, Aldridge said that the courting process had yet to begin.

“No,” Aldridge said when asked if anyone had recruited him to team up. “Maybe I’m not good enough (laughs). No, I haven’t been around anybody; I’ve been by myself all day so no I haven’t. But we’ll see what happens when I’m here.”

Whether Aldridge was being completely honest about not yet being recruited, he did discuss some of the important factors that he’ll consider when he hits free agency.

“Winning and being happy,” Aldridge said when asked what he would be looking for in free agency. “I think those two [are most important]. I want to win and I want to love where I’m at.

“I want to like the management and feel comfortable that they are going to do the right things to keep winning and I want to spend my time with an organization where I love what they’re doing and where they’re going.”

Whether it was by omission or on purpose, Aldridge never gave a ringing endorsement to his current team while discussing the issue of free agency. When asked whether having great wineries in the Portland area was a reason to love the area, Aldridge seemed cold on the issue.

“No, I don’t drink wine much,” said Aldridge. “I don’t drink much at all, so it’s tough for me.”

And speaking of cold, Aldridge didn’t think the cold weather in New York was an issue that would deter free agents from considering the city as a destination.  Instead, Aldridge endorsed New York as a place that other players enjoy going to for All-Star Weekend.

“It’s cold everywhere,” Aldridge said. “I don’t think [it’ll scare off free agents].”

“This is one of those [cities] I think most guys look forward to coming to,” Aldridge added. “It’s a fun city, always a lot going on, fashion capital, so I think guys love it here. … I think playing here is awesome. These fans are very loyal and very honest. I think anyone would love playing here. This is the basketball capital. There’s so much history.”

It’s no secret that New York Knicks president Phil Jackson is clearing cap space to chase impact free agents this offseason. Aldridge, along with other big men like Marc Gasol and Greg Monroe, are considered to be top targets for Jackson and the Knicks at the end of the season. Whether Aldridge realized it or not, his responses to questions from media members at least gave the impression that New York may be an option he considers next offseason.

“When you’re in the season, you got to focus on your team and what’s going on with them,” said Aldridge. “But I think we all understand how great Phil [Jackson] is and how he understands the basketball game on another level. I don’t think anyone is doubting him. He’s been spoken so highly [about] by Kobe [Bryant] that I don’t think he’s going to fail. It’s always a process when you’re rebuilding. I went through it two times in a row and it just takes time.”

While Aldridge opted to not shut down the rumor mill by stating directly that Portland would be his home for the foreseeable future, people should remember to look past Aldridge’s words and focus on his actions. With his contract set to expire, Aldridge still opted to play through a significant thumb injury to help his team compete for a championship this season. And though Aldridge is willing to talk about his upcoming free agency, he maintains that his focus is on this season.

“It’s easy for me [to put aside free agency talk] because I’m not there yet,” Aldridge said. “There’s a lot of games left, there’s 30 something games left and then it’s the playoffs.”

Star teammate Damian Lillard recognizes the significance of Aldridge’s decision to play through the pain, rather than addressing the injury now and focusing on his long-term health.

“I think it meant everything to our team,” Lillard said of Aldridge’s decision to play through the injury. “That was the ultimate example of somebody putting themselves to the side for the sake of the team. Since he’s come back, our team has started going back in the right direction. Obviously with him being our best player and contributing the way he has and playing the way he has, he’s been really helpful to us.”

Where Aldridge eventually ends up after this season remains to be seen. However, what is not in question is his commitment to the Blazers this season. The decision to play through his injury was a gesture that his teammates and fans appreciate. And though Aldridge’s impending free agency may have Portland fans and team executives stressed to some degree, they can take solace in the fact that despite the injury, Aldridge has been as dominant as ever recently.

“Actually, he’s killing more than he was before,” Lillard said.

“What injury?” asked Wesley Matthews with a smile. “It doesn’t look like he is hurt to me.”

