People in Portland have been patient, but there does seem to be a question making the rounds as folks slosh through the first heavy rains of the Oregon fall. It’s simple, and it’s curious given how important he’s been to the team over the past three years:
What's wrong with CJ McCollum?
The stud guard has seen his year-over-year statistics drop, and prior to Tuesday night's 40-point breakout against the Milwaukee Bucks, McCollum doesn't appear to be making the same impact on games he has in seasons prior. Even considering the Bucks game, McCollum has had two real stinkers early: one against the New Orleans Pelicans and another in OT loss to the Washington Wizards.
So is this the moment McCollum turns it around, or is there more to be worried about?
At its core, McCollum's struggles appear to be due to the altered rotation by coach Terry Stotts, who decided to pair him with Damian Lillard more often.
In prior years, Stotts staggered the two guards to try to keep one on the floor at all times. But this offseason the coaching staff announced they would pair their star backcourt together, instead letting Evan Turner take the ballhandling role with the second unit.
Indeed, Stotts did not bluff on his rotation change. Of the top five lineups Portland has played by minutes this season, McCollum hasn’t appeared in any that consist of a majority of bench players. In contrast, three of the Trail Blazers’ most-played lineups in 2017-18 were “bench units” with McCollum smack dab in the middle.
This has led to McCollum going through some growing pains as he readjusts to a new role. An estimate from Basketball-Reference.com shows McCollum playing the most “small forward” of his career at 42 percent. McCollum playing SF isn’t strictly true, of course. Portland is sending out non-traditional wing lineups consisting of Turner, McCollum, Lillard, and Nik Stauskas where it’s hard to pin down who is playing what position. Nonetheless, it’s indicative of the change in lineups over last year.
Put simply, McCollum has been asked to carry a different role in different rotations. When the coaching staff implemented this change, it was always possible someone was going to struggle with it. It turns out McCollum has taken the brunt of things during the first month of the season.
Then again, Stotts’ new offensive plan — one of extra passes and additional 3-point shooting — plays to McCollum’s strengths. That’s why I’m not worried about inconsistent play by McCollum to start the year.
It was obvious the Blazers needed to do something about how much dribbling McCollum, Lillard, and Shabazz Napier did last season. In a league trending toward team basketball, the Blazers started to skew toward turn-based offense. Getting the ball out of McCollum’s hands and instead giving it to him more judiciously was a wise move by Stotts.
It's also not as though McCollum’s statistical hiccups have affected Portland in a way that jeopardizes the theory behind these new rotations.
On the surface, McCollum has seen slight dips in his shooting percentage, assists, and points. But a closer examination of McCollum’s stats reveals he’s not too far off most of his advanced numbers, and he’s even increased some — particularly his free-throw rate — that have kept him effective. It’s not like he’s been bad. He just hasn’t been CJ McCollum.
McCollum is no longer handling the ball and penetrating with the same type of voracity, although he’s retained similar usage statistics. What that tells me is he’s still touching the ball on offense, but not as a distributor. This explains his assists trending downward.
More encouraging are his shots at the rim, where McCollum has increased his attempts. The same goes for his 3-point rate, which has seen a boost. While he has struggled with percentages at these locations during the adjustment, it’s more evidence that Stotts’ plan to put McCollum where he’s most effective has worked.
Now he needs to hit the shots.
That seems imminent for McCollum, whose performance against Milwaukee is more on par with what we should expect in games to come. McCollum is no slouch in the work ethic department and any regression to the mean for him would be a trend upward. He’s 17 percentage points off his career average from 0-3 feet, and six percent off his 3-point mark. I don’t expect either of those to hold for the year, both of which would be career lows.
What I do expect is McCollum continuing to get these types of shots because they are exactly where Stotts has designed the offense for him to be. The NBA is a league that tries to get layups or 3-pointers, and Stotts has put McCollum in a position to get more of each this year.
The Blazers have played the same way for quite some time and no doubt Stotts felt like that was part of the problem. This Flow system has put McCollum in roughly the same spots during his entire career, and moving him into a more traditional wing role was a risk Stotts felt he had to take. The results aren’t there yet, but there’s the underpinnings of even greater reward once McCollum finds his shot and starts raining down from above.