In all my years watching and thinking about and talking about and writing about the NBA, I've come to realize that this is the toughest week of the calendar year to discuss. Not that it's difficult to come up with takes and knee-jerk reactions to the very beginning of the season - in fact, that's shockingly easy. Anyone can take a quick look at the opening week's box scores and state definitively that this is the year the Knicks are finally amazing and the Spurs stink. (They wouldn't be right, but they can easily state those things.)
This late-October period is difficult because saying things is easy, but saying intelligent things is next to impossible. You want to observe what's happened so far and say something insightful about it, but you have to fight the urge to go too crazy. There's an extremely fine line between reacting and overreacting, and it's really not easy to tiptoe along that line.
OK. So. C.J. McCollum.
What McCollum did Wednesday night against New Orleans, seizing the moment in his first regular-season game as the Trail Blazers' regular starter at the shooting guard spot, was downright ridiculous. He went off for 37 points, easily a career high - 28 of those 37 came in the first half, 22 in the first quarter alone. The Blazers led the Pelicans 43-18 at the end of one, and McCollum was the reason why. Casual fans entered this week wondering who in the world would assume the role of Portland's No. 2 guy in the pecking order after Damian Lillard, and McCollum cackled in their faces en route to the best opening night performance we've seen in a long, long time.
McCollum was a bit player with the Blazers last year, averaging only 15.7 minutes per game and mostly being known as the guy who handled mop-up duty late in blowouts when Wesley Matthews rested. He put up decent stats in short minutes off the bench, but no one outside of Rip City really took notice. In a new role this season, he has an opportunity to demand America's attention. He's already getting it.
I was pretty quick to pivot from "McCollum is a garbage time all star" to "McCollum can flat out play" https://t.co/0PM55bhK9i— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) October 29, 2015
I see stuff like this and nod in agreement, but at the same time I'm trying to be careful. I can't tell you how many times I've said something dramatic based on the results of an Oct. 28 game, only to look stupid by Christmas. It's a bad habit. I'm trying to quit.
Which is why I'm struggling to find the right tune to sing about McCollum right now. Because I know it's only one game, and there are 81 more to go, and any effusive praise I write now could easily be proven bunk by a couple of 3-for-13 shooting nights over the next week or two. That could happen. I know it. But at the same time, it's not unfair to express some optimism about McCollum. He's on the right path to NBA success. He was a lottery pick in 2013, he showed steady improvement last year in his second pro season, and he's now got all the elements in place for a breakout season. He's 24, he's been given a starting role and plenty of minutes, and he's got a coach who trusts him to fire away. The stats show that McCollum is almost as comfortable attacking from the pointman's role, running pick-and-rolls, as he is playing off the ball as a spot-up shooter. In short, he's a scorer. He'll take whatever opportunities come his way.
Wednesday against the Pelicans, there were a lot of opportunities. It should be noted that this was a unique situation. First of all, because it's the Pelicans - it's a team that's been beaten into submission by injuries over the last few weeks and was forced to start the season with a dreaded road back-to-back, including one game at Golden State against the reigning champions. Ish Smith played 28 minutes Wednesday. Alonzo Gee, who could barely crack the rotation last year in Portland, played 17. Kendrick Perkins - Kendrick Perkins! - played nine.
The other unique circumstance was the fact that opponents, including but not limited to New Orleans, are still unsure of how to game-plan for a Portland team whose rotation is loaded with unknown commodities. They know they've got to key in on Damian Lillard, who's a two-time All-Star and the odds-on favorite to lead the NBA in shot attempts this season. But past that, teams are still trying to figure these guys out. Who demands their focus, and how much? It's tough to say.
On opening night, the Pelicans showed up ready first and foremost to slow down Lillard. The Blazers knew this, and they were prepared to use the Pels' Dame-centric defense against them. That's why, especially in the first quarter, McCollum was their most dangerous weapon.
Here's a great example of the Pelicans keying in on Dame early. Watch the way they track him every step of the way in transition. Al-Farouq Aminu is bringing the ball up for the Blazers; Lillard is trailing him, while McCollum sneaks up the far-right side of the floor undetected. Ostensibly, the cross-matchups here should be the point guard Jrue Holiday on Lillard and the two, Eric Gordon, on McCollum. Instead, they ignore McCollum, allowing Holiday to pressure the ball-handling Aminu and Gordon to help off of the weak side onto Lillard. When Lillard gets the ball, they're in good position to swarm him - but they're completely ignoring the entire right half of the floor. One easy pass, and the Blazers have a wide-open spot-up look for one of the game's best young spot-up shooters. Swish.
It makes sense that opposing teams are going to overemphasize stopping Lillard early in games; after all, he's the one known commodity on the roster that defenses are planning for. But interestingly, it's not just Dame who was working effectively Wednesday night to create open space for McCollum to operate. Watch him work equally well with Meyers Leonard, here:
This is an example of the Blazers benefiting beautifully from the spacing that Leonard has to offer. Maybe a year ago, opposing defenses weren't so aware of the young 7-footer's ability to knock down open jump shots, but they're starting to figure it out now, and the threat of a Leonard jumper now has the potential to force opposing defenders to scamper all over the place, discombobulating their schemes. What happens on this possession is interesting - the initial action you see here is a pick-and-roll between McCollum and Mason Plumlee, which forces the Pelicans' Anthony Davis to switch onto McCollum. McCollum has no chance of attacking and scoring against the impossibly long, quick Unibrowed One, but what he can do is drive and kick to Leonard, who's a serious threat even from 24 feet out.
Leonard's catch puts the Pelicans in a tough position. The man supposedly guarding him is Kendrick Perkins, but Perk is quite possibly the slowest human still active in the NBA today, and there's no chance of him closing out. So Davis is forced to leap out of position, attempting to do the impossible - guard Leonard and McCollum at the same time. Davis commits a bit too hard to Leonard; Leonard makes the easy pass to his right, and the rest is history. Three-ball.
This is going to happen a lot this season. The Blazers' three-man unit of Lillard, Leonard and McCollum is going to be deadly because all three guys are young and energetic; they can keep moving the ball and moving their bodies for all 24 seconds of the shot clock, forcing opposing defenses to chase them around nonstop. Because they're all threats from long range, they're going to stretch defenders out a ton, and eventually those defenders will be stuck in situations like A.D.'s here - forced to close out on one shooter or the other, knowing they're screwed no matter which they choose. On opening night, the Pelicans picked their poison and dared McCollum to beat them; he did.
At least that's what worked throughout the entire first half. For the first 24 minutes on Wednesday, McCollum had an answer for anything. When they gave him space, he shot. When they crowded him, he darted around guys and beat them to the rim with impressive quickness. New Orleans just didn't have it in them to contain Dame/Meyers and keep C.J. under control as well.
In the second half Wednesday, the Pelicans shifted gears, but McCollum had an answer for that too.
This was the Blazers' very first possession of the second half, and if you ask me, this makes it pretty obvious that the Pelicans spent halftime obsessing over slowing down McCollum. The moment C.J. touches the ball, he's swarmed by both Gordon and Davis, who attempt to trap him in the corner and force him into a mistake - a bad shot, a turnover, anything. Instead, C.J. makes a great play, passing out of the double team and helping the Blazers whip the ball around the perimeter to the open man on the weak side - Leonard. Just like that, the Blazers push their lead from 27 to 30. It's not an assist on the play for McCollum, but it does demonstrate his keen ability to balance scoring with playmaking, as he finds a way to set up a teammate when his shot's not there.
In all of the above cases, the running theme is that McCollum and the Blazers have a knack for taking whatever the defense gives them. If McCollum has room to shoot, he'll do it. If there's a way to get a teammate going instead, he's comfortable doing that too. He's going to need to roll with the punches a lot these next few weeks, as he's in a situation where opposing defenses are going to throw a lot of different looks at him. He'll need to shift gears between scorer and facilitator a lot.
For these Blazers, this'll be the way it goes for a while. Teams are still sizing them up - still calibrating just how much emphasis to put on this C.J. McCollum guy and how much attention to redirect elsewhere. It might take a while for the NBA at large to figure that out - and as a result, it will probably also be quite some time until we have any definitive answers about how productive C.J. can be. Some nights, his shot will be available and he'll drop 37. Perhaps others, it won't be, and he'll struggle. I don't expect we'll know anytime soon what kind of player C.J. can be consistently.
And that's OK. With a young team like this, it takes a while to find concrete answers about who's capable of what from night to night. No worries. We'll enjoy spending this season searching.