Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Blazers should consider playing Aldridge at center next season

For all the on-court struggles and off-court drama, LaMarcus Aldridge is undoubtedly the Portland Trail Blazers best player. Making his first All-Star game this season, Aldridge is averaging 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, with career highs from both the field (51.3%) and charity stripe (81.3%).

One of Portland's biggest problems over the last several seasons has been the lack of a scoring threat at the center postion. Not since before Greg Oden fractured his patella in December of 2009 has the team had a player that opposing teams had to account for on defense. While Joel Przybilla and Marcus Camby have been serviceable big men that do a decent job of altering shots and rebounding, their offensive games largely consisted of putbacks (though Camby was a good high-post passer).
Entering the offseason, the Blazers' top two needs are at point guard and center, two positions where the 2012 draft class is woefully thin. Outside of Anthony Davis of Kentucky, there are only two lottery-worthy big men that could be realistically considered centers.

Connecticut freshman Andre Drummond is a physical specimen (6'10", 270 pounds), quick-twitch athlete who does a good job at rebounding and altering shots. The biggest problem with Drummond is a lack of focus, as he's had just as many disappearing acts (like his 0 point, 4 rebound effort in a 21 point loss to Louisville) as terrific games (17 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks in a two point loss to Syracuse). He's also very raw offensively, and his free throw shooting makes DeAndre Jordan look like Steve Nash (29.5%).

Illinois sophomore Meyers Leonard has a fairly well-rounded offensive game, showing the ability to score both on the block as well as facing up. Leonard doesn't have the size/athleticism combination of Drummond, but should be able to hold his own in the post against most NBA players. He's also a solid rebounder (8.2) and shot-blocker (1.9), but had some attitude concerns in his time at Illinois.

The deepest position in this draft is at power forward, where players like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, North Carolina's John Henson and Tyler Zeller, Kansas' Thomas Robinson could all declare for the draft. Throw in combo forwards like Kentucky's Terrence Jones and Baylor's Perry Jones III, and this could potentially be the deepest class for power forwards in recent memory.

The Blazers currently have J.J. Hickson, who will likely receive the team's tender, making him a restricted free agent. Hickson has actually looked good at both the '4' and '5' since being claimed by Portland, but struggles some defensively. The team could also bring over 2007 1st Round pick Joel Freeland, who is one of the best big men in Europe. Both Freeland and Hickson are athletic big men, but lack the ideal size for a starting caliber center in the league.

The Blazers may also have two lottery picks this season, as they were able to get New Jersey's 2012 1st round pick (top three protected) in the Gerald Wallace trade. Right now, New Jersey has the fifth worst record in the NBA, and so long as they don't stumble so much to drop into the bottom three in the league, the odds are very good that Portland will have two picks between #5 and #12 (depending on their respective finishes).

I'd recommend the Blazers do what the Spurs have done with Tim Duncan since David Robinson retired. While Duncan has been listed as a power forward almost his entire career, he's largely guarded by the opposing center, so the Spurs start a power forward alongside Duncan, essentially a traditional lineup size-wise, but a positional swap. The good news for the Blazers is the deep draft class could provide the team with a bevy of options that could pair nicely with Aldridge and form a formidable front line.

While Aldridge isn't as good as Duncan was in his prime, he's a great jump shooter for a big man that has above average passing ability and an underrated (and sometimes underutilized) low-post game. Aldridge's combination of length and quickness will no doubt cause problems for NBA centers, and while he hasn't shown to be a great shot-blocker, Aldridge has the length to alter a good deal of shots, and quick enough hands to record his fair share of steals as well. The team has already experimented some with Aldridge as a center, but that has either been in late game situations to add an extra perimeter shooter, or when Marcus Camby was injured last year. I believe that transition could be more permanent (and successful) than most might think.

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