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Making The Trail Blazers’ Backcourt Even More Deadly

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Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum spearhead a potent offensive attack in Portland. How could they get even better?

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

While writing a recap of Damian Lillard’s season last week, something caught my eye when looking at the numbers; Damian Lillard shot a career-low 39 percent of his shots from the 3-point line. Maybe this isn’t as interesting to you, but the one knock on Lillard’s offensive game going into this season was his tendency to take “bad 3-pointers.”

What I mean by “bad” is early in the shot clock, several feet behind the line, and in a situation where prudent shot selection is of the essence. You can certainly make the case that there’s no real bad shot for Lillard, considering he canned a few this year while literally standing on the edge of the logo at center court, but historically, there have been some issues with shot selection that—for the most part—got worked out this past season.

There were still some heat check-style shots, but they were fewer and farther between. That’s fine; he’s got the range and occasional 28-footers will keep the defense honest. It got me thinking, though—now that Lillard has improved the one real knock on his offensive game, is it possible for him to find another level? And what about his backcourt partner, CJ McCollum? Now that McCollum is in the conversation as one of the game’s elite scorers, how can he step up his offensive game?

Notice I limited the scope of this piece to the offensive end. We all know both players need to dramatically improve their defense. Had I written about overall areas of potential improvement, you’d likely be looking at a five-word article that simply said “defend the pick-and-roll.” You would be bored and my editor would be annoyed, and no one wants that.

Damian Lillard

In Lillard’s case, now that he’s getting to the rim more—and more effectively—than ever, I’d like to see him take a page out of McCollum’s game and integrate a floater into his arsenal. Nothing he’d use too frequently, but another tool in the toolbox. Despite his improved shooting, Dame only shot 33 percent from 3-10 feet out. The next step in his evolution is to be able to stop just short on his way to the rack and finish from further out, especially against teams with superior help defense.

Lillard has shown he doesn’t really struggle getting to the rim and around superior shot-blockers like Rudy Gobert or Hassan Whiteside, but sometimes secondary defenders are able to swoop in and block him at the rim. Lillard had his shot blocked 101 times last season, a fairly high number, and adding a four to six-foot floater would help him mix things up and keep shot-blockers on their toes.

Speaking of things that will keep defenders on their toes, the Lillard/Nurkic pick-and-roll will likely continue improving next season. The pair played 20 regular-season games together and already showed significant promise, with Lillard able to cleanly come off Nurkic’s wide screens. As they fully figure out their timing, look for Lillard to get even better looks and to be able to find Nurkic rolling to the rim after slipping the pick.

CJ McCollum

McCollum had an incredibly efficient season. He shot 42 percent from the 3-point line, he was probably the best mid-range shooter in the NBA last season, and led the league by shooting 91 percent from the foul line. Unfortunately, he just didn’t get to the foul line that often. In fact, McCollum’s 3.7 free throw attempts per game was the lowest average among the top 20 scorers in the NBA last season.

While CJ’s game is built more on craftiness and keeping defenders off-balance, an improvement in drawing and finishing through contact would go a long way. McCollum had 26 “and-1” finishes last season. Bradley Beal, another mid-range shooting guard, had 35. Lillard had 45. CJ will never be James Harden or Russell Westbrook in terms of getting to the line, but adding one to two free throws a night is an easy way to boost the scoring average, especially when you hit freebies at a 91 percent clip.

I’d also like to see CJ continue to work on his facilitation skills. When Lillard sat multiple games with an ankle sprain, McCollum filled in admirably at point guard. He does tend to suffer from tunnel vision a bit, but for the most part made the correct pass when he was filling that role.

During normal stretches, however, CJ tends to get a bit too isolation-heavy; 3.6 assists against 2.2 turnovers per game isn’t great for someone playing about 30 percent of their minutes at point guard. Make no mistake, CJ is a scorer and that’s what he should primarily look to do, but he does exhibit more ball-stopping tendencies sometimes than are ideal for Terry Stotts’ offense.

Don’t get me wrong, both Dame and CJ had breakout years two seasons ago, and then came back and showed improvement again this year. Blazer fans are fortunate to have such a talented duo to cheer for. Hopefully, they continue expanding their games in ways that make them even more potent as one of the NBA’s best backcourts.