In the NBA, chemistry can mean a lot of things. It can be how a team interacts on and off the floor or how well they work as a 5-man unit after being forged in the fires of trials and successes. Then there is the idea of almost literal chemistry, where RealGM’s Erik Garcia Gundersen discusses how the Trail Blazers turned Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum into clones of each other.
In his write up, Gundersen discusses ‘the science’ behind McCollum and Lillard’s evolution, and how one begets the other, particularly through the eyes of assistant coach and mentor David Vanterpool.
As Vanterpool explains, this isn’t a simple case of learning through osmosis.
“We crossed the two,” Vanterpool explained. “It was very difficult for Dame to pick that up. It was hard. It was difficult for him. For CJ it was difficult to explode in that manner. It was really difficult and not just exploding jumping, but when you’re making move on a pick and roll when you’re going from point A to point B. From slow to quick, then explode. Dame can do that in his sleep. We worked on cross matching that. Taking one aspect from one’s game and trying to get the other to pick that up. It’s a process. It still is.”
Lillard is clearly aware that all the time they spend together has had an effect on each other’s game. While there are certainly similarities in their overarching style, they are still vastly different in how they attack.
You’ve got Lillard, prone to probe and explode off the pick-and-roll and finish at the rim, or go to the step-back three when the defender tries to cheat under the screen. Defenders might track Lillard to the rim and attempt to deter his shot, but his newfound creativity has helped up his shooting percentage around the rim to the point of “more than respectable.”
Meanwhile, McCollum is setting defenders up off the dribble, with or without the screen, solely to get them off-balance so he can get to his spot and unleash one of the best jumpers in the league. Where one might say he’s settling, McCollum’s skill allows him to take advantage of an inefficiency in the opposing defense. He doesn’t currently have the explosiveness necessary to consistently blow by someone off the screen, but he’s learning.
Lillard explains how working together and around each other helps them add to their respective game.
“In the summer when we’re both in town we work out one behind the other,” Lillard said. “He go then I go, he go then I go. Before practice it’s one behind the other, after practice it’s one behind the other, so he learns things from me, I learn things from him. As similar as we are, we’re different. There are things that he does very well that I can get better at and there’s things that I do well that he can get better at and it’s great that we can just do that off each other every day.”
As usual, it’s a great piece by Gundersen, underscoring the type of development Portland has had in this recent era which continues a trend of successful player development stories. While Portland may not land marquee free agents or swing big in the trade market, they can certainly be proud of how the players come out each year from the lab.