Fantasy Basketball: Is This a Return to Form for LaMarcus Aldridge?

The once-mighty forward has been a top-25 asset since mid-December. Are we seeing a return to Aldridge's salad days with the Blazers?

It was fair to expect a dip in production from five-time All Star LaMarcus Aldridge when he moved from being a go-to scorer on the top-heavy Portland Trail Blazers to being a cog in the more balanced roster of the San Antonio Spurs.

And indeed, a drop in output is exactly what we got, at least in the scoring column -- the power forward went from averaging over 23 points on 20 shots per game in his final two seasons in Portland to averaging a somewhat more modest 18 points per game on about 14 attempts since moving to San Antonio at the start of last season.

For fantasy purposes, Aldridge's overall 2016-17 production to date has amounted to low-end top-50 value, per Yahoo! -- not too shabby, but certainly a letdown from his days as a top-25 mainstay while he was commanding more of the ball in Portland.

Yet Aldridge has vaulted into the full season fantasy top 50 thanks in part to an especially productive winter -- he's a top-25 player since December 15th, averaging almost 20 points per game along with more than 8 boards and nearly 3 assists per game and pristine percentages (57% from the field and 86% from the line).

Should this stretch of seeming rejuvenation effect how we value Aldridge going forward? Are we witnessing a return to peak form for the Spurs' big man?

Rare High-Volume Efficiency

It helps to understand what exactly makes Aldridge, at peak form, such a prized fantasy commodity.

Aldridge is a somewhat un-glamarous, undervalued asset because he offers so little in the low-volume categories: he doesn't take many three-pointers, and rarely across his career has he cracked a combined two steals and blocks per season.

What Aldridge offers instead is high-volume scoring at precious high-efficiency, from both the field and the line.

Sustaining this sort of efficient high-volume production was Aldridge's bread and butter during his peak years in Portland (more on that below), and for fantasy purposes, it's a rare, valuable quality. Only eight players in the current season are averaging over 20 points per game on 47% or better shooting from the field and 79% or better shooting from the line: Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes.

We are indeed looking at a who's who of upper echelon fantasy performers.

So this last month's production finds Aldridge in rarefied air. It used to be a familiar territory for him -- during his boom years in Portland, Aldridge averaged this output, at these rates, across each of the three seasons between 2010 and 2013.

Only five other players managed the same feat across a single season in that span (two of those seasons belong to Durant).

Volume-Efficiency See-Saw

Something that should give us pause when considering Aldridge's recent uptick in production against his career norms is that the present performance doesn't quite mesh with the see-saw pattern of volume and efficiency over the forward's last six-plus seasons.

The table below collects the per-game seasonal totals for Aldridge from his breakout 2010-11 campaign with the Blazers through the present season, setting those along side the per game rates for Aldridge's present month of excellence.

Season Min FGA FG% PTS
2010-11 40 17.5 0.500 21.8
2011-12 36 17.1 0.512 21.7
2012-13 38 17.8 0.484 21.1
2013-14 36 20.6 0.458 23.2
2014-15 35 19.9 0.466 23.4
2015-16 31 14.1 0.513 18.0
2016-17 32 13.8 0.507 17.8
Dec 15-Jan 13 29 13.7 0.567 19.6

So, historically, Aldridge has seen his scoring volume increase along with his usage and, in turn, along with a decrease in field-goal efficiency -- all of which seems sensible.

And all of which renders rather unsensible (and apparently unsustainable) his recent production. After all, we haven't seen an increase in minutes or attempts, but rather an increase in success at the usual 14, about standard for his tenure in the San Antonio offense, along with his usual 4 attempts per game from the line.

A slight shaving of the recent sample bears out this skepticism: over the past eight games Aldridge has been absolutely unconscious, scoring nearly 22 points per game on almost 67% from the field.

And there's a chance that per-game point total could be even higher, considering Aldridge shot a relatively depressed 79% from the line in that span.

Just Another Streak?

It's not as if Aldridge's advanced shooting numbers show any larger change in how the Spurs are putting him to work. Per the table below, none of his present season marks in shooting distance or makes off of assists vary significantly from career norms.

Aldridge 0-3 ft. 3-10 ft. 10-16 ft. 16 < ft. %Ast'd FGs
2016-17 0.211 0.220 0.183 0.328 0.578
Career 0.242 0.204 0.199 0.333 0.574

If anything, Aldridge is refining his jump shot -- NBA Miner has 78% of his field goals on the year as jumpers, up from last year's 71%.

Indeed, it's easy to forget, perhaps because of his position and throwback, three-ball-averse pedigree, that Aldridge is a shooter, and shooters are streaky. And it seems likely that what Aldridge has going here is a nice healthy streak, a correction on the 15 points per game on 47% from the field that had fantasy owners sweating through the first month and a half of this season.

There were similar peaks and valleys in Aldridge's game log last year: Aldridge averaged 14 points a game on 44% from the field during his first month with the Spurs; he finished the year averaging 21 points a contest on 54% shooting over the season's final 25 games.

But, for fantasy purposes, what remains very useful (not very glamorous, but still very useful) is the narrow range in Aldridge's streakiness -- he almost never harms your percentages, even when his volume output falters. And in this regard, the seemingly limited attempts in the San Antonio system might be a blessing in disguise, an end to the high-attempt-volume variance that dented his shooting percentage during those final two seasons in Portland.

So the question of whether this is a return to form for Aldridge depends on what you mean by form: his top-25 output over the past month will not likely hold, but as a no frills, narrow variance top-40 asset, Aldridge most certainly is what he is.