Do the Blazers need CJ McCollum to get better on defense?

Do the Blazers need CJ McCollum to get better on defense?

We know how well Damian Lillard played on defense in the 2019 postseason. It was as if the Portland Trail Blazers guard flipped a switch, with opposing guards unable to dribble without Lillard poking at the ball. He nipped at them incessantly. He became a hassle.

This was a change for Portland, who will be able to add a defensive presence at the guard position without needing to actually make an acquisition should Lillard's postseason bleed into next year. Lillard’s a wholly-formed offensive player, but his defense was always lacking. Forget adding additional range or new dribble moves in the offseason —  defense is what we want to see from Lillard as an offseason addition.

But what about CJ McCollum?

The long-standing knock against the Trail Blazers — and against the roster construction theory that Neil Olshey has put in place — is that they cannot survive with both Lillard and McCollum on defense. They aren't big enough, and their offensive impact is too similar and not great enough to outpace what issues seem to always form in the postseason. 

And frankly, this stands in staunch defiance of the numbers surrounding McCollum's defense… in the regular season. For his position, McCollum defended the pick-and-roll, spot-up, and hand-off play types well, according to Synergy. In fact, the only real area where McCollum struggled of any consequence was in isolation as opponents drove toward his left. 

Paired with some of McCollum’s more efficient defensive tendencies (like his propensity to shy away from fouling) the Lehigh product isn’t a statistical slouch on D. 

But his real problem came in the postseason. This year, his excellent marks against both the spot-up and pick-and-roll play type took a huge nosedive as the playoffs began. Teams ran McCollum around screens, and he wound up guarding spot-up shooters more often than any other action. Where before McCollum ranked in the 77th percentile vs. spot-ups in the regular season, in the 2019 NBA playoffs the Blazers star dipped to the 49th percentile.

Even worse was how he performed in the pick-and-roll, which accounted for 24% of the plays McCollum defended. Opponents in the postseason abused McCollum, and he finished the postseason ranked in the bottom fifth of defenders against the PNR with regard to points per possession.

Accounting for this is straightforward. First, The competition in the playoffs is by its very nature more difficult. Portland sees the best teams night in and night out in the postseason, and so McCollum ultimate ability laid bare. His regular season numbers had the benefit of him producing excellent nights against the entire NBA, which included lower quality opponents.

Second, the rotations McCollum faced in the postseason shortened. Teams go from nine or 10-man benches to seven or eight-man rotations. That meant that McCollum not only couldn't get away from higher-quality opponents, but he had to face them more often over the course of the game. It also meant that there was less of a chance McCollum would face 20 or 30 percent of his minutes each night against a team's backup shooting guard. That’s doubly true given Terry Stotts shortened his rotation as well, and both McCollum and Lillard were more handcuffed to each other than ever. 

Many times in the postseason, it was starters vs. starters, and McCollum suffered because of it.

Now McCollum appears to be in the same situation Lillard found himself up until this year. Portland's second-biggest star will face harsher criticism now that Lillard appears to be moving in the right direction. 

But that still doesn't answer our original question: Do the Blazers need McCollum to be better defensively? 

This depends on what the roster looks like at the start of the regular season next year. Olshey is looking to upgrade the wing both on defense and in terms of shooting. Fans may think that it’s the big men who back up the guards in the NBA, but in reality, wings help each other out rotationally with digs and stunts. A fresh new crop of defensive-minded swingmen could help McCollum out, particularly in the 2020 playoffs.

Still, the problem with Portland is still The Problem With Portland. McCollum is a smart guy, and one who fought to adapt to the new offensive rotation Stotts put upon him this year. He’s now a certified star. McCollum has the wherewithal to get better on defense in the postseason — he’s an athlete, he’s quick, and he’s smart. He can spend time with coaches and learn the same little tricks that Lillard has implemented. But will he?

There are no dire circumstances that require McCollum to be Tony Allen by October. But much like with Lillard, if the Blazers were suddenly able to add a defensive presence at guard without making a roster addition, it would make the idea of Portland returning to the Western Conference Finals all that more real.

Trail Blazers share the wealth in win over Kings, looking to continue balanced scoring

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USA Today Images

Trail Blazers share the wealth in win over Kings, looking to continue balanced scoring

The Trail Blazers earned their third consecutive win at Moda Center on Wednesday night, and their 12th straight home victory over the Kings as the Blazers made sure to not let one slip away.

Portland wasn’t able to put Sacramento away until the final minutes of the fourth quarter on Wednesday. The Blazers attributed that to their poor defense, but felt they had one of their better offensive nights.

After finishing with his fourth double-double of the season with 24 points and 10 assists, Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard emphasized how important it was to bounce back after Tuesday’s loss to the Clippers.

