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How Are Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum Coming Along Defensively?

We already know Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have the makings of a fantastic NBA backcourt offensively. What about the other end of the floor?

CJ locks in.
CJ locks in.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps one of the most important questions the Trail Blazers are looking to answer this season - or, heck, let's just say it definitively, it's the most important question - is whether it makes sense long-term for the team to build around a nucleus of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Right? That's the big overarching question we're grappling with. Lillard is locked in for a five-year, $120 million extension that kicks in next season, and McCollum will likely be looking to negotiate a new deal of his own before Nov. 1 of this calendar year. Given his productive season and the ballooning salary cap, it'll surely be a lucrative one. Blazers GM Neil Olshey and the Portland front office have to decide in a matter of months whether these two guards have what it takes to headline the next incarnation of the franchise.

The pros are obvious - Lillard and McCollum are averaging about 45 points per game between them, and they make for an absurdly dynamic duo because of their unique combination of skills. They can both play on the ball and run pick-and-rolls; they can both slide off the ball and hit spot-up jumpers. There are very, very few teams in the NBA with two starting guards who excel in both situations. The Blazers have that, and it makes them nigh impossible to guard. Run an action with one guard on one side of the floor; if that works, great, and if not, swing it around and run another action with the other guard on the other side. Rinse, repeat, and grind defenses to death. It's brutally effective.

Those are the pros. But of course, whenever I write about said pros, I inevitably wake up to a comments section full of reminders about the cons - namely, the deficiencies that Lillard and McCollum show on the other end of the floor.

"What about the defense?" you all ask. "We already know Dame and CJ can score a lot, but is there any hope for them on D?"

All right. I hear you. It's easy to gawk at all the pretty pick-and-rolls and dazzling deep 3-pointers. The other end is where the real questions lie. You're right.

If you must know, there are three primary reasons I've held off on taking a deep dive into the Blazers' backcourt defense until now. In no particular order:

  1. I'm an optimist! The Blazers are a much better offensive team than a defensive one, and I like writing cheery things that offer hope for the future. No one likes 3,000-word rants about gloom and doom.
  2. In general, I tend to put more emphasis on defense with big men and offense with smalls. The stats bear this out - if you look at ESPN's leaders in real plus-minus, for example, basically all of the top 20 offensive players in the NBA have been perimeter players (with the exception of Draymond Green, but he kinda plays on the perimeter a lot anyway) and almost all of the top 20 defenders have been bigs (with the exception of Kawhi Leonard, who's a freak). There's a lot of volatility in jump shots, and very few perimeter players have a consistently positive or negative impact on the defensive end.
  3. Defense is also a lot tougher to analyze with individual players. With offense, you can quickly discern who's making and missing which shots, and so on. D is a team effort. There's a lot of helping and communicating and teammates covering for other teammates. It's not always easy to isolate who deserves the credit (or the blame) for any one individual play.

That third point is the really big one. We know for a fact that the Blazers aren't a particularly good defensive team - they've been hovering around the low 20s this season in defensive efficiency, currently slotted at No. 22 right in between the vaunted Knicks and Timberwolves. But pinning the blame on any particular player (or group of players) is tough. Even when, say, a point guard goes off for 35 points on a given night, that doesn't necessarily mean the PG is to blame. Context always matters, and you always have to consider the nuanced ways that teammates interact. It takes time to develop those ways, which is why it's so tough to pass judgment on anything when you're still in January of the first year of a rebuild.

McCollum himself agrees. Last week on Zach Lowe's podcast, he fielded questions about whether a pairing of himself and Lillard was a viable long-term option for the Blazers, given their shortcomings defensively. He answered that he still had faith they would figure it out:

"I definitely think we can get there. We've only played 31, 32 games together, so I think it's premature to make judgments on what our ceiling or basement is because we don't have that body of work yet. I've seen the articles about whether we can be comfortable together and last, and I think we can, but it's just going to take time, offensively and defensively, for us to get accustomed to each other. And not only us as a combo, but our team. We have four out of five new starters, and a lot of guys, this is their first year on our team getting acclimated to our system, our plays, our principles."

Yeah. What CJ said. There's no reason that he and Lillard can't make it work together - they're good athletes, they're quick, they're smart and they hustle on both ends of the floor - but it will take time. Patience is a virtue.

And for what it's worth, they're not exactly getting lit up by opposing guards now. Thanks to Seth Partnow at Nylon Calculus, we have the ability to take the Blazers' defensive efficiency and pick it apart by position. The Blazers allow 108.53 points per 100 possessions this season; the average NBA team allows 105.34. The following is a breakdown of how many of those points come from each position:

These results look weird, right? Compared to the league average, center is the only position where the Blazers' defense is significantly underperforming, allowing almost a full basket more than they're supposed to per 100 possessions. Power forward is the only spot where they're performing better than the league overall. That doesn't jive with what you know anecdotally about the Blazers' defensive talent, does it? Do you think Mason Plumlee is the team's worst defender? Do you think Noah Vonleh or Meyers Leonard is the best? I don't, and I don't. This doesn't pass the smell test.

This should tell you something: It's not all about individual matchups. It's about how the whole team interacts. Sometimes centers have to help out against point guards; sometimes point guards get switched onto centers. At the end of the day, basketball is a five-on-five sport, not a series of five separate individual matchups. And I'd argue that especially with the Blazers, who are young and athletic and have the ability to help each other out defensively a great deal, the way teammates interact is absolutely crucial.

That's not to let Lillard and McCollum off the hook completely for their defensive flaws. It's just to say, you can't analyze them in a vacuum.

