To which I say … so what?
People here and elsewhere have raised an eyebrow at minimum that Aldrich has been such a non-factor so far. Some have expressed alarm. And they have ammunition. Aldrich has less-than-modest stats through the Thunder’s first 14 games. He’s appeared in only five, averaging one point, two boards and two fouls in 10 minutes. He hasn’t seen the floor in six games and hasn’t dressed for almost that many. Of the players taken before Aldrich (No. 11) in the draft this summer, only injured Golden State forward Ekpe Udoh has played in fewer games (zero).
But the reality is that Aldrich’s status now has no bearing on his future value to the team. Scott Brooks said so himself by characterizing it as simply suiting up one young player instead of another, although you wouldn’t expect him to say anything else even if it wasn’t true. That said, I believe him. First and foremost, you can’t judge (almost) any lottery pick after only 14 games in his first season. And the deeper you dig, the more you find to make you realize there’s no reason to worry about Aldrich.
Everybody knew Oklahoma City’s biggest need in the draft was size. It was also obvious that to get anything resembling blue chip talent, the Thunder would have to trade up, but probably couldn’t trade up enough for a home run without giving up a big piece. No DeMarcus Cousins or Derrick Favors, but maybe Aldrich, Udoh or Greg Monroe. OKC eventually traded Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter to the Hornets for Aldrich and Morris Peterson.
But scan that list and tell me who, other than Favors, would be a no-brainer to trade for Aldrich. Favors and Cousins were pipe dreams to begin with, but Cousins’ run-ins with his coaches worry anyone who cares about the Thunder’s chemistry. Udoh is still a complete NBA unknown. Monroe has played in 11 games but is averaging only four points on 36 percent shooting (28 percent from the line!) for a bad team. Brackins, later traded to the 76ers, hasn’t played for a bad team. Pondexter doesn’t have a place in Oklahoma City to begin with, but he’s putting up three points on 42 percent shooting in six games for the Hornets. There aren’t many other compelling names in the draft class at the four or five, either.
And where should Aldrich’s minutes be coming from anyway? Brooks is famous, or infamous as the case may be, ’round these parts for his adherence to the nine-man rotation. With everyone healthy, who comes out of the rotation to let Aldrich play? You’d have to pick one of the four out of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, and I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to do that. Getting him an Ibaka-like three minutes of burn, as Air Congo did in stretches early last season, doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would benefit Aldrich or the Thunder very much when OKC is playing in a bunch of tight games.
I’m one of many people who thought he was drafted to try to replace Collison’s contributions when Collison would presumably command more on the open market this summer than Oklahoma City can afford to pay, but that viewpoint was rendered incorrect today when the team announced a multi-year extension with Collison. But that doesn’t mean the front office freaked out after a 14 games of Aldrich’s career and decided to extend Nick. It probably means they intended to all along if the price was right, and Collison decided he’d rather risk missing out on bigger money elsewhere to stay on a fun team with a bright future and get a contract under the current CBA. Oklahoma City’s front office modus operandi hasn’t been panic contracts or trades, so I’ll bet when the terms of Collison’s extension are disclosed, his contract will resemble Thabo Sefolosha’s more closely than Drew Gooden’s in terms of value, at least I’d hope. OKC now has the luxury of choosing between Collison, Aldrich and an unknown option later than next year, which should be good news for everyone involved.
There’s also nothing wrong with choosing to see Mullens earning the right, in the eyes of his coaches, to suit up for a few games as a good thing. Mullens was a first-rounder a just a year before Aldrich and, while he wasn’t expected to contribute as quickly as many thought Aldrich could, he is a guy with undisputed potential and of whom the coaches spoke well during summer and preseason workouts. If Mullens has worked hard enough to get the bench seat Etan Thomas kept warm last year, then by all means, let the kid save some money on his dry cleaning bill and be the one who gets to shoot hoops during warm-ups. If he continues to improve and is knocking on the door as the season goes on, maybe Mullens can replace Krstic when his contract is up this summer. Or maybe Krstic’s replacement is Aldrich. If only one pans out, that could be enough for the Thunder. (There’s always Tibor Pleiss, but at this point he’s not worth more than a token mention.)
Mullens brings up another point: Don’t forget how quickly how things can change with a trade or sudden player improvement here or there. Mullens was traded for Mavericks point guard Rodrigue Beaubois, and for awhile it seemed like one of the biggest draft goofs of the year when Beaubois started to tear it up for Dallas. But now Beaubois is hurt, Oklahoma City hijacked Eric Maynor from the Jazz, and all of the sudden people don’t think about the Beaubois thing as much and the Thunder still has Mullens. It’s not that OKC couldn’t use Beaubois now or then, it’s that you don’t have to cast as many longing glances his way when you’ve already got a better-than-steady young backup point guard in Maynor who meshes well with his teammates.
I’m open to the argument that Brooks could do more to tweak his rotation to provide more opportunities to develop players. There are other coaches who successfully employ 10- or 11-man rotations. The Thunder has a few big men you’d think the staff and front office would like to either see more of and develop or showcase for trades in Aldrich, Mullens and White. Maybe the Minnesota game on Monday, during which Darko Milicic embarrassed the Thunder’s front line, would have been a good time to be able to pull one more stout post defender off the bench to see if there’s somebody in uniform to stop a guy on a roll.
But would that do OKC, or Aldrich, any good? Is shooting a low percentage and sending opposing big men to the line for 10 minutes a game something that’s going to help anybody? No one would be clamoring for more Aldrich if he played more consistently but his stat lines looked like Monroe’s. It’s hard for rookies to get playing time on good teams.
The best news for the Thunder from what outsiders can observe is that Aldrich is active and involved in his suit on the sideline during games. He’s not pouting or aloof, he’s standing with his teammates during time outs, talking to them, joking with them, putting his arm around their shoulders and doing all the other Thunder-like things the players do. If he’s got a similar attitude the rest of the time, then he’s probably in good shape.
Aldrich’s time will come. He’ll be pressed into duty with injuries, players will leave in free agency or in trades or he’ll earn his way into the lineup. But one way or the other, his time on the court will come. Until then, it’s too early to worry about whether he’s wearing his warm-ups or a suit.