CJ McCollum is an offensive force for the Portland Trail Blazers but the question that’s lingered has been whether or not he and Damian Lillard can survive together long term. The underpinning of this question is whether the star guards can be good enough defensively to justify their offensive firepower.
So today we answer the question: Is CJ McCollum a good defender?
Since individual defensive performance is so hard to separate from team defense, I’m going to instead attack this by dividing it into the pros and cons of McCollum on defense.
First, a look at the stats. McCollum hasn’t seen a significant change in 2015-16 in his steal rate, block percentage, defensive rebounds or defensive rating.
He’s also right in the thick of it compared to the Blazers guard rotation when it comes to these statistics. At least numerically, there is not much to separate Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson, often seen as clearly better defenders, from McCollum.
With that as a bit of background, let’s take a look at what he does right
I. Communication: No surprise here, but the J-school grad is a good communicator. He talks loudly and points to direct teammates on switches and on picks.
II. Fundamentals: You can see McCollum thinking about hip position, sideline usage, and footwork during the game. His defense is in the stage where he's putting the pieces together in linear fashion, and the coaching shows.
III. Basic pick-and-roll coverage: He does a good enough job trying to ICE basic picks, and contests from the midrange the way Terry Stotts wants. In this example against Indiana, the big man flips to set a pick to the sideline:
McCollum does what he’s supposed to by moving up and taking away the center of the floor to push Monta Ellis to Noah Vonleh. He trails on his hip and you can see during the freeze frame at the top of Ellis’ jumper that he contests well.
IV. Foul rate: He’s also cautious to stay grounded. He's not jumping all over the place, especially during drives to the bucket. McCollum's fouls mostly come from bumping into dudes at full chat off the break. His foul rate has decreased this year, which is good news.
V. Mindfulness: I think McCollum’s biggest advantage looking to the future is his work ethic. This is a player with a high basketball IQ who wants to get better and it shows in the work he puts in each night on the floor. If you can see coaching in effect mid-game you know that player is going to get better.
I. Size: First is his size. He’s just going to be too short and slight to effectively guard some of the backcourts in the NBA at his current skill level. Check him out against 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder:
McCollum is listed at 6-foot-4, but this switch against Boston emphasizes the discrepancy between the Blazers guard and bigger wings.
II. Activity: McCollum is sometimes a bit static. You rarely see him dig from the corner or from the elbow, although this could very well be a direct mandate to stay put from the coaching staff.
He also has a tendency to defend by running to positions on the floor instead of playing his man. He often cuts under when teams set stagger screens. Again, that could be coaching but it seems to creep into his off-ball defense.
In the play above he is on the far side with Michael Dunleavy, the Jesuit product who moves like an animatronic pile of leftover 2x4s at a construction site.
With the pick-and-roll on the other side of the floor, McCollum stunts to the nail when the ball swings to Pau Gasol at the top of the arc. When Gasol actually gets the ball, McCollum returns to the spot he thinks the ball is going to rather than turning his head and locating his man.
All Mr. Wood Pile had to do was cut to the bucket. McCollum got burned backdoor a lot in this matchup.
III. Complex pick-and-rolls: McCollum also can struggle in complex pick-and-rolls. Like a lot of young players, he has a hard time when teams set what’s called a "flat" pick on him.
This is when the screener is directly below and parallel to McCollum.
Teams use this to disguise which direction they’re going to set their screen, often angling one way, then flipping around and moving to the other.
Flat screens can be extremely difficult for young players to get used to since it requires an adjustment to the screener and ball handler multiple times in one action.
What I took away from watching film of McCollum is this: he’s learning.
We get all wrapped up in the white and black analysis of a player, and if a guy like McCollum isn’t an excellent defender he’s somehow a terrible one. He’s neither. He’s just a guy on that side of the ball right now.
In fact, McCollum looks like he’s got a good foundation and has done the best he can with the coaching that’s been given to him. You can see the coaching when he plays, even if he’s not perfect.
The bigger problem is his and Lillard’s defensive ceiling and what that means for the Blazers roster moving forward.
The loss of the Blazers starters from last year has been tough, especially with the impact Robin Lopez had and how he bailed out the guards and boosted the effectiveness of LaMarcus Aldridge.
Portland’s forwards this season make their guards look worse than they did in years past:
McCollum does his job here to push his man to the sideline on a flat screen. E'Twaun Moore then snakes the pick, and Plumlee gets in McCollum's way, screening him out of the play by jabbing at the ball. Noah Vonleh slinks back to Taj Gibson, and there’s nothing McCollum can do but watch Moore score.
Defense is a team effort. McCollum isn’t going to look any better until the guys he’s playing with get better, too.
Only two of the last 30 NBA champions had a defensive rating outside the Top 10. If the Blazers want to elevate to the next level and keep both these guards, they have to know the defense around them must also get better. If Portland thinks Lillard and McCollum are going to be average career defenders, the Blazers need to get better defensive posts or quickly develop the ones they have.
And, yes, CJ McCollum has to get better on defense.