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Why CJ McCollum Owes His Success to Damian Lillard

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Portland's backcourt is scoring up a storm, but one member might be more dependent than the other.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the storylines blossoming through the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers season, none looks as promising as that of CJ McCollum. The third-year shooting guard averages 20 points per game, is frequently mentioned for his role alongside Damian Lillard in a premium-scoring backcourt, and has become a strong candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Given Portland's summer roster overhaul, Lillard's ascendance to star status was expected this year, as was the inconsistent play of his teammates. McCollum has been a revelation.

McCollum's transformation reflects his new role on the team. He spent most of the last two seasons as a marginal role-player on the bench, prey to injuries, youth, and a stacked roster ahead of him. Not only is he healthy this season for the first time in his NBA career, he's the only box of cereal in the cupboard apart from the family-sized crate of Dame-ios. Of the 8 players in Portland's regular rotation alongside the starting guards, only Noah Vonleh scores fewer than 50% of his field goals unassisted. Vonleh accounts for 3 attempts per game. Portland's possessions come in two flavors: Dame and CJ shoot or Dame and CJ dish the assist.

McCollum's usage rate has jumped to 26.3 percent this year, compared to 20.5 percent last season. His shot attempts erupted from 5.9 per game to 17.5. His attempts per 36 minutes have gone from 13.5 to 17.9. His assist percentage is up to 18.9 from 10.3. Despite the increased involvement on offense, McCollum's turnover percentage and shooting percentages have remained constant. In short, CJ is handling, passing, and shooting the ball more than he ever has without losing efficiency. He's being asked to helm the Blazers' offense on a regular basis for the first time in his career and he's responding consistently, showing all the hallmarks of a legit progression.

The billion-dollar question: how much of McCollum's improvement is driven by environment and how much is due to his talent and skills? Is this a case of somebody having to make plays on a bad team or would McCollum be looking this good under any circumstances?

As of this writing, McCollum ranks 7th in the NBA in total field goal attempts, with 434. That places him ahead of LeBron James, side-by-side with Paul George, nestled beneath Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook. Lillard's 512 attempts dwarf McCollum's, but CJ still gets as many opportunities as the highest-profile #1 options in the league...a second option in name only. His aggregate numbers might not transfer to a team with more talent, nor to future incarnations of the Trail Blazers.

Efficiency is a better indicator of McCollum's progress than raw production. His true shooting percentage of .521 does not compare favorably with his contemporaries on the shot attempt list. George registers a .595, LeBron .565, and Westbrook a .582. Anthony's .510 makes McCollum look good, but scoring more efficiently than Carmelo is hardly a claim to fame.

As Eric Griffith pointed out in an article last week, McCollum's shooting numbers fluctuate depending on whether Lillard is on or off the court (stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference).

CJOnOffDame

Every Blazers rotation player registers a deficit with Lillard off the court, but McCollum's drop-offs are severe enough to tab his offensive prowess as Lillard-influenced, if not Lillard-dependent.

Several explanations mitigate the numbers. Lillard controls the ball and dominates the attention of defenses, leaving McCollum in the far easier catch-and-shoot (or cut and dunk) role that Terry Stotts' system favors for shooting guards. Without Lillard in the game, CJ has to create his own offense against a defense keyed in on him. His percentage of assisted baskets drops precipitously, which suggests that his teammates are doing little to alleviate the defensive pressure place on Portland's primary ballhandler. His shot chart drifts from three pointers and layups to lower percentage mid-range shots off the dribble  McCollum is converting shots between 10-22 feet at a higher percentage than he has in years past, showing off his escape-dribble skills and an ability to score from all ranges. With a little more determination to get to the rim, CJ could place himself among the league's most dangerous guards with the ball in his hands.

McCollum also prospers in pick and roll situations, ranking in the Top 10 league-wide in pick and roll attempts as a ballhander and executing well. That skill would transfer to almost any NBA team, and provides evidence that C.J. is capable of being an effective NBA point guard. McCollum's influence has also helped Lillard - to a lesser extent Dame's numbers drop when C.J. is not in the game.

So let the great debate begin. Is CJ McCollum  becoming a star independently because of his talent and skills, or is he producing well because he's playing beside a burgeoning superstar who is picking up details that he hasn't mastered yet? Would McCollum's success translate to any situation or is he one of those guys who looks good on a losing team giving him an unlimited green light?

So far the jury's out. It could go either way. What's your best guess?  Share your opinion in the comment section below.

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