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The Fascinating Partnership Of CJ McCollum And Damian Lillard

Troy Wayrynen - USA TODAY Sports

McCollum and Lillard are fantastic talents, but how do they stack up for the future of the Trail Blazers?

The Portland Trail Blazers are in a perplexing situation. They are restricted by their salary cap situation going forward beyond this season, and are stuck in the midst of a horrendous 23-33 season. But, they have two of the most exciting young guards in the league in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

Dame has been the face of the franchise since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge two seasons ago, but with CJ rapidly improving, it is worth evaluating the two players. Due to Portland’s struggles, it is important to look at how the two players are successful together, as well as how they stack up with one another for the future.

Offensive Potency

Starting with offense, both Lillard and McCollum are brilliant scorers. Lillard’s 26.0 and McCollum’s 23.5 points per game are both within the top-15 in the league. Combined, they are the third-highest scoring duo in the league behind Golden State’s Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and Cleveland’s LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

Individually, Lillard is the seventh-highest scorer in the league and is one of the best one-on-one players the game has to offer. Since Lillard entered the league in 2012, he is one of just 10 active players to have multiple 50-point games. His ability to explode at any moment, combined with his knack for clutch performances, makes him incredibly compelling.

His endless collection of game-winners will make him a legend in Trail Blazer lore for decades, but his heroics do have their limitations. His 30.6% usage rate is 10th-highest in the league, but only jumps up to 32.1% when McCollum goes to the bench. This shows that Lillard can really only play one way and that is with the ball in his hands.

But, while he plays the same no matter who is on the floor, without McCollum, Portland’s offense tanks. Without McCollum, the team scores 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions and Lillard turns the ball over an extra 1.9 times. When Lillard is the lone scorer on the floor, the Blazer offense can’t create enough quality shots to make up for McCollum’s absence.

This deficit is likely because of McCollum’s incredible efficiency. His 55.3 EFG% is sixth among 20-point scorers, and his ability to work hard off the ball helps him to shoot an excellent 41.1% from deep.

But, while his strengths are pretty different than Lillard’s, his limitations are very similar. When McCollum is on the floor without Lillard, the team is even worse offensively. They score 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions than when both McCollum and Lillard are on the court, and McCollum turns the ball over an extra 5.7 times.

While they are extremely talented as individuals, they are really only successful together. Nearly a quarter of Lillard’s assists go to McCollum. And, while the results of their partnership is far more than the sum of their individual parts, Lillard still has the slight edge over McCollum due to his versatility and explosiveness.

Defensive Deficiencies

Even with their limitations, they are still both elite and nuanced offensive players. Unfortunately, there is none of that talent when it comes to their defense. While they can match up with just everybody offensively, they are unable to stop just about anyone.

This table outlines their defensive statistics this season, with the number in parentheses representing their rank out of the 212 players who have played in at least 30 games and average 20 minutes per game.

Defensive Stats (out of 212)

Defensive Box Plus MinusDefensive Win SharesDefensive Rating
McCollum-2.0 (184th)0.8 (174st)114 (195th)
Lillard-2.4 (198th)0.7 (180th)114 (196th)

There really isn’t any way to sugarcoat just how bad they are defensively. Having one starter fall in the bottom 15% of almost every defensive category is bad but manageable, but having both backcourt players do so is nearly impossible to cover up.

To try to compensate, Portland is forced to play defense-only players like Al-Farouq Amino and Noah Vonleh extensive minutes. As a result, many of the positives Lillard and McCollum bring on offense get canceled out by their immense negatives on defense.Image title

Ed Szczepanski -USA TODAY Sports

The Future of the Backcourt

Based on this assessment, Lillard still has the slight overall advantage between the two. That being said, the gap between the two players is closing rapidly and McCollum could possibly surpass him by the end of the season.

But, as Portland sits outside the playoffs, the question being brought up more and more is “does Portland have to choose between them going forward?” The recent consensus seems to be shifting towards “yes,” but I don’t agree with that assessment.

First of all, the two players work so well together offensively that over-reacting to a disappointing season is not a great way to make long-term roster decisions. Going back all the way to the 1990, there have been just three instances where two guards on the same team, both in their first five seasons, averaged 20 points per game.

The three are: Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway on Golden State in 1990-91, Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse on Philadelphia in 1996-97, and Cuttino Mobley and Steve Francis on Houston in 2001-02.

All three backcourts were broken up shortly thereafter due to trades and free agency, so we never really got to see them live up to their potential. The rarity of these pairing show just how special Lillard and McCollum are, and breaking them up will deprive them of potentially something special.

Secondly, due to the “poison pill” in McCollum’s contract, the Trail Blazers would be extremely limited in trying to trade away McCollum.

In trading away McCollum, the Blazers would only be able to take back 150% of his $3.2 million salary this season. However, the team that would get McCollum would take on the average of his salaries over his entire contract, and after he signed his extension this past offseason, that would be about $22 million this year.

Essentially, the team that would land McCollum would have to take on about 4.5 times the salary that they are trading away, which makes finding a suitable landing spot near impossible. Once teams realize that McCollum is essentially unattainable, Portland loses a lot of trade leverage in a potential deal involving Lillard.

Ultimately, it makes far more sense in my mind to keep the two players together and try to build around them than it does to blow it all up and start over. Finding a third guard that can help make up for their defensive liabilities — a la Patrick Beverley with James Harden and Eric Gordon in Houston — is a much better option.

Having two of the best young guards in the league isn’t an problem that needs fixing. Forcing change for change’s sake after a poor season with an inexperienced team isn’t how you build a successful franchise long-term. If Portland can build around their two young studs instead of splitting them up, then we might eventually get to see what they are truly capable of.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Led by CJ McCollum, Lehigh University upset which school in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament?
Created 2/15/17
  1. University of North Carolina
  2. Kansas University
  3. Duke University
  4. Villanova University

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