Whether Aldridge is all in on a long-term future with Portland remains unclear. But no one can question Aldridge’s commitment to his teammates and fans this season. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

Doc Rivers Says The Best Defensive Players Should Be All-Stars

While the Houston Rockets were taking on the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, Anthony Davis announced that he would skip the All-Star game because of his recent shoulder injury. On Twitter, fans and writers began throwing out names of players they thought should replace Davis. Some popular choices included Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Dirk Nowitzki, Eric Bledsoe, Draymond Green and DeAndre Jordan among others.

Before the end of the Clippers-Rockets game, Commissioner Adam Silver announced that Nowitzki would fill in for Davis. After the game, members of the media asked Clippers head coach Doc Rivers whether he felt his center Jordan deserved to be Davis’ replacement.

“I think DJ should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think it’s a travesty. I really do. Dirk deserves to be on the All-Star team every year as far as I’m concerned, so you can never have anything against him. He’s been a great player throughout his career. I just think that a guy who is getting 27 [rebounds] and 22 [points vs. Dallas on Monday] and 20s and 20s [should] be on the team.

“What I keep saying about DJ is [he] plays both sides of the floor. Just one side of the floor keeps getting all of the credit, and not the other side of the floor. And the other side is more important. There’s never been a team that’s won a title without being a decent defensive team or a great, great defensive team, yet that side keeps getting forgotten about in the All-Star Game.

“I think every year they should put the best defender on [the All-Star team]. They put the best offensive player on every year. They should think about putting the best defensive player on – on both sides, the East and the West. Then it would be solved and easy. But DJ should be on, and we all know that.”

As Rivers pointed out, it’s hard to argue with the selection of Nowitzki, a former champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the best shooting big man in league history. However, Rivers brings up an interesting point by advocating for selecting the best defensive player in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference each season. At a time when the All-Star voting system is being called into question, carving out a spot for a defensive ace actually makes some sense, especially when there is no mandate to select true centers.

The difficulty with this new approach is determining who the best defensive player in the league in any given season is. What criteria would be used to determine this?

One approach would be to determine who has been the best defensive big man in the league leading up to the All-Star game. Unlike wing players, who guard each other from beyond the three-point line to the rim and everywhere in between, we can evaluate how effective a center has been at anchoring his team’s defense by protecting the rim.

But does it make sense to carve out a spot for just the best defensive big man irrespective of things like scoring and passing? Probably not, just like selecting the best three-point shooter regardless of other contributions wouldn’t make a ton of sense (unless that three-point specialist is having the best shooting season in history like Kyle Korver is this season). However, as we have seen with Timofey Mozgov in Cleveland, having even just league average rim protection can be the difference between a middling playoff team and a championship contender. That alone may be worth having the best defensive center from both conferences on the All-Star teams each season.

So let’s take a look at who could have filled this hypothetical defensive player slot for Western and Eastern Conference All-Star teams this season. We will limit the choices to five players from each conference and exclude players that were already selected for the All-Star team. Among these five players, we will look to stats like block and rebound percentage, as well as opponent field goal percentage at the rim, points saved per 36 minutes, defensive real plus-minus, defensive win shares and each team’s defensive efficiency rating when a player is on and off the court.

Western Conference:

Rudy Gobert:

Rim FG% Allowed: 37.1
Block%: 7.9
Rebound%: 19.5
Points Saved Per 36: 4.27
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 3.18
Defensive Win Shares: 1.8
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 102.3/ Off Court: 109.2

Serge Ibaka:

Rim FG% Allowed: 40.3
Block%: 5.6
Rebound%: 12.3
Points Saved Per 36: 1.53
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 3.55
Defensive Win Shares: 2.6
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 100.2/ Off Court: 102.6

Andrew Bogut:

Rim FG% Allowed: 41.7
Block%: 5.5
Rebound%: 18.5
Points Saved Per 36: 3.23
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 5.71
Defensive Win Shares: 2.1
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 93.7/ Off Court: 99.3

DeAndre Jordan:

Rim FG% Allowed: 49.3
Block%: 5.9
Rebound%: 23.4
Points Saved Per 36: 0.07
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 1.78
Defensive Win Shares: 3.1
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 104.9/ Off Court: 103.2

Dwight Howard:

