By James Kerti
Special to DT
When Cole Aldrich put up six points and seven rebounds back on March 3rd at Atlanta, it made me think more about his role with the Thunder.
I thought that they might decide to play him more. But alas, Cole’s minutes have actually fallen since then.
That leads me to wonder. Would they benefit from playing him more?
I want to find out.
Let’s start by comparing Aldrich to his main competitors for minutes: Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, and Nick Collison.
Of that group, Aldrich has the highest rebound rate this year, with 10.3 rebounds per 36 minutes. Of those rebounds, 3.2 come on the offensive glass. While those numbers are the best among his peers, Aldrich’s rebounding performance is in line with Mohammed’s and Perkins’ over the last few seasons
I can’t conclude he is significantly better or worse than Perkins or Mohammed on the boards, though he appears to be a stronger rebounder than Collison.
On defense, Aldrich has the highest block rate, as he averages 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes. That’s a full block more than Nazr Mohammed’s 1.9, which is the next best among those four players.
Now, Aldrich’s blocks look very impressive compared to his peers. But playing good post defense is about a lot more than blocking shots, despite JaVale McGee’s claims to the contrary.
Looking at the Synergy statistics, the data supports Perkins’ reputation as an excellent defender. He ranks in the 83rd percentile in the NBA, thanks to the 0.760 points per possession (PPP) opponents average against him. He’s especially strong at defending the pick-and-roll, post-ups, and isolations.
Perkins struggles, though, against spot-ups. In those situations, he allows 1.014 PPP, good for only the 32nd percentile in the league. I determined from looking at film that he has trouble closing out on bigs who can hit jump shots when given space. He also has a tendency to get lost on the perimeter, leaving shooters open from outside.
Nazr Mohammed has similar statistics. He defends the post well, but ranks in the 12th percentile at defending spot-ups.
The quicker Collison and Aldrich fare much better in those situations. They place in the 84th and 91st percentiles at stopping spot-ups, with 0.771 and 0.688 PPP against, respectively.
Aldrich, however, has the size and skills to defend bigger opponents in the post, an area in which Collison has some trouble. The smaller Collison ranks in the 55th percentile in the NBA at post-up defense.
Those numbers aren’t terribly meaningful in a vacuum. What effect do those players have on the team defense?
The Thunder as a team are 6th in the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage, but they’re only 13th in defending the three-point shot. Overall, they rank 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 0.894 PPP.
Those numbers tell me Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense is a major area they can improve upon. Given that the Thunder don’t force many turnovers, that weakness doesn’t look like it stems from gambling for steals. It has more to do with not closing out on shooters.
While Perkins and Mohammed aren’t the only weak links by any means, they have been responsible for 10% of opponents’ spot-up possessions. Improving on their perimeter defense would make a difference.
Oklahoma City also has trouble defending in transition. They place 26th in the league with 1.184 PPP allowed. Viewed another way, opponents shoot 61% from the field with a 66% adjusted field goal percentage in transition. The Thunder don’t get stops.
Based on the film I watched, it looked like the main culprit was an inability to close out on shooters in transition, especially on the secondary break.
There’s that problem again.
What can the Thunder do about it?
They could address their personnel and play quicker big men who do a better job of getting back on defense and contesting shots away from the basket.
Subbing out Perkins and Mohammed for Collison and Aldrich against teams who are running the floor and hitting open jump shots would help.
Aldrich is a perfect fit for defending against teams who hit those jump shots while also having a low post presence that the Thunder need to defend. And the best teams in the West, like the Lakers, Clippers, and Spurs, fit those criteria.
On the offensive side of the ball, the changes are less significant.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka make up nearly three-quarters of the Thunder’s possessions offensively.
Perkins and Mohammed only use a combined 9.1% of the team’s possessions. Making personnel changes at center isn’t going to have a huge effect on offense either way.
Still, Cole converts much better with his 55.9% field goal percentage than Mohammed and Perkins, who are shooting 46.2% and 48.6% from the field, respectively.
Aldrich has also averaged an excellent 1.044 PPP this year on offense, which puts him in the 93rd percentile in the NBA. Mohammed ranks in the 34th percentile, while Perkins places in just the 18th percentile.
Cole also tends to operate better in space. His strengths according to Synergy are in cuts to the basket, in transition, and in the pick-and-roll. Those three play types account for almost half of the Thunder’s possessions, which means that his skill set is well-aligned with the team’s offense.
At best, Cole would get into open space and score a few baskets a game. At worst, he’d probably contribute about as much as Perkins and Mohammed already do.
Against the best teams in the league, those points make a major difference. And let’s not forget how he can help the Thunder shore up their perimeter and transition defense.
Am I suggesting tossing him in the starting lineup? Of course not. But Cole has a skill set that can help the Thunder in certain situations.
And those situations happen to be ones in which the team will often find themselves in the playoffs against teams that have a variety of weapons.
Cole will help them in important spots, and he’ll gain valuable experience in the process so that he can take over for Mohammed next year.
It’s a no-brainer to me. What do you think? Leave a comment!
James Kerti is a basketball scout and analyst. He also helps people in basketball increase their exposure by building them web sites and helping them with social media. Follow him on Twitter and check out his site.