“What happened to CJ McCollum?” was a common question in the post-mortem surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers’ ignominious first-round exit at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. The perception around the league is that the Pelicans were able do something defensively that put both McCollum and Damian Lillard off their games, but outside of Jrue Holiday being otherworldly against Lillard, it’s difficult to point to any one reason why the two Portland stalwarts were unable to have an outsized effect on the series’ four games. Perhaps—and stay with me here—it’s because McCollum didn’t actually have a bad series, he was just limited by his own team taking the ball out of his hands more often than they should have.
Holiday gave Lillard fits all series, but the entire point of having the two highest-paid players on the team both reside in the backcourt is exactly for situations like Portland faced against New Orleans. With two high-level primary ball handlers on the court at the same time, opposing defenses can only take away one at a time. Rather than bang their heads against the Jrue Holiday wall, swing the ball to McCollum and let him orchestrate the offense. If the Pelicans switch Holiday to McCollum, swing it back, or better yet, let McCollum go after Holiday a little bit. As effective as Holiday was against Lillard, McCollum had his number a bit, shooting 9-for-16 across 62 possessions against the all-world Pelicans defender, during which the Trail Blazers scored 74 points, good for a 119 offensive rating. For comparison, when Holiday was guarding Lillard, Portland scored just 99 points per 100 possessions.
McCollum actually led Portland in usage rate in the playoffs (other than Caleb Swanigan, who played eight minutes), but a 25.3 percent usage rate just wasn’t good enough for a player of McCollum’s caliber, especially when Lillard was having such a poor series. Lillard’s usage came in just below McCollum at 24.9, despite the gulf between them in every key offensive statistic. Too many possessions looked like this, where McCollum just never saw the ball:
Given how much Portland struggled to score on the Pelicans in this series—they currently rank 14th out of 16 playoff teams with an 89.6 offensive rating, per Synergy—perhaps using McCollum as more of a primary ball handler could have boosted their offense. He doesn’t need to have Westbrookian 39 percent usage, but when Lillard is clearly struggling, a gap of just 0.4 percentage points between their usage rates isn’t good enough.
Consider this three-possession sequence from Game 2, in which McCollum scored in isolation and got to the rim twice more in pick-and-roll and off a dribble hand-off (DHO):
Though he’s not on Lillard’s level on a night-to-night basis, McCollum’s ability to score in the halfcourt was sorely needed when Portland had trouble in exactly that area.
Of course, no one adjustment is going to completely turn around a 4-0 sweep, but the fact that McCollum only used three possessions out of DHOs (dribble hand-offs) in the entire series after averaging almost two per game throughout the regular season shows just how stagnant and un-inventive the Trail Blazers offense became. The ball wasn’t moving—Portland ranked near the bottom in most passing stats, including dead last in secondary assists—and McCollum didn’t get the touches his play deserved. This played a large part Portland getting swept out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.