The Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended in major disappointment last spring. They lost a five-game series to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, despite Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley playing with an injured foot and then hurting his face in Game 3. Conley didn’t even take the court for Games 4 and 5.
Portland’s summer went even worse, as LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo left Rip City in free agency and Nicolas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets. Their replacements are mostly young, potential-filled players who’ve yet to prove they deserve featured roles in the NBA.
But if the Blazers have any semblance of hope from the past six months or so, it’s this: C.J. McCollum could be the team’s next big thing.
Not only did the 24-year-old shooting guard end his second regular season with a bang after Matthews’s torn Achilles (15.6 points in 27.1 minutes during April before the playoffs started), he was an absolute monster in the postseason.
On a team with two All-Stars in Aldridge and Damian Lillard, McCollum was probably the team’s best player from Games 3 to 5 against the Grizzlies, as the below table demonstrates.
The elimination Game 5 was the former No. 10 overall pick’s best performance, as he scored 33 points on 7-of-11 shooting from three-point range:
And unlike many NBA players who use the offseason as a time to disconnect themselves from basketball, the former Lehigh University superstar has used the summer to work tirelessly on improving his game.
Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy recently had the chance to catch up with McCollum, and below is an excerpt from his information-packed piece published last Friday.
McCollum also said he texts the team’s video coordinator at the end of each season and lists off a bunch of footage he wants from specific players, games and even possessions. Once he gets the footage, he puts it on his iPad, and it gets watched…well, a lot.
“Basically, whenever I’m bored or whenever I have the urge, I just watch film because my iPad is always in my possession,” the young guard said.
In July, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey hinted that McCollum might even start this season on SiriusXM NBA Radio, discussing the potential of a Lillard-McCollum backcourt:
Is there concern that a Lillard-McCollum back court is too small? Neil Olshey says "I'm sure there is." Says they can make it work though
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) September 3, 2015
But should the young guard really be the Blazers’ starter at the 2 this season? Nope.
McCollum is tailor-made to shine in a sixth-man role, and Portland would be wise to slot him there. Let’s examine why that is.
McCollum’s Offensive Fit
McCollum, while listed as a shooting guard, has the offensive tendencies of a primary ball-handler, more of a Kobe Bryant, James Harden or Manu Ginobili than a Danny Green, J.J. Redick or Kyle Korver. All six of those guys are 2s, but the amount of time they like with the ball varies wildly.
In the Western Conference, you’ll notice the best teams have tended to use starting backcourts where a primary ball-handler and shot creator is placed next to a guy who thrives scoring off the ball.
Take a look below at last year’s playoff teams in the West. Aside from the Dallas Mavericks with Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis (gee, I wonder why that didn’t work out?), the rest of the teams had a clear discrepancy in shot creation between their backcourt’s primary ball-handler and off-the-ball guy.
Portland’s roster probably isn’t experienced or talented enough to make the postseason in the loaded Western Conference this year, but that should still be the goal. Following the blueprint laid by successful West teams would be a good starting point.
Lillard, the Blazers’ obvious choice to start at point guard again in 2015-16, is right around the average for primary ball-handlers in terms of assisted field goals.
But where would McCollum fit?
In the 2014-15 regular season, the young shooting guard was assisted on 48.4 percent of his baskets. In the playoffs, that dipped slightly to 46.9 percent. He’s more on the “ball-handler” side of things than the “off-the-ball” side.
New shooting guard Gerald Henderson seems to be a better fit offensively next to Lillard, as 57.0 percent of his baskets were assisted with the Charlotte Hornets last season. He isn’t as good of a three-point shooter as McCollum, but he can hit the mid-range jumper and Portland already has Lillard and (hopefully) Meyers Leonard in the starting lineup as major threats from downtown.
McCollum is perfectly qualified to lead Portland’s second unit as its ball-handling shooting guard. My desire for the rest of the unit is Tim Frazier at point guard, Maurice Harkless at small forward, Ed Davis at power forward and Chris Kaman/Noah Vonleh at center.
None of those guys have the skills to grease the wheels of an offense except for McCollum. If you put the 24-year-old in the starting lineup, the second unit is left with Henderson or Kaman to lead its offense, which isn’t an ideal situation.
McCollum’s Defensive Fit
One thing you may have noticed from the above table is just how much talent there is at the guard spots in the West. In addition to the players on the list, Russell Westbrook, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, Kobe Bryant and Ricky Rubio all reside in the conference.
Naturally, Western Conference teams must trot out enough defensive acumen on the floor to counter the offensive skills of all those studs.
If the Blazers try to pass off Lillard and McCollum as their starting backcourt, they’re only asking for trouble.
Lillard’s utter inability to stop his man from scoring is well-documented. McCollum somehow allowed his opponents to shoot only 37.6 percent from the field last year, but this is a case where the eye test takes precedence; he hasn’t yet proved he can defend at a high level.
McCollum is listed at 6’4″, but he was only 6’3.25″ at the 2013 NBA Draft Combine, per DraftExpress. His wingspan of 6’6.25″ seems alright, but considering he’ll be matched up with wingspans like James Harden (6’10.75″), Danny Green (6’10”) and Klay Thompson (6’8″), it’s pretty bad.
The shooting guard did improve on defense last year, and he may become solid in the future with some more experience. But considering his small size and just-OK athleticism for the position, he isn’t quite good enough to pick up Lillard’s slack like Matthews did.
Henderson is almost two inches taller (6’5 in shoes at the 2009 combine) and has a much bigger wingspan (6’10.25″) than McCollum. He’s also much more explosive:
Fundamentally, both are good, not great. The difference is Henderson’s physical tools make him a much better fit to play next to Lillard.
In the second unit, McCollum will be fine guarding reserve shooting guards. Frazier did make the Big Ten All-Defensive Team one year while at Penn State, so we can assume he’ll at least be better than Lillard on that end. Should my previously-outlined second unit come to fruition, Harkless and Davis will likely be the defensive anchors.
Both offensively and defensively, McCollum is a much better fit off the bench than he is in the starting lineup next to Lillard.
Now, this isn’t to say the two should never play together — considering Lillard probably will play around 36 minutes per game and McCollum deserves to play around 28 to 30, they will inevitably get some time together even if they aren’t the starting backcourt.
This isn’t the end of the world, either.
Admittedly, the Blazers had a much better roster last season, but the young guards did have a workable net rating of plus-1.2 points per 100 possessions in the 422 minutes they were on the court together last season. That’s not terrible.
But if the Blazers want to win instead of tank, they’ll try to stagger the minutes as best they can to get the most out of their top two backcourt players.