Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
LaMarcus Aldridge is not a Hall of Famer
LaMarcus Aldridge abruptly retired from the NBA on Thursday, citing an irregular heartbeat in what became his final appearance for the Brooklyn Nets that he called "one of the scariest things I've ever experienced."
His is one of the more unheralded great careers of a generation, largely spent toiling in small markets for the pre-Damian Lillard Portland Trail Blazers and post-Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs. The 35-year-old's résumé is marked by achievements matched almost entirely by Hall of Famers, and yet his case will be met with the same apathy and lack of proper respect that followed him and his teams throughout his career.
Aldridge was not just on the edge of all-time greatness. He might be the edge.
He fell 49 points shy of 20,000 career points, a milestone he would have hit with the Nets if not for his abnormal heart rhythm on Saturday. He scored 64 points in five games for Brooklyn since San Antonio bought out the remainder of his contract late last month. Every 20,000-point scorer in NBA history is in the Hall of Fame but the three just ahead of Aldridge: Joe Johnson, Tom Chambers and Antawn Jamison.
Aldridge made seven All-Star teams in his 15 seasons. Everyone with seven or more selections who is eligible for the Hall of Fame is enshrined in Springfield but Larry Foust, whose eight appearances in the 1950s came when the league's eight teams comprised a 20-man roster. Johnson is a seven-time All-Star currently seeking a spot on the Milwaukee Bucks, but he may join Foust when he becomes Hall-eligible.
Aldridge's five All-NBA selections also place him at the border of Springfield. Every player with six or more All-NBA nods is in. The five-timers club includes a who's who of Hall of Fame finalists still awaiting the call, namely Chris Webber, Tim Hardaway and Ben Wallace. Mitch Richmond, the first Hall of Famer mentioned in the "everybody makes it" discussion, made five All-NBA rosters. Blake Griffin will join that list one day.
Aldridge concludes his career with 19,951 points, 8,478 rebounds, 2,034 assists and 1,140 blocks. Only 25 players in NBA history have eclipsed 19,000 points and 8,000 rebounds. All but a pair — two-time All-Stars Jamison and Terry Cummings — are in the Hall of Fame. Add the 2,000 assists and 1,000 blocks, and that list is trimmed to 14 players. Each of them is a Hall of Famer, even if Aldridge's advanced career statistics consistently put him at or near the bottom of that list, along with the likes of Robert Parish and Elvin Hayes.
Parish and Hayes have what Aldridge was still chasing with Brooklyn this season: championship rings. They are not a prerequisite for Springfield, but you can bet if Aldridge had one, his case would be cemented. His teams made the playoffs in nine of his 14 full seasons, winning 50 or more games on six occasions and 60-plus games twice. His 2015-16 Spurs were one of 13 teams in NBA history to win 67 or more games.
Aldridge's playoff résumé is checkered. He averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds in the 2014 playoffs, but his Blazers lost in five games to the eventual champion Spurs in the second round. The following season, Portland owned the second-best record in the Western Conference when Aldridge tore a ligament in his thumb. Six weeks later, Wes Matthews tore his Achilles. Aldridge played through his injury for the remainder of the season, but the Blazers lost in the opening round — one of his six first-round exits in nine chances.
In San Antonio, Aldridge averaged 27 points in the 2016 West semifinals, but the 67-win Spurs blew a 2-1 series lead to Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder. The next year, they reached the conference finals, but Kawhi Leonard suffered a series-ending injury in an opener San Antonio was set to win. Instead, the Golden State Warriors rolled to a sweep, and Aldridge ended up never winning a game beyond the second round.
There is a real chance Aldridge would have played a vital role in the Nets winning a title this year. Instead, his Hall of Fame case is what it is, each line item teetering on the edge. If he falls short, his career — seven All-Star selections, five All-NBA bids, nearly 20,000 points and a playoff career marked by losses to a pair of the greatest teams ever in his two best shots to make a Finals — is the new threshold for Not Quite Great Enough for enshrinement. That does not sit right, knowing the threshold was lowered for Richmond.
LaMelo Ball still has a Rookie of the Year case
When LaMelo Ball fractured his right wrist in March, it seemingly spelled the end of both his first season with the Charlotte Hornets and any chance of him winning Rookie of the Year. Not so much, as it turns out.
Ball was so far out in front for the award that nobody else has been able to close the door completely in his 13-game absence (so far). Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards and Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton are the only other possible choices at this point, but neither can seize control of the race.
Edwards has the most points among rookies this season by a wide margin, averaging 18.1 per game. He has also been among the least efficient first-year scorers, as his 50% true shooting ranks 32nd among the 41 who have played at least 25 games. Edwards has taken 930 field-goal attempts. Ball and Haliburton have both taken 526. No other rook has taken more than 488 (Immanuel Quickley of the New York Knicks).
Give a handful of guys as many touches as Edwards, and they are going to put up those same numbers, especially if are asked to do it for the worst team in the league. The Timberwolves have won 14 games, leaving Edwards with -0.6 win shares, second-to-last among rookies, according to Basketball Reference. This is the story behind all those highlight-reel dunks and the 42-point outburst that have stolen headlines.
By comparison, both Ball and Haliburton have 2.9 win shares, trailing only Jae'Sean Tate's 3.5 for the Houston Rockets. There is no question Ball contributed more to winning in 41 games than Edwards has in 56. Charlotte was 20-21 went Ball went down, a surprising start that still has the Hornets eighth in the East.
And Ball may not be done. He is only a week from the monthlong timeline for a reevaluation. A positive diagnosis could mean his return for Charlotte's stretch run and a possible play-in tournament appearance.
That would be more than enough time to separate himself from Haliburton, whose Kings are mired in a nine-game losing streak that has them 22-34, 5 1/2 games out of the final play-in spot with 16 to play. His case is built on his winning contribution — taking the right shot, making the right pass, sliding into open windows offensively and closing them defensively — and his submarining team makes that case harder.
Luke Walton had his chance
Speaking of which, how is Luke Walton still the head coach of the Kings?
He was not hired by first-year general manager Monte McNair, and that usually leaves coaches of lottery teams on a shorter leash regardless of any signs of progress. And there have been no signs of progress with the Kings. Quite the opposite, actually. Walton took over a team that was the underdog darling of the 2018-19 season, and over his two seasons at the helm Sacramento has steadily sunk back into irrelevancy.
Granted, the Kings have been plagued by front-office misfires and injuries. Marvin Bagley is the first name that comes to mind when considering both. Drafted one spot ahead of Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic, Bagley has played a total of 50 games over the past two seasons. Still, Sacramento is not without talent. De'Aaron Fox, in particular, has been one of the most underrated players in the league all season.
It is just that the Kings can never get that talent to coalesce. Bagley and Buddy Hield have both had high-profile spats with Sacramento's brass. Following back-to-back losses to the Timberwolves and Pistons last week, Walton called the team's effort "unacceptable." This is three months after his players took that blame after a 38-point loss in January. It is almost two full seasons after Trevor Ariza ripped the team's lack of effort three games into Walton's tenure. At some point, that falls on the coach. We are beyond that point.
Whereas Walton's Los Angeles Lakers teams showed improvement defensively in his three years as head coach, the Kings are now dead last in that regard after finishing 19th last season. Sacramento is currently on pace to submit the worst defensive rating in NBA history (118.4 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The blame for that lays at plenty of people's feet, but the first finger will point to the coach with a career .404 winning percentage, seventh-worst in league history among coaches with as many game under his belt as Walton. He will have his choice of NBA benches to work on next season, just not as a head coach.
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