Name the best power forwards in the NBA. The names that immediately pop into mind are Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett (I know he’s now a “center”), Zach Randolph, Blake Griffin and (maybe) Josh Smith. Two that should register immediately, but probably don’t due to different reasons, are Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Ibaka’s name doesn’t resonate because he’s not “the guy” on his team because the Oklahoma City Thunder have these two guys named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that just so happen to be really, really good. LaMarcus Aldridge’s problem: he plays in Portland, where you probably never see him unless you’re a dedicated League Pass viewer or your favorite team plays in the Pacific Northwest. However, these two belong on that list of great power forwards (I hope people recognize the incredible age of power forwards we are currently in), and in a few years will be at the top.
I just recently watched Ibaka play in person when the Thunder came into town and thrashed my Hawks. Ibaka had a terrible night offensively (2-for-9 for four points), but dominated on the glass with 14 rebounds, had three blocks (a standard for him), and was extremely solid defending in the post. Watching the first three quarters, it was clear how important Ibaka has become to the Thunder offense (I say three quarters because in the fourth quarter Durant just said, “I got this, back-off” and dropped 18 points). Ibaka has become an integral part of the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game with Westbrook, and his much improved shooting stroke (though not on display in Atlanta) has given the Thunder great floor-spacing to let Westbrook penetrate and create.
For his first three years in the league, Ibaka was known as a freakishly athletic defender with minimal offensive ability. Ibaka is shooting a career-best 56.6% from the field (54.3% his first two years) while attempting three more shots per game (10.7) than he ever has (most was 7.5 in 2010-11). Serge has become a very solid jump-shooter, his weakness early in his career, shooting 43.7% on spot-ups, good enough to punish defenders for playing off of him. By forcing opponents to defend him farther from the basket, Ibaka has opened up cutting lanes for himself, and he is still one of the top big-men at cutting and finishing at the rim, shooting 72.5% and scoring at a great clip of 1.36 PPP on cuts. His pick-and-roll game is crucial to the Thunder’s success, and he is 15th in the NBA as a roll-man averaging 1.13 points per possession and shooting 56.5% from the field on those possessions.
Ibaka’s improved mid-range game has really helped one of the Thunder’s favorite plays, the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll. Scott Brooks loves to use this play because it applies a ton of pressure to the opposing defense having to defend the Thunder’s two best scorers. Ibaka has become the third option on this play, flexing out 15-plus feet on the weak-side baseline for a Westbrook kick-out, if Ibaka’s man helps down into the lane on the driving Westbrook. To further enhance this play, Ibaka is working on his corner threes (I watched him in warm-ups and his stroke looks good; he rimmed out his one attempt in the game) a la Chris Bosh, who added that move to his repertoire recently to really pressure the defense on the Miami Heat‘s similar Dwyane Wade/LeBron James pick-and-roll. If Ibaka can continue improving his jumper and get to Bosh’s level of success on those corner threes, the Thunder will have a three-headed offensive monster rivaling that of the Heat.
Defensively, Ibaka continues to be one of the best help-defenders and shot-blockers in the NBA, but he’s starting to become a better one-on-one defender. He’s a very good pick-and-roll defender due to his athleticism and length, allowing opponents to shoot just 27.3% on rolls, and his post defense is above-average, allowing players to shoot just 43.2% against him on post-ups. His isolation defense is good enough for 31st in the NBA, allowing just 0.62 PPP and 30.3% shooting on isolation plays. However, he still has to improve on spot-ups, where he has a tendency to play too far off the opposition, which has allowed opponents to shoot 49.3% and score 1.24 PPP on spot-ups this season against Ibaka. Serge’s defensive development is not focused on patience. He has all the athletic tools to dominate, but, like many great shot-blockers, he has to learn how to pick his spots on when to help and go for blocks and when to stay at home on his man. As he gets better at this, the Thunder’s defense will continue to improve.
Conversely, LaMarcus Aldridge has been consistently one of the top power forwards in the league by any statistical measure, but where he plays, Portland, and the fact that his teams have never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Aldridge, since becoming Portland’s regular starter in the 2007-08 season, has averaged at least 17.8 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. This season, Aldridge continues to be the focal point of the Portland offense with a usage rate of 26.8% (his second highest to last years 27%). That high usage rate, coupled with playing a lot of minutes (38.1 mpg) has seen Aldridge’s efficiency drop to career lows in eFG% (46.5), TS% (51.6), ORtg (105), and TRB% (12.2).
However, Aldridge’s career lows are still above-average, and also become more amazing when looking at the complete lack of help he receives on the front line. The Blazers pair Aldridge with J.J. Hickson (having a good year, but not seen as an offensive threat), Meyers Leonard (known as the “white Javale McGee,” that’s all you need to know about his efficiency), Jared Jeffries (essentially a traffic cone on offense; good defender though), and Joel Freeland (you’re correct to ask “who?”). Aldridge is still having a very good season, scoring 21 points per game, and pulling down eight boards per game. His has a 19.2 PER, and, along with Damian Lillard and Nicholas Batum, has been the driving force behind Portland’s 12-12 record (not great, but considering the total lack of bench production it has been impressive).
Defensively, Aldridge is having a tremendous year. He is allowing opponents to score just 0.81 PPP and shoot just 38.2% from the field against him. His size and length make him one of the top post defenders in the league, as he ranks 10th in the NBA against post-ups allowing opponents to shoot just 29.% in the post for a minuscule 0.6 PPP against. His spot-up defense is slightly above league average (119th overall) allowing opponents to shoot 42.3% on spot-up attempts for 0.95 PPP. Most impressively, Aldridge fouls opponents just 3.7% of the time, which is very low for a front-court defender (top defenders like Garnett and Ibaka foul 6% of the time).
Those numbers, coupled with his offensive ability and output, make Aldridge one of the league’s premier power forwards. Unfortunately, he seems to be stuck in yet another Portland rebuild that will take a few years to return to playoff contention. The Blazers made the playoffs three consecutive years behind the Aldridge/Brandon Roy duo and appeared set for years to come, but Roy’s devastating injuries left the Blazers with just Aldridge. This season it appears as though rookie Damian Lillard is ready to fill that perimeter scoring void left by Roy, and Nicholas Batum has emerged as one of the top scoring wing-players in the league. With that young core, the Blazers next task is to improve their depth, especially in the front-court to help alleviate some of the offensive load placed on Aldridge’s shoulders, but that will take another year or two minimum, and that involves hitting on draft picks and being smart in free agency to pick up quality veterans.
Ibaka and Aldridge are in very different situations. Ibaka, at 23 years old, is the up-and-comer that seems to have an ever-rising ceiling on a team destined that seems destined to compete for championships over the next five-plus years. Aldridge is the known commodity that continues to ply his trade in a tough situation that he can only hope improves before it is too late for him. Aldridge is 27 years old, and is entering the prime of his career, and one can only hope that the Blazers are able to surround him with enough depth and talent as to not waste on of the NBA’s best players.
This is arguably the best group of power forwards the NBA has ever seen with some sure-fire Hall of Famers in Duncan and Garnett still playing extremely well, freak athletes like Griffin and Smith, shooters like Bosh, and all-around scoring and rebounding machines like Love and Randolph. Ibaka and Aldridge certainly belong on that list, and with the scoring and defensive abilities each possess, they can quite possibly become the two most feared power forwards in the league, whether the general public knows about them or not.
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Topics: Blake Griffin, Brandon Roy, Damian Lillard, Josh Smith, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, Lamarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph