clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Should McCollum and Lillard rest at the same time more often?

New, comments

Starting Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have rarely been on the bench at the same time this season. What are the implications?

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

As Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have gone this season, so too have the Portland Trail Blazers. Through 22 games, Lillard and McCollum are averaging a combined 50.3 points in wins and 38.7 points in losses. Their effectiveness on offense has been an essential element to Blazers victories all season.

Head Coach Terry Stotts has recognized the importance of his starting backcourt and has greatly limited time in which neither Lillard nor McCollum is on the floor. As reported earlier this week by Casey Holdahl on forwardcenter.net, Lillard and McCollum have been sitting simultaneously for less than two percent of the total minutes the team has played.

From Holdahl's article:

Stotts has made a habit of staggering the minutes of his best players during his time in Portland, though he's taken it to a new level so far this season, and with pretty good results.

"It's by design, I want one of them on the court at all times," said Stotts. "It works out since CJ is our starting two and backup point guard, so it only makes sense... The way things are now, (blowouts) or foul trouble or illness, that's the only thing that is probably going to change that."

Stotts stops short of explaining exactly why he employs this strategy, but it is not hard to fill in the gaps.

One clear reason is that Lillard and McCollum are the only primary ball handlers among rotation players. Absent Lillard and McCollum, Stotts would be forced to ask secondary players like Gerald Henderson or Al-Farouq Aminu to take on playmaking responsibilities. Either player can handle the occasional fast break but neither has demonstrated the decision making and refined handle that would be necessary for full-time point guard work. Tim Frazier could also play at point guard, but has been presumably limited by his poor shooting. Given the current roster, playing a point guard who can't shoot would cause major spacing concerns and potentially stagnate the offense.

McCollum's reliability as a primary ballhandler is a relatively recent development. When McCollum returned from a broken finger last December he was still prone to indecision and was often unable to handle defensive pressure. On Monday night against Milwaukee McCollum showed how much he has improved: He was regularly trapped off pick-and-rolls by the Bucks' lengthy defenders but used poise and decisive action to find the open man. The Bucks' blitzing defense likely would have left him rattled a year ago.

Stotts has also relied on McCollum's improved ability to create his own shot. Lillard is the only player on the roster capable of regularly scoring in isolation when the offense breaks down, making the two guards essential to Portland's gameplan. For example, Allen Crabbe has zero unassisted 3-point baskets in two seasons and Aminu requires open looks to knock down jumpers. Even Meyers Leonard, who is showing himself to be competent both as an outside shooter and on mid-range post-ups, requires the guards to initiate the action. The ball movement of Stotts' flow offense can cover a lot of individual inadequacy, but against good defenses having a player capable of scoring on his own out of a broken play is still essential. Thus, Lillard or McCollum must always be in the game.

The Blazers have played several games this season in which their primary offense has been stifled, but shot creation from McCollum and Lillard has saved the day. Against Utah, for example, Portland had only 11 assists on 41 field goals - a sign that the offense was not generating open shots. The Blazers won the game anyway, largely thanks to 62 points on 24 field goals from Lillard and McCollum. This game highlights the importance of keeping Lillard or McCollum on the court as often as possible to keep the offense functioning. Their ability to get a shot is plan B and there is no plan C.

However, weaknesses of relying on McCollum and Lillard as the only players who can create have begun to develop. When neither player is hitting things can get ugly and inefficient. The pejorative "chucker" comes to mind on the worst of nights. Further, when McCollum plays without Lillard on the court his efficiency takes a nose-dive:

McCollum's shooting

FG

FGA

FG%

3P

3PA

3P%

eFG%

Ast'd

%Ast'd

With Lillard

108

237

0.456

37

89

0.416

0.534

56

0.519

Without Lillard

52

147

0.354

11

40

0.275

0.391

8

0.154

McCollum's full on/off stats with Lillard can be found at www.basketball-reference.com.

The percent of baskets assisted is especially telling - McCollum is on an island without Lillard. Nobody else on the court is capable of getting him open looks and his shooting percentages suffer across the board as a result. This is representative of a player who is not quite ready to shoulder the load as a primary scorer and playmaker.

Given these numbers, it is reasonable to ask if insisting that either McCollum or Lillard always be on the court is doing a disservice to McCollum's long-term development. Is McCollum being forced to do too much when Lillard is not in the game? Is he developing bad habits, rather than improving on offense? Would he improve more quickly by playing alongside Lillard more often?

The qualifier when asking these types of questions is that the team has no other choice in the short term. As outlined above, McCollum and Lillard are the only players on the roster who are capable of playing extended minutes at the point and gelling with the offense. Despite McCollum's dependence on Lillard for open shots, Stotts' hands are more or less tied unless he is willing to essentially punt for 6-8 minutes per game while both his guards rest. Ultimately questions about whether or not it is wise to lean so heavily on McCollum highlight the tension between short-term and long-term goals of the franchise.

Either way, this season allows for extended assessment of McCollum's potential. McCollum will fall somewhere on a spectrum between fringe All-Star candidate who can lead an offense, and the first guard off the bench who provides a spark and clearly fills a niche role (i.e. Jamal Crawford/Mo Williams 2.0). Stotts' current strategy will, hopefully, allow the team to definitively place McCollum on that spectrum and determine whether or not he can be a reliable starter next to Lillard.

Ultimately, Stotts is walking a tightrope. He is certainly aware of McCollum's inefficiency as a primary scoring option so far, but he also probably sees no other options. The construction of the roster has necessitated that Lillard and/or McCollum play as often as possible, and McCollum is now being forced to sink or swim as a result. It is unlikely the team will get another playmaker this season, so impact on his long term development will remain an open question.

What do you think? Should Stotts rest McCollum and Lillard together more often? Give us your opinion in the comments!

---

We invite you to help send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. Your ticket donations make this possible. You can donate through this link:

http://www.rosequarter.com/blazersedge

Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE

Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)

You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.