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Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum Growing Into Elite NBA Backcourt

What does it take to build a great pair of starting guards in the modern NBA? Hint: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are doing it.

These two have come a long way together.
These two have come a long way together.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

I think one of the main reasons I love basketball so much is its complexity. There are layers of abstraction and nuance. You need context to evaluate anything and everything. No one player or team is simply "good" or "bad" in a vacuum - it depends on their surroundings, the way teammates interact, the time, the place, the opponent. Everything is fluid. It's why comparing teams across multiple eras never really had any appeal to me - why bother comparing the 2016 Warriors to the 1996 Bulls when they played in two totally different environments? It's also why I've never totally wrapped my brain around pre-draft player analysis. Sure, a guy might have athleticism or upside, but it's so tough to predict how he might fit into the team concept. In short - what does it really mean for players or teams to be "great?" We're still figuring it out.

I ramble about this to lead into a key point - lately, there's been a noticeable shift in the way we discuss elite point guards. It used to be that only two things mattered at the floor general position - athleticism and passing/playmaking ability. Everything else was secondary, and in fact, a guy who tried too hard to buck tradition by finding his own shot was labeled as arrogant and selfish. That's less the case now.

If you caught last week's TrueHoop TV podcast on ESPN, you might have come across an interesting conversation about this as it relates to Trail Blazers lead man Damian Lillard. Brian Windhorst, Ethan Strauss and Kevin Arnovitz were discussing the game's crop of young point guards and their places in the individual star hierarchy. Where does Lillard rank compared to, say, John Wall or Kyrie Irving?

Windhorst argued that Wall was a far better pointman than the other two, and that Lillard and Irving were "really just shooting guards masquerading as point guards." Strauss countered that that's where the league is headed these days, and that Wall's traditional skills of running the floor and passing were valued less than they used to be. You can be a great NBA player, he argued, without being a world-class track star. Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant are all examples of elite players who aren't. Then Arnovitz chimed in:

"Right. Lillard's another one of those guys. That was one of the knocks - that he just isn't a great, great athlete. But the thing I'd take issue with is, being a 38 percent 3-point shooter who can shoot at high volume, to me, that's part of the point guard job description now. In fact, it's essential. I think Wall is a far more capable 'conventional point guard' than any of those guys, but it's no longer a conventional league."

I love this quote. To me, it sums up exactly where the NBA is going and exactly why it's so interesting. Basketball is not static. It's evolving. The skills we once held dear can become obsolete quickly. That's what makes it interesting to follow year after year - you never feel like you're watching quite the same sport for two seasons in a row. Teams adjust and counter-adjust in perpetuity.

The latest adjustment, of course, has been an increased reliance on shooting. Defenses are better now than they've ever been, using a unique combination of length, quickness and physical strength to cover every inch of floor possible. It takes shooters to space those defenses out, tire them gradually and make them vulnerable. Increasingly over the last few years, the teams that have been able to do that the best have been the ones that succeed.

That's why I get excited about the Blazers' backcourt and all the future potential it holds.

But first, let's back up for a second. Hey - remember the summer of 2014, when Bradley Beal was running his mouth about the Washington Wizards having the best backcourt in the NBA? Yeah, that totally happened. Beal spoke out at media day before the Wizards' training camp last season, boldly asserting that he and Wall were "definitely" the league's best pair of guards. Meanwhile in Cleveland, Dion Waiters got word and told assembled media that was "nonsense," and that he and Irving were actually the league's best duo.

It's hard to believe all this happened just 16 months ago. A lot's happened since then - Beal and Wall have descended into mediocrity, Waiters has been chased out of Cleveland by an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks, and it's become painfully obvious that the best guard pairing in the league is neither of the above, but rather Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State. We know why, too - it's because Curry and Thompson comprise one of the best pairs of shooters the game has ever seen. Meanwhile, Beal is a skilled player whose shot selection is abysmal; Wall is a smarter player but a less rangy shooter. As for the Cavs' guys, Kyrie is a superstar but Waiters was a train wreck in Cleveland. All four players were drafted super-high because of their flashy college play, but the NBA rewards substance over flash. In other words, make your shots if you want to earn respect.

The modern NBA is all about having multiple players who can spread the floor with a jump shot. If you've got just one guy like that, he's containable, but if you use two at once, it can put defenses in a bind real quick. The league's got a lot of quick, lengthy defenders, but no matter how quick and lengthy they are, they can't be in two places at once.

On that note, let's look at the best 3-point shooting duos in the NBA this season.

We all knew the Dubs' guys would be tops in the league, but look at that! The No. 2 team on the list might surprise you. This year, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been the second most prolific pair of long-distance shooters in the league. That's saying something.

Here's what it's saying, in my estimation - that Neil Olshey has built (and Terry Stotts is currently developing) a backcourt that's perfect for the challenges of the modern league. That's not necessarily to say the Blazers have the game's second-best backcourt already (the Raptors, Heat, Hawks and Clippers would all probably have something to say about that), but they've definitely got one that's well constructed to survive the competitive landscape over the next few years.

The fact that Dame and CJ are both such lethal shooters, I reckon, is the biggest reason why the Blazers have maintained a top-10 offense despite losing four starters from last year's team. The rest of their lineup is nothing to write home about offensively, but they've got two weapons that are absolutely deadly.

I love this clip because it illustrates just how difficult it is to guard Lillard in pick-and-roll situations. He's such a quick shooter that you can't take your eyes off him for a millisecond - give him the slightest opening to get off a jumper, and he'll pounce on it. He might not be quite Steph Curry in that regard, but he at least qualifies as Steph Lite.

