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Video: How the Trail Blazers Use CJ McCollum Off Screens

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McCollum is one of the best shooters in the league, helped by Portland’s scheme.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers use CJ McCollum in all sorts of interesting ways to get open shots—or at least as open as he needs to be in order to put them in the basket. As Damian Lillard holds the ball and their opponents’ attention, McCollum whirls around any number of screens to find a crack in the defense. Per Synergy, McCollum is well above-average in shooting off screens, as the Blazers post a 105.4 offensive rating on 129 possessions this season. The only shooters in the league putting better efficiency with that kind of volume: Kyle Korver, Stephen Curry, and Paul George.

For a lot of teams, getting their guys shots involves multiple screens and a specific set play. McCollum’s shots come in the standard flow of Portland’s offense, which famously features a preponderance of flare screens for their best shooters. A frequent appearance in the Trail Blazers offense is a play I call Pitchback Flare:

In both of the above clips, McCollum cuts toward Lillard at the top of the key, receiving the ball as he does so. He doesn’t hold onto the ball for very long, as he immediately pitches the ball back to Lillard and continues his route around a flare screen from one of Portland’s big men for an open three. In the first clip, the Dallas Mavericks were supposed to switch all screens, as they did initially on the down screen from Jusuf Nurkic for McCollum. Since McCollum didn’t make contact or even really slow down to screen for Lillard, the Mavericks blew the switch and McCollum was wide open. In the second clip, Victor Oladipo does a good job staying with McCollum through the original down screen by Nurkic but relaxes a bit once McCollum hands the ball back to Lillard. By the time he realizes what happening, he’s too far behind the play and McCollum hits the shot.

A bit later in that same game against the Indiana Pacers, the Trail Blazers went back to this same action. Oladipo once again stays with McCollum through the down screen and rectifies his mistake from last time, staying engaged as McCollum pitches back to Lillard. He sticks to McCollum through the flare screen and chases him over, deterring the three-pointer, but this leaves open the cut to the basket.

McCollum hasn’t even turned his head as Lillard throws the pass, which hits him right in stride for an easy layup. Like a quarterback and receiver who have practiced together for years, Lillard and McCollum both read Oladipo following McCollum over the flare screen and instinctively know that the paint will be open. Lillard can throw the ball before McCollum even makes his turn around the screen.

Sometimes, the Trail Blazers will throw a counter at their opponents, especially late in games when the defense has seen the main action a few times throughout the contest:

McCollum runs off the down screen from Nurkic, gets the ball and pitches it back to Lillard like he always does. This time, Lillard takes a few dribbles toward the sideline and McCollum stops his momentum, wheeling back around for another screen from Nurkic. Bradley Beal is left too far behind the play and McCollum and Nurkic have a two-on-one against a helpless Marcin Gortat, which ends in a layup for the Trail Blazers.

Outside of their flare screen actions and the variations of those plays, the Trail Blazers employ all the usual tricks to get McCollum open. In early offense/semi-transition, they’ll set a quick down screen for him to come from one wing to the middle of the floor, a set used by virtually every team in the league to try to get their best shooters open shots in the first few seconds of the shot clock.

If that shot isn’t open but McCollum’s defender is still catching up, he can quickly transpose into a pick-and-roll with the big man who set the original screen, continuing the action to keep the defense off balance and always behind the play.

The Trail Blazers also run a few screen-the-screener plays for McCollum, in which he sets a down screen on one side of the floor, then wheels around another screen to get the ball:

Though he sets the screen for Al-Farouq Aminu in this example, this play can be especially effective when McCollum’s original screen is for Lillard, as there are few players more dangerous from beyond the arc than Portland’s All-Star point guard. With the defense occupied by the ball on the strong side, McCollum races around toward the weak-side wing and finds himself wide open, though not without the help of a particularly nasty screen from Nurkic.

Portland uses McCollum in a variety of ways to leverage his outside shooting ability into points both from beyond the arc and in the paint. Portland’s offense has struggled this year, but that’s not on McCollum, who is still having a stellar year in pick-and-roll and on his jumpers, aided by the Trail Blazers unorthodox offensive scheme.