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McCollum No Longer Owes His Success to Lillard

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Early in the season C.J. McCollum's shooting efficiency plummeted whenever Damian Lillard left the game. Has McCollum solved that problem in recent months?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It's been well documented that C.J. McCollum has defied expectations all season. In his third year he has transformed from a fringe rotation player to an incredibly versatile 20+ points per game scoring threat. McCollum, however, still has some fundamental flaws in his game. Specifically, Dave Deckard and I noted three months ago that through the first third of the season, McCollum's efficiency took a nosedive when he played without Damian Lillard (stats through mid-December):

These statistical splits raised questions about how "real" McCollum's improvement was and whether or not he could function as a primary offensive option. At the time, it was reasonable to ask if he owed his success to Lillard.

Now, three months later, McCollum has made those questions look foolish. Shortly after we wrote that article, the third-year guard out of Lehigh turned the efficiency numbers on their head and became equally effective with or without Lillard:

McCollum's Shooting

FG

FGA

FG%

3P

3PA

3P%

eFG%

Ast'd

%Ast'd

ORTG

USG%

W/Lillard - Full season

285

640

44.5

102

235

43.4

52.5

133

46.7

107.5

24

W/out Lillard Before 12/25

52

147

35.4

11

40

27.5

39.1

8

15.4

92

32.5

W/out Lillard 12/25-Present

143

295

48.5

34

86

39.5

54.2

44

20.9

110

32.3

This chart shows that McCollum's efficiency numbers without Lillard are up across the board since late December. Remarkably, these are not small increases - McCollum's original eFG% would have placed him in the bottom 20 in the entire league, but his new average is within two percent of Klay Thompson. McCollum's offensive rating has also skyrocketed, improving from Kevin Seraphin-esque to on par with LeBron James.

Additionally, the data show that CJ's usage has stayed nearly identical as his play has improved (32.5 percent vs. 32.3 percent). For many players, an increase in efficiency accompanies a deference on offense. That has not been the case for McCollum - he continues to dominate the ball when Lillard leaves the game, but has improved his performance nonetheless.

Importantly, the Blazers as a team have benefited from McCollum's improved play. Portland's stats since late December with McCollum and without Lillard illustrate that point:

Team w/CJ, w/o Lillard

FG

FGA

FG%

3P

3PA

3P%

eFG%

%Ast'D

ORTG

Season opener - 12/25

261

633

41.2

60

181

33.1

46

51.3

97.4

12/25 - Present

412

874

47.1

107

284

37.7

53.3

54.6

111.5

Note the positive change across the board in shooting percentages, and the massive rise in offensive rating. To put the improved offensive rating and eFG% into perspective, the increases in those metrics are the equivalent of jumping from last in the league to second overall. The result: a 23-11 record over that span after an 11-20 start.

At this point, it's clear that McCollum's improved efficiency has correlated with a meteoric rise in efficiency for the team as a whole, which makes it somewhat difficult to put together a causal explanation for the improvements. Did C.J. make the team more efficient, or did the team give C.J. a boost? The annoying answer to that question is probably "a little bit of both."

Blazers coach Terry Stotts prefers to stagger Lillard and McCollum in the lineup such that one of them is always in the game. The rotation makes McCollum the de facto point guard for the second unit and means that he rarely plays with multiple other starters while Lillard is out of the game.

Many of the reserves that McCollum shares the court with have improved significantly in recent weeks as well. Meyers Leonard, specifically, has incrementally increased his 3-point shooting from 28 percent in November to 48 percent in March. When paired with McCollum while Lillard rests, those two have shown serious offensive synergy:

Without Lillard since Dec. 26 FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% Ast'd %Ast'd ORTG USG%
Meyers (with CJ) 51 95 53.7 26 54 48.1 67.4 43 84.3 124 18.6
CJ (with Meyers) 85 180 47.2 19 47 40.4 52.5 13 15.3 107 33.5

In addition to Leonard, McCollum has played major non-Lillard minutes with Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe since Dec. 26. The results of combining those players, however, have not been as clean. McCollum's efficiency skyrockets to its highest levels when Crabbe is on the floor, but Crabbe's numbers have declined slightly (he's shooting under 40 percent from the field when teamed up with McCollum).

Henderson has played reasonably well with McCollum, but C.J.'s eFG% dips to 50 and his ORTG drops to 99. McCollum's numbers also show a marked increase with Moe Harkless on the floor since Dec. 26, but they have played together relatively infrequently compared to the other players mentioned.

Chart summarizing on/off court general trends:

C.J. with: Negative result Positive result
Leonard C.J., Leonard
Henderson C.J. Henderson
Crabbe Crabbe C.J.
Harkless C.J., Harkless

The trend suggests that McCollum becomes more efficient as a playmaker when those around him are drilling outside shots. Leonard and Crabbe have combined to shoot 51 for 120 (42.5 percent) on threes, while the rest of the team has shot 25 for 86 (29.1 percent). Prior to Dec. 26, however, nobody on the team was shooting greater than 36 percent from three and Crabbe, the most prolific 3-point shooter of the bunch, was at only 32 percent. It doesn't take an NBA savant to explain this trend: McCollum gets cleaner looks when his teammates are drawing defensive attention.

A specific example: McCollum has elite ball-handling skills and finishing ability in the midrange. When working in open space against a single defender he can usually score easily. If the help defenders have to "stay home" on outside shooting threats, such as Leonard and Crabbe, it opens up driving lanes for McCollum. Note in this play how Leonard's presence on the strong side keeps a double team at bay, and how Crabbe standing in the corner helps to spread the defense even further and open up the middle of the court:

McCollum takes advantage and scores easily around a single defender.

With that being said, McCollum's assisted basket rate has barely improved in recent months, despite the solid bench play, suggesting that he is still creating his own offense while running the point. As such, even as the bench players have relieved some of the defensive pressure, McCollum deserves credit for being able to create his own scoring opportunities with his preponderance of offensive moves.

It's worth noting that McCollum's efficiency jump began as Lillard sat out several games around Christmas. After a very poor performance against the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 23, in which McCollum could barely get into the lane, he averaged 27.4 points on 52 percent shooting over the next five games without Lillard. There was a notable increase in aggressiveness, as McCollum began attacking the lane more frequently after the game against the Pelicans.

McCollum's numbers showed a corresponding rise as he became more aggressive to adapt to playing without Lillard: Prior to Dec. 23 McCollum attempted 30.5 percent of his shots within nine feet of the basket and converted less than 50 percent of the time. Since Dec. 23 he has attempted 38.5 percent of his shots close to the hoop and made 58.5 percent of them.

When Lillard returned, McCollum continued his stellar play as the second unit's point guard, but also stayed effective off-the-ball with Lillard in the game. His improvement seems to be at least partially the result of becoming more comfortable manning the offense as the primary scoring option.

From a broader perspective, despite the slow start to the season, it's now safe to say that McCollum owes none of his success to Damian Lillard. Improved play from the Blazers reserves, specifically Crabbe and Leonard, has relieved some of the defensive pressure on McCollum, but he has still been tasked with creating much of his own offense and has thrived in recent weeks. McCollum's improved efficiency has served as a microcosm for the season, illustrating his ability to adapt and improve during the year. The result has been more wins for the Blazers, and a likely Most Improved Player Award for McCollum.

Stats compiled primarily from www.nbawowy.com, Basketball-reference.com and stats.nba.com.