The play you see above is Brooklyn's Donald Sloan attempting to guard a Lillard/Meyers Leonard pick-and-roll. The first thing that goes wrong for the Nets is that Brook Lopez goes over the screen too hard to Lillard's right, rendering him useless when Lillard darts left instead. That leaves Sloan all alone to contain a Lillard drive. Lillard can beat Sloan one-on-one in a number of ways, but this one is perhaps the most deadly. He simply takes two steps in, then drops back and hits a gorgeous step-back jumper right in Sloan's eye.

Lillard's impossible to stop in this situation. If you don't start dropping to the basket, he's just going to drive and leave you in the dust. If you do drop, he hits a shot like this. You've got no options.

Of course, there is one option - committing extra manpower to stopping Lillard. But that's not going to end well, either.

This is what happens when opposing defenses devote too much energy to Lillard. The Blazers' star point guard isn't just great because he scores - he also creates seams in opposing defenses that his teammates can easily exploit. Watch what happens here when the Wizards attempt to contain a Lillard/Mason Plumlee pick-and-roll. You can see the Wiz instantly decide to trap Lillard at the risk of letting Plumlee beat him. Wall never takes his eyes off his man for a second, and Marcin Gortat comes out to the wing in an attempt to trap him. This forces a chain reaction of scrambling defenders, as the Blazers make extra pass after extra pass to create an open shot. Plumlee swings to Noah Vonleh, Vonleh swings to McCollum, and boom. Easy 3.

This play only works because the Blazers have multiple dangerous 3-point shooters lurking on the perimeter. If it were just Lillard that opposing defenses had to worry about, their lives would be easy, but McCollum's presence forces teams to scramble in ways that are just about impossible.

Adding to the complication is the fact that Portland's just as dangerous with McCollum on the ball and Lillard off. Forget about dichotomizing "point" and "shooting" guards - the Blazers' offense works so well because both guys can do a little of everything.

Above is an example of what McCollum's capable of as the Blazers' primary ball-handler. You hardly even notice that Lillard's on the floor for this possession (I swear, he is!) - it's irrelevant because McCollum's such a crafty point guard in his own right. Against Washington's defense here, CJ uses his aggressiveness as a paint-probing guard to draw in multiple Wiz and get them out of whack.

Just like Lillard before him, McCollum runs a pick-and-roll with Plumlee, and just like against Lillard, the Wiz decide to trap the ball-handler hard. Gortat and Gary Neal clamp down on McCollum, hoping to isolate him 1-on-2 on the wing and force him into a mistake. Instead he just holds onto the ball, calmly waits, and swings it to Plumlee who gets it right back to him for an open 3. Even under a ridiculous amount of ball pressure, McCollum makes it look easy, creating an open jumper and drilling it.

And of course, when you've got McCollum on the ball, you've also got Lillard off it, where he can be a terror.

In this crucial possession from last week's OKC game, it's McCollum running the offense and guarded by Andre Roberson, while Russell Westbrook has to chase Lillard around the wing. This creates a unique opportunity for the Blazers to outfox Westbrook, whose defense is sometimes too energetic for his own good. He gets lost here - Plumlee comes up from the left side to set a screen on Russ, and he knows Russ is the "battle furiously through any screen at all costs" type of defender. Russ turns briefly to his left to go over Plumlee, but much to his surprise, Lillard cuts back in the opposite direction! He doesn't stay open for long, as Westbrook does reverse course quickly, but he's got just the split-second of separation he needs to squeeze off the game-tying 3 - mind you, three of the 17 he scored in the final three minutes to spur an upset Blazer win.

This is what makes the Blazers' backcourt so impressive. Because Lillard and McCollum are both so skilled in so many different situations, they can mix and match their strategies to win any matchup. Is Westbrook struggling to defend against screens off the ball? Exploit it. Is Gortat too slow to get out and trap against quick perimeter guys? Exploit that, too. Because they have two guards who are both dynamic playmakers and shooters, they're able to outmaneuver just about anyone.

This is what people mean when they talk about the changing NBA. Having multiple good shooters has gone from a nice luxury to just about a necessity. Consider this - in 2004-05, the average NBA team attempted 1,292 3-point shots. In 2014-15, they took 1,838, and this season, they're on pace to pass 1,900 and push right up against 2,000. The correlation between gunning and winning is pretty undeniable now - last year, the four conference finalists were the teams that finished first, second, fourth and seventh in 3-point attempts.

While the league evolves, the Blazers are wisely adapting to the changing times. Not that they wanted to lose LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency last summer because they obviously didn't, but in so doing, they've been able to reinvent their style of play quickly and seamlessly. Aldridge was a ball-stopping player who demanded the ball in his spots - usually either the elbow or the left block - and set up shop for five or 10 seconds at a time, creating for himself first and teammates secondarily. That was effective for a time, but as Aldridge aged and the league adapted, it wasn't going to work forever. Without their former leader, the Blazers have reoriented themselves around the shooting of Lillard, McCollum, Allen Crabbe and others. That might be just what they need to survive the coming years.

As we venture forward into 2016, '17, '18 and beyond, the Blazers will have to be keenly aware of the league around them and how it's changing. It's a shooting-centric league, especially for perimeter players. Shooting accurately - and often - from long range is now an inherent part of the job. Perhaps it's not that the league is unconventional; it might just be that conventions have changed. In either case, Dame and CJ may just be in perfectly the right place at the right time.


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