The Other Golden Age

Photo from Teen Wolf via Flickr

LaMarcus Aldridge’s rise to borderline franchise player status was one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA last season. It’s virtually impossible to be a non-biased NBA fan without enjoying the Portland Trailblazers of the post-Jail era, and yet the sympathetic squad has suffered blow after blow, rendering its considerable talents moot under a heap of shattered knees. Watching a part of that once-and-hopefully-still-promising nucleus leap forward was roundball eye candy. LMA wasn’t rewarded with an all-star berth, but we all knew better: after years of saying how he can be a star, now he actually was one.

Over at ESPN (Insider required), Tom Haberstroh takes things one step further, claiming Aldridge is on his way to become the league’s new best 4, and even comparing him to the immortal Tim Duncan.

But the biggest reason that Aldridge fits as a Duncan successor is actually more subtle than his shot repertoire, and you won’t catch it in the box score. Like Duncan, Aldridge is now a two-way player who’s capable of dominating the game on both ends of the floor. This is where Aldridge separates himself from the likes of Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Bosh when we’re talking about the next great power forward.

Back in April, I developed a quick metric that combined three of the most rigorous defensive measures out there and published a handful of the more interesting findings at Insider. One of the big discoveries? Aldridge is right up there with Duncan and Kevin Garnett as 4s who can bring it on both ends.

via NBA – Comparing LaMarcus Aldridge to Tim Duncan – ESPN.

The Duncan comparisons are probably a step too far – Timmy was more or less a first-ballot Hall of Famer from the first second he stepped on an NBA court, and Habertroh also points out how Aldridge’s rather average rebounding is a far cry from Duncan’s legendary abilities on the glass. But the point that Haberstroh continually makes is that in the power forward generation that comes after Duncan and Garnett, Aldridge is more or less in a class of his own defensively.

It’s hard for me to judge whether Aldridge is indeed the best defensive 4 out there – the rebounding is a major disadvantage when compared to a versatile big such as Pau Gasol or even a clearly inferior defender in Zach Randolph; Chris Bosh has a bad rep because of years spent on terrible Raptor teams, but he was a huge part of a dominant Miami defense this past season and he ranked as the 4th best pick and roll “roll man” defender according to Synergy Sports; but as Haberstroh points out, the +/- numbers favor Aldridge conclusively. He’s improved his shot-blocking skills considerably, he’s quick laterally and vertically, and he’s become so adept at defending inside that he may be better suited as a center long term.

But more than it was eye-opening, I found the Haberstroh piece thought-provoking. Could Aldridge really be the world’s best 4 at some point? What was his competition?

Duncan and Garnett probably have 2-3 seasons at most before they call it a career. Dirk and Pau are the current golden standard, but as age-resistant as Dirk’s game seems to be, they’re both on the wrong end of 30 as well. Health permitting, Amar’e Stoudemire should be peaking as part of a New York superstar tandem in the upcoming years, but his defensive ineptitude is probably severe enough to rank him below Aldridge even now. Carlos Boozer is even worse defensively, and not as good on offense. David West is 31 and coming off major surgery. Lamar Odom? David Lee? Al Jefferson? Paul Millsap? Varying levels of good, but not at that level.

Chris Bosh is mightily close, and I can’t honestly say I’d rather have Aldridge over him; his numbers dropped in Miami, but he’s also one year removed from posting the 4th best PER in the league. But in accepting a third string role, Bosh penalizes himself not because he’s a loser or a coward, but by limiting his chances to prove himself. Assuming both Bosh and Aldridge play to the fullest of their abilities in the next few years, Aldridge will at the very least seem more impressive, just by virtue of being the primary focus of each opposing team.

Similarly, Zach Randolph’s playoff performance has, on paper, lifted his stock to new heights. Except for the aforementioned Dirk, I’m not sure there are a surer two points in crunch time than Z-Bo’s rear end forcefully finding that post sweet spot. Randolph lacks the lateral quickness to be an all-present defender, but has improved dramatically in this regard since his Knick/Clipper days.

And then we have the next generation. Blake Griffin and his seemingly limitless ceiling. Kevin Love, despite the saloon door defense. Serge Ibaka, who has improved so rapidly in just two NBA seasons that nobody truly knows how much further he can go. Al Horford, if he ever gets to play his natural 4 position, is as good defensively as anybody on this list, and can still improve offensively, where he is already a great passer and a dead-eye midrange shooter. Depending on how optimistic you are, Derrick Favors, Ed Davis, Bismack Biyombo, Tristan Thompson – all players with long ways to go, of course, but hey, we can dream, right?

Look how many names I just listed. Sure, I was overly generous with some of our best-PF-alive “candidates”. But the sheer volume is simply astounding, is it not?

Ever since the new hand check rules entered the NBA, perimeter players have enjoyed a built-in advantage. Getting into the paint is a much easier task when the pesky defender trying to front you can’t place his arm on your hip as a means of obstructing your movement. With the past few years being blessed by a litany of talented point guards, the perimeterization of the game has sped up considerably, leading to a golden age of point guards.

And yet, the power forward position is full to the brim with talent. The revolution brought in by Garnett’s entrance to the league, in which big guys are now allowed to do things like set up an offense and defend 5 positions, has produced a talent boon that comes in sharp contrast to the death of the true NBA center. We lament what happened to our big men, but the answer is that where a physical specimen would formerly become a post beast, nowadays he will prefer to keep his lanky frame, learn how to shoot from 18 feet in, and work on his dribble.

To some, this is an atrocity, the loss of an art. But that’s a sad way to look at things. Some of the most entertaining pairs of the last 20 years consist of a point guard and a power forward. Stockton-Malone, Payton-Kemp, Nash-Stoudemire/Nowitzki, Sessions-Hickson (just checking if you’re still reading). We sure have the point guards – and the power forwards are here, too.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.