Here, let's go over some examples:

This play is a great example of some of the fine work the Blazers can do defensively when their guards have a little help. Watch how everyone joins forces against John Wall here - the Wizards' initial action here is a pick-and-roll between Wall and Marcin Gortat, but the Blazers respond decisively by switching, putting Noah Vonleh squarely in Wall's path. Wall is forced to kick the ball out and reset the offense. Later Wall gets the ball back and tries to create an open shot using a quick screen from Jared Dudley, but Mason Plumlee is there to deter Wall from going to the rim this time, and Wall ends up settling for a rushed step-back jumper. Portland gets a stop.

That's what happens when Lillard has teammates willing to help him guard pick-and-rolls. Now see how things go when he doesn't:

Pretty basic stuff here - the crux of this play is a pick-and-roll between Atlanta's Jeff Teague and Al Horford, with Lillard on Teague and Ed Davis guarding Horford. When Horford arrives at the top of the key to set a good, hard (possibly moving, but that's neither here nor there) screen on Lillard, there's no way he can recover in time to get back to Teague and deny him an open shot. It's imperative that Davis switch onto him quickly or else risk an easy bucket, but watch what Davis does. Rather than hustle out to meet Teague, he hangs back under the basket - which is fine for denying Teague a layup, but it leaves acres of open space in between the screener and the hoop for a mid-range shot that's wiiiiiiiiide open. Predictably, Teague takes it and makes it.

What's the difference between the first play and the second one? In both the Wall and Teague examples, I'd argue that Lillard did his best to fight through screens whenever possible. He didn't make any mental mistakes, and he showed no lack of hustle. The only disparity between the two plays is in the amount of help he gets from teammates.

Historically, the main critique of Lillard's defensive game is that he gets lost on screens too often, putting his teammates in a difficult spot. I'd argue that firstly, that's the nature of the game, as modern NBA defense always requires bigs to help out their smaller teammates in pick-and-roll situations, and secondly, Dame's getting noticeably better. He's allowing only 0.86 points per possession in pick-and-rolls this year, according to Synergy Sports, a respectable figure that puts him on par with quality guards like Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and Marcus Smart. Not bad for a guy who's working exhaustively hard to fuel his team on the other end of the floor.

Lillard is really tough to analyze in a vacuum because of the switching factor. The point guard-plus-big pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of the modern NBA, and the opposing guard is almost always going to need help in that situation. The shooting guard spot is a little different, though. Whereas pointmen almost always use a screen to initiate actions, wings can go at you in a variety of ways, and you've got to be ready for all of them.

So, on that note, here's McCollum.

The most common defensive challenge you get when you're playing the two-guard spot is something like this - you're asked to run through a hedge maze of screens and dribble handoffs, sticking with your man the whole time and denying him an open jump shot. In the example above, he's asked to do it against Klay Thompson, who happens to play for the NBA's best team at screening and creating good perimeter looks. Watch the Warriors' Draymond Green on this possession. First Dray tries to pin CJ down on the right side, but CJ darts quickly over the screen; then later, he comes back to screen CJ again as Klay tries to get open in the corner, but CJ deftly goes under. Both times, he manages to stick in Klay's airspace and deny him anything more than a split-second of opportunity. The play ends in a mediocre corner 3-point attempt that falls short.

This is McCollum's first year as a full-time starting shooting guard in the NBA, meaning it's the first time he's been asked to handle a mother lode of screens from tough, physical bigs every other night. He's doing it well.

Just like with Lillard, though, the trouble comes when he needs help from a teammate and doesn't get it:

This play, featuring a dribble handoff between Utah's Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood, is absolutely brutal to defend. Two reasons for this: One, Gobert is a really huge dude, so it's really tough to get around one of his screens. Whether you go over or under, it's a grind either way. Two, Hood is insanely quick with the ball in his hands. Give him just a second or two to operate in open space, and he's a serious threat to attack the basket.

When McCollum goes over the Gobert screen here, it's mandatory that Plumlee drop back and switch onto Hood - there's no way CJ can locate him in time (and that's through no fault of CJ's, I'd argue). Plumlee does - but despite being in the right general vicinity, he doesn't do a very good job of contesting Hood's shot. Instead, Plumlee sort of hedges his bets, half guarding Hood but half staying back to keep Gobert from rolling to the rim. He could use some assistance from Vonleh, who's begun sagging off of Trey Lyles in the corner to help guard the paint, but that's too little too late, as Vonleh's not in position. The result is that Hood gets off a floater in the lane without much resistance. There are three guys kinda sorta in the area, but none of them really makes a good contest.

Whose fault is that? I dunno. Maybe McCollum's a little bit, certainly Plumlee to some extent, maybe even Vonleh could have helped more. The point is, it's a team effort. Just because one shooting guard scores doesn't necessarily mean the other shooting guard is at fault. There are times when CJ can basically take the opposing two-guard himself - he does so effectively in the Klay Thompson example earlier - but other times when he can't. The challenge for McCollum's teammates is to discern which situation is which and help accordingly. That takes time and patience to figure out.

Learning to defend the shooting guard position is a long, long process. McCollum's only got 48 career starts to his name, and already he's seen a whole bunch of difficult matchups. There are different archetypes of SGs - you've got guys who can go iso (James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Monta Ellis), those who use a lot of screens (J.J. Redick, Khris Middleton, Danny Green) and those who use their size and strength to take you down low and post you up (Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Jimmy Butler). McCollum's being asked to learn all of the above at once. It's a lot to learn, and he's bound to do well in some situations and not so well in others.

Bottom line? While Lillard and McCollum are both far from elite defensive players, I think both are improving, and both take a little bit too much flak for their perceived deficiencies. Improvement on the defensive end of the floor is a team effort, and the two starting guards are only one small part of that. Like McCollum said, it's still early, and it's premature for anyone to make judgments - but it's late enough to say definitively that baby steps forward are happening.


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