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Trail Blazers Mid-Season Guard Review: CJ McCollum is Not in a Slump

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We review Portland’s starting backcourt at the halfway mark of the year. Guess what? They’re great.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers crossed the halfway mark of the 2018-19 regular season this week. Their 26-17 record puts them fourth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. It’s also four games better than they stood at the same time last season.

Before the Blazers head into the second half, we’re going to recap how their players have fared so far. We start with their starting backcourt, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Lillard is having another superb season. Though his scoring average of 25.8 per game is slightly lower than the 26.9 mark he posted last season, his points-per-minute rate is virtually unchanged and his field goal percentages are higher. Only a slight dip in free throw attempts and percentage is keeping him from posting the highest True Shooting Percentage of his career. He’s also maintaining the assists-per-minute and rebounds-per-minute rate from his First-Team All-NBA season.

At 28 years of age, Lillard is rounding into the player he’s likely to be for the rest of his career. Holes remain, but anyone finding serious issues with Lillard’s game at this point is nitpicking. Whatever his deficits are, all 30 NBA teams would endure them for the sake of suiting him up.

Instead the common complaints this season have been directed at Lillard’s backcourt mate, CJ McCollum. His start was uncharacteristically shaky. A three-point percentage plummeting from .397 to .337 has Blazer Nation up in arms and visibly affected Portland’s offense. “What can CJ do to break out of his slump?” has become a rallying cry.

Except he was never in that deep of a slump to begin with. Early-season McCollum paled in comparison to lofty, near-mