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Splash Brothers 2.0? How Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum Are Winning In The Wild West

USA Today Sports - Craig Mitchelldyer

Dame Dolla and CJ McClutch are taking the west by storm, one crossover at a time.

Something is brewing in Portland.

The Trailblazers, whose roster was decimated last summer by the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews in free agency and Nicolas Batum by way of a trade, have emerged from the offseason rubble an electric, star-powered team poised for a playoff berth. 

The roots of the organization’s emergence aren’t exactly a well-kept secret. 

Damian Lillard, who perpetually plays with a chip on his shoulder (and a grimace to match), has been on a scoring tear lately, averaging 30.5 points per contest in the last 15 games. CJ McCollum, Lillard’s demure backcourt partner and sidekick, is scoring 20 points per game over the same stretch. 

But those who watch Portland are used to this type of output; on the season, Lillard is averaging 25.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists, while McCollum is netting about 21 per game along with 3.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Together, they constitute a duo more intrinsic to its team’s success than any other two player combo in the league. When Lillard and McCollum share the court, Portland scores 111 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be second in the league, behind only Golden State. When Dame and CJ are on the bench, their team’s scoring efficiency drops by 13 points to a rate that would be second worst in the league.

How have McCollum and Lillard lifted a pedestrian roster to the sixth seed? Well, to start, they are two of the most efficient isolation players in all of basketball. This season Lillard has scored 1.06 points per isolation possession and McCollum has scored 0.89 points per isolation possession, good for 2nd and 16th, respectively, among players who have had 100 or more isolations, per NBA.com. McCollum uses a myriad of nifty moves, like the one below, to find and exploit holes in opposing defenses:


While Lillard often relies on quick pull-up jumpers to keep his defenders off balance, it would be a mistake to sleep on his ability to attack the basket. He has a propensity to take a screen for one dribble and pull up from three, like he does here.


Opposing big men often hedge Portland screens high, leaving Lillard a crevice that he can split, which he does adeptly:


Lillard and McCollum’s one-on-one prowess means that Portland doesn’t really need to run complex offensive sets to manufacture points. A high screen for one of the backcourt members almost always produces something, whether it’s a drive, a pull-up, or a kick out to a shooter whose man has jumped ship to contain Lillard or McCollum. According to Synergy Sports, 20% of Portland’s plays end with a pick-and-roll where the ball handler shoots or turns the ball over. No other play is run more by the Blazers, and of the aforementioned 20%, 80% of those plays are orchestrated by Dame or CJ, also per Synergy. Overall, Coach Terry Stotts’ starting backcourt accounts for 44% of his team’s shots attempts.

Portland’s streamlined offense, in which its two stars start and finish a large percentage of possessions, unsurprisingly isn’t very conducive to ball movement. The Blazers pass the ball 286 times per game on average, sixth fewest in the league, per NBA.com. 

But, that isn’t to say that Lillard and McCollum don’t pass to each other. A third of McCollum’s six trey attempts per contest come from Lillard passes, and on these passes he shoots a blistering 46%, per NBA.com. Part of the reason McCollum shoots so well off these passes is that many of the looks are wide open; opposing defenses are committed to stifeling Lillard, so his drives often create cushy three-point looks for his teammates, like this one:


McCollum, who handles the ball less, finds Lillard for a little over one attempt behind the arc per game, and on these dishes Lillard shoots a cool 45% (also via NBA.com). Since each has become accustomed to rotating and spotting up when the other drives, Portland is tough to defend even if doesn’t swing the ball much. 

While this might suggest that Lillard and McCollum are somewhat selfish with the rock, the pervasive attitude in Portland’s locker room is that these two are the leaders of the team and should be controlling the lion’s share of possessions. In a recent podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who spent time around the Trailblazers organization while researching, noted that Portland’s players feel compelled to play, and play hard, for Lillard. He has a magnetic effect on the rest of the team which stems both from his work ethic and, among other things, the late night texts he sends to everyone from the starters to the benchwarmers to boost team morale. Portland is Lillard’s team, and the collective organization has no qualms about him and McCollum dominating the ball. 

While the Trailblazers have found success, their season certainly hasn’t been a perfect one. The team is 4-6 in its last ten and they are only half a game ahead of Houston. The problem lies almost solely on the defensive end. Portland is 11th worst in the league in terms of defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), and is basically inept at guarding the pick-and-roll, allowing about 0.9 points per possession when the ball handler finishes the possession (the second worst mark in the league, per Synergy). This is probably a function of youth; most of Portland’s roster is below the age of 25, and defending the screen and roll is a skill that takes time to ripen. Similarly, the Trailblazers concede 0.9 points per post-up according to Synergy, good for 27th best in the league. Portland has size but not much length or toughness inside, and it’s in the bottom ten in blocks per game, with only Mason Plumlee averaging one or more per game (and he averages 1.0 exactly). Inability to guard the pick-and-roll and post-up are big problems come playoff time, as teams tend to tighten up their offensive systems and stick with simple sets that work. Hopefully Portland can rejigger its defensive scheme in the last few regular season games and prepare for its unlikely playoff berth. 

Given the strength at the top of the Western Conference, it’s unlikely that Portland will make it out of the first round, assuming it manages to hang on to its playoff spot. But the fact that its roster was stripped down to its bones and the team is still competing is a testament to Lillard, McCollum and the organization as a whole. Instead of tanking, like many analysts suggested the team should last summer, it stood behind its players, and correctly so. Lillard and McCollum are the perfect backcourt to build on moving forward, and if the Blazers can make a couple more nuanced acquisitions, it will be a top team for the foreseeable future. Dame once tweeted, “A reputation is something you have to keep earning. If not it will disappear like it never existed.” He and McCollum are building their reputations game by game, and it doesn’t look like they’ll stop until their names are synonymous with winning. 

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

SQuiz
What team did CJ McCollum and Lehigh beat in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament?
Created 3/15/16
  1. Arizona
  2. Kentucky
  3. Kansas
  4. Duke

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