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Why the Blazers Depend on CJ McCollum’s Field Goal Percentage

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Damian Lillard can miss a boatload of shots and the Blazers still win. Not so for McCollum. We explore why.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are the twin engines powering the Portland Trail Blazers’ offensive attack. Averaging 25 and 21 points per game respectively, they account for 45% of Portland’s total offense. But the two guards are not equal in their effect on the team. Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question attempts to quantify the difference, then asks why it exists.

Dave,

CJ has had a few terrible shooting nights this year, including a dire shooting performance against San Antonio Wednesday where his field goal percentage was 22.7% including 0-7 from 3.

Damian has had a few poor nights as well but they haven't impacted the Blazers hardly at all. Look at these numbers:

CJ shoots equal/under 35% overall: 1-5 record for the team (16.7% winning record)

CJ shoots equal/under 25% from three: 3-7 record (30% winning record

Damian shoots equal/under 35% overall: 2-1 record (66.7% winning record)

Damian shoots equal/under 25% from three: 8-2 record (80% winning record)

This makes no sense to me. Can you explain?

Paul

There’s a strong chance that we don’t have enough incidences to draw conclusions yet. Lillard only shooting sub-35% from the floor three times creates a situation where a bounce or two probably could have made the team’s winning percentage 33.3% instead of 66.7%. Even McCollum’s six performances under 35% leaves room for doubt. If the Blazers win a couple with him shooting poorly, the numbers will look far less damning. Take everything beyond that with an appropriate grain of salt.

Let’s assume that the numbers stay steady for the rest of the season and this semi-early trend becomes a bona fide characteristic. It doesn’t necessarily mean that McCollum is more valuable, or more intrinsic to wins, than Lillard. Their different roles in the offense help explain the variable consequences of their off-nights.

Lillard is the initiator of Portland’s offense. When he draws defensive attention, he’s supposed to pass to any of the other four options on the floor. As long as he’s getting semi-decent shots and developing the same for his teammates, Portland’s offense will work as designed whether or not a given shot from him goes in. An 0-12 night from Lillard will still kill the Blazers, but he can shoot 4-12 in the first three quarters, then pop a couple threes in the fourth, and he’ll still end up with 20+ points and give his team a chance to win.

The same is not true of McCollum. He’s more of an endpoint in offensive sets than an initiator. When he does take the ball off the dribble, he’s often setting up his own shot. The results of his misses have correspondingly more impact because there are fewer alternatives to them.

If Lillard misses a shot, he was either testing the waters or found a wide-open opportunity for himself, both of which are permissible, but neither of which are really the point of the offense. When McCollum misses a shot, other players (in particular Lillard) have probably worked to set up that exact shot for him. It’s the conclusion of all their work...neither a prelude to it nor an acceptable substitute for it.

CJ blowing one attempt doesn’t render the offense fruitless, but missing multiple attempts will. Think of the effect Al-Farouq Aminu’s missed three-pointers had in the last two playoffs series versus the Golden State Warriors. It not only cut off one of Portland’s options, it took away scoring from an entire section of the court, allowing the Warriors to take more risks in other areas. Now multiply that effect by 4 or 5 because Aminu is a fourth option while McCollum is the main guy outside of Lillard himself.

If CJ isn’t a credible threat, the Blazers are dead in the water. Opponents feel comfortable getting a step farther from him, putting them closer to Lillard or Jusuf Nurkic. That creates a ripple effect that’s hard to recover from. It’s not like Portland fields eight credible scorers. Put extra pressure on 85% of the roster and they just won’t produce. Lillard can produce under duress, but he can’t score 100 on his own.

By contrast, opponents never feel comfortable around Lillard no matter what the circumstances. He is the clear star of the team, carrying an NBA Superstar reputation which provides its own bubble of credibility. He’ll be guarded with laser focus on him from tip-off to final horn no matter how many shots he misses.

McCollum missing can also be a symptom of Portland’s offense going bad rather than the cause. When opponents are defending well across the floor, CJ gets forced into tough, mid-range shots. He’s one of the best in the league at hitting them, but those are still low-percentage attempts which will make his field goal percentage look worse. In this scenario Portland is likely to lose no matter what. McCollum going 3-12 in the process is just icing on the cake.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, note that Lillard’s offense is far less field-goal-percentage-dependent than McCollum’s is. Lillard more than doubles McCollum’s free throw attempts per game and per minute. 42% of Lillard’s shots come from three-point range, against 32% for McCollum. Damian can miss 10 field goals but make up points with free throws and the extra credit for threes. McCollum does that less often. If he’s missing field goals, he’s probably not scoring at all.

The vast majority of McCollum’s value comes through scoring. A greater percentage of his scoring comes through made field goals. On average, his missed shots are going to impact the team more seriously than Lillard’s will.

Thanks for the question, Paul! Everybody else, keep the queries coming to blazersub@gmail.com or @davedeckard on Twitter.

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