Rim FG% Allowed: 45.1
Block%: 3.4
Rebound%: 19.2
Points Saved Per 36: 0.52
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 1.09
Defensive Win Shares: 1.8
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 97.4/ Off Court: 102.2

Eastern Conference:

Andre Drummond:

Rim FG% Allowed: 47.9
Block%: 4.7
Rebound%: 23.5
Points Saved Per 36: 1.22
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 1.47
Defensive Win Shares: 2.9
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 105.1/ Off Court: 102.4

Roy Hibbert:

Rim FG% Allowed: 41.4
Block%: 5.5
Rebound%: 15.6
Points Saved Per 36: 2.94
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 2.19
Defensive Win Shares: 2.1
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 102.0/ Off Court: 101.1

Nerlens Noel:

Rim FG% Allowed: 46
Block%: 4.7
Rebound%: 13
Points Saved Per 36: 1.14
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 2.18
Defensive Win Shares: 2.5
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 100.3/ Off Court: 103.9

Hassan Whiteside:

Rim FG% Allowed: 41.3%
Block%: 10.4
Rebound%: 26.9
Points Saved Per 36: 3.29
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 4.03
Defensive Win Shares: 1.2
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 102.0/ Off Court: 105.9

Timofey Mozgov:

Rim FG% Allowed: 48.6
Block%: 3.9
Rebound%: 17
Points Saved Per 36: 0.56
Defensive Real Plus-Minus: 1.27
Defensive Win Shares: 1.5
Team Defensive Efficiency Rating: On Court: 102.6/ Off Court: 106

Based on this data, it appears as though Rudy Gobert and Andrew Bogut both have a good case to be selected as the defensive specialist for the Western Conference All-Star team this season. Gobert has the highest block percentage, holds opponents to the lowest field goal percentage at the rim and helps Utah’s defensive rating by a healthy 6.9 points while on the court. Bogut’s numbers are similarly good, but behind Gobert’s in most relevant categories.

Despite Rivers’ contention that Jordan is far and away the best defensive player in the league, these metrics show that he is a great shot blocker and rebounder, but he doesn’t necessarily transform the Clippers into a significantly better defensive team while on the court. While there is certainly some noise within these numbers that blur out just how important Jordan is to the Clippers’ defense, the numbers here simply don’t put him ahead of someone like Gobert.

For the East team, it looks as though Hassan Whiteside deserves the nod over his competitors. Whiteside’s metrics are through the roof and the HEAT defense is clearly much better when he is on the court. The closest competition to Whiteside is Noel, but he doesn’t hold opponents to a particularly low percentage at the rim like Hibbert and Whiteside, and he doesn’t rebound like Drummond. However, he scores decently well in most categories, and he is a plus 3.6 in defensive rating when on the court for the 76ers. Timofey Mozgov may deserve some consideration here as well considering his solid rebounding percentage, and the plus 3.4 in defensive rating he adds to the Cavaliers. Mozgov is not a metric darling like Gobert, but it’s hard to argue against someone who has transformed the Cavaliers’ defense and turned Cleveland into a true contender. Still, the clear winner here is Whiteside.

Something else that should be considered in this exercise is adding an All-Star slot for the best wing defender. Yes, the best defensive players in the league are often centers that anchor their respective team’s defense. However, there are several lock down wing-players in the league that can impact each game just as much as the best defensive centers.

Players like LeBron James, Tony Allen, Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, Nicolas Batum and Kawhi Leondard have established themselves as the best wing defenders in the game over the last few seasons. Each of these players is often assigned to slow down prolific scorers like Kevin Durant and point guards as dominant as Chris Paul. The ability to slow down wings and point guards each night is extremely valuable but is unfortunately not addressed in this space. However, if Rivers were to get his wish and the best defensive player were to be selected to the All-Star game each season, including an elite defensive wing player, guys like Allen and Draymond Green would be in the mix for a spot they otherwise wouldn’t have a shot at.

It’s doubtful that the NBA adopts Rivers’ idea, but considering how big of an impact the players mentioned above make for their respective teams, it should probably at least be considered.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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