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CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard Share Defensive Journey

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After very different NBA beginnings, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard went into this summer with the same focus - improving their pick and roll defense.

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Damian Lillard is a 6'3" guard that attended a little known school from a small conference, broke his fifth metatarsal in his right foot, and was then drafted by the Blazers with their first pick in 2012. C.J. McCollum is a 6'3" guard that attended an even littler school, broke his fifth metatarsal in his left foot, and was drafted by the Blazers with their first pick in the 2013 draft. Rarely have two players' stories lined up so closely.

That storybook connection, bound to end eventually, came to an abrupt and early demise as McCollum suffered an injury his rookie year. Even after returning, he never demonstrated the same poise, comfort, and success Lillard possessed with the ball in his hands. However, the connection is still alive and well on the other side of the ball.

Both went into last summer knowing they had to improve their defense. Not only was their overall focus similar, they both identified the same specific defensive skill they needed to correct.

Damian Lillard:

"Um, I just want to be better. You know, I think, in pick and roll situations, I watched film of myself a lot before camp started with one of the coaches and it was a distance between me and the guy I was guardin' so it was hard to get over pick and rolls so, um, just trying to get better at angles, being more physical, stuff like that"

C.J. McCollum:

"Angles defensively, I've been working on ball screens you know tryin' to get over, get into your man before you get over, and just making it more difficult on guys to score"

When CJ says "get into your man before getting over" and Lillard says "there was too much space between me and the guy I was guarding so it was making it harder to get over the screen" they're really saying the same thing.

When learning the pick and roll, guards are taught to dribble close enough to the screener to rub shoulders. If the ball handler does this properly, the only way to get over the screen is to push through the gap between the two offensive players. This necessitates being chest to chest with the ball handler. If the defender leaves any space between himself and the man he's guarding he'll run straight into the chest of the screener rather than hitting the gap between the screener and the guard.

Ouch.

"Get into your man before getting over" is just another way of describing what Dane Carbaugh discussed in his breakdown of Lillard's defense last year (see 2:14 mark). He wanted Lillard to take a better angle on the screen, moving up the court and around the pick rather than taking a perpendicular angle into the screener. This step of "getting into ‘em" or "moving up the court" is the key to putting yourself in position to avoid the screen and fight through the gap between the screener and the guard. Both McCollum and Lillard highlighted this as one of their key defensive priorities and, that last clip aside, both are doing a better job this year.

Lillard moves up the court and takes a trailing position as Chris Paul darts around the screen. He's able to avoid the screen completely and stay close enough to Paul to recover with a little help from Aldridge.

McCollum physically gets chest to chest with Jordan Farmar. A questionable call ruins an otherwise great defensive play but this is a good example of their continued room for improvement.

Not only do McCollum and Lillard need to be more consistent in executing this approach, they could also do a better job of staying balanced. Often you'll see them push their hips forward as they try to scoot around the screen. This causes them to frequently trip or to run into the ball handler, committing a foul.

But this is real progress for two players that have been total defensive liabilities up until this point. Given the important roles both players will have for years to come, these types of improvements bode well for the Blazers' future.

What's even more interesting is that two players with extremely similar physical profiles and tackling the same exact problem would take such differing approaches. Lillard spoke about watching lots of film of himself while CJ, well...

"Watching myself wasn't really helpful. My defense was pretty pathetic. You don't get better by watching people score."

While that kind of brutal honesty is refreshing, it seems strange they would have such differing opinions. It makes you wonder, are they even working together, comparing notes as they tackle the same challenge? You could argue Dame has a lot more film to review, but still, it's surprising that the coaching staff wouldn't have a consistent process for helping guys improve something as specific as individual pick and roll defense. Then again, C.J. did talk about breaking down film of other players with assistant coaches Vanterpool and Tibbetts, so who knows.

This is one of the many follies of fandom. The only thing we get to see relatively unfiltered are the results on the court. This can ultimately be unsatisfying because watching all facets of a team's journey is what makes being a fan especially rewarding. You get to grow with the team, watch it change and evolve, becoming more invested as a result. It's the key difference between the way Dave talks about the fan community and its relationship with the organization, and the way GMs talk about putting a product on the floor - something to be consumed for a few hours at a time, 82 times a year.

So we cling to these glimpses into the process, trying to weave together entire narratives with just a few strands. It can seem ridiculous at times that such mundane quotes about pick and roll defense can cause such speculation about the relationship between players and the methods of the coaching staff. But we do it because it's all we have. It's the best way to feel connected to the journey and not just the end result packaged in a corporate bow.

Or maybe I'm just crazy.