“It was a big deal,” Lillard said. “When you go on the road, a road-home back-to-back, it’s tough. You’ve got to play against a really good team like the Clippers, get on a plane, get up to play the next day against a really good team, a young team that’s really competing right now. So I was proud of the way we responded. You don’t want to let one loss or the game the night before affect the next night and I thought we handled it well.”

A lot of the Blazers success on the offensive end was thanks to their ball movement.

I thought we moved the ball well, we got quality shots. I thought offensively, it was a complete game. It was a really good game for us.

In Wednesday’s win, the Blazers finished with 28 assists. In Tuesday’s loss they finished 20 assists. But it didn’t even feel like a 20-assist game vs. the Clippers after watching the Trail Blazers’ stagnant offense.  

The man who led the Blazers on offense in the win over the Kings, CJ McCollum, believes the ball movement is coming along while the team continues to incorporate Caremelo Anthony and familiarize Melo into the playbook a little more.

I think we are continuing to figure out spacing, that’s the biggest thing – spacing, ball movement, what sets we can run… We’re just trying to build that’s the biggest thing and play good basketball. – CJ McCollum postgame

McCollum, who tied his career-high with 10 straight 20+ scoring nights, led all scorers on Wednesday with 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting. Five Blazer players scored in double-figures.

Lillard discussed what a night like that with balanced scoring means to this Blazers team:

“It’s really important. When we can get that type of performance of one, two, three, four guys, you’re going to have a chance.”

“It’s something we want to continue," Lillard added. "When it’s a lot of attention on the ball like it was tonight, especially they just kept sending two guys to the ball – we get it out and once we do that, they’re up against it. We’ve got numbers basically outside of the trap so when we can make the right plays and take advantage of it, get quality shots, I think it can be a night like tonight.”

Now with the Trail Blazers playing nine of their next 12 games at home this month, Blazers Coach Terry Stotts knows the favorable home schedule can't be overlooked.

“We can’t take it for granted, there aren’t any easy ones. It is nice to be home, we did have a lot of road games, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. It is certainly better than the alternative.”

Bizarro world?: Hassan Whiteside with 7 assists, CJ McCollum with 4 blocks

Bizarro world?: Hassan Whiteside with 7 assists, CJ McCollum with 4 blocks

It was a trip into bizarro world Wednesday night for the Portland Trail Blazers. You know – everything is backwards.

CJ McCollum had a career-high four blocked shots, Hassan Whiteside had a career-high seven assists and the normally slow-paced Trail Blazers had a season-high 28 fast-break points.

What’s next, Terry Stotts doing an hour of standup at Helium Comedy Club?

The Blazers pulled away from the Sacramento Kings in the fourth quarter in Moda Center and ran to a 127-116 win. Portland shot 56 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three-point range and got 20-plus points from four starters. Whiteside finished three assists shy of a triple double after getting 22 points and 16 rebounds.

And he had a couple of nifty backdoor passes that led to baskets off double-teams on the Portland guards.

“I love that backdoor pass, I should have gone to Princeton,” he said with a smile. “I don’t mind passing. I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better at making decisions. I’m new to this system and new to these guys and I’m going to keep working.

“I was impressed with (CJ’s) shotblocking. I was going to ask him for some tips.”

McCollum was hitting bulls-eyes all night. He was 14-22 from the floor, including 5-10 from long range, for 33 points. Damian Lillard chipped in with 24 points and 10 assists and knocked down a couple of big threes late in the game.

“What was more bizarre, his seven assists or my blocked shots?” McCollum asked. “I told him if would have wanted to get 10 assists he could have gotten 10 assists. Credit to him, he’s making the right plays and he’s learning.

“I’ll be at the rim every now and then, being a rim protector and helping people’s fantasy teams.”

The Trail Blazers, with Carmelo Anthony installed at power forward, are showing signs of becoming a very good offensive team.

“We’re just trying to build,” McCollum said. “We’re a top five or top 10 offensive team historically, but with him, we’re top five. We just have to figure out how to use all of our pieces. I think that’s the biggest thing. And then get that cohesiveness."

The defensive side of things is still a work in progress. And it’s going to take some progress.

The Kings, playing shorthanded, shot 46.3 percent overall.

“Obviously, to start the game, the first three quarters, (the Kings) played comfortable,” Lillard said. “We just didn’t do a good job in that stretch of the game and I think it showed because it was obvious toward the end of the game when we stepped it up and tightened it up at the end, we got separation because of it. The fourth quarter, we stepped it up and that was when we won the game.”

The Blazers will play host to the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night in Moda Center.

 

Listen to this week’s Talkin’ Blazers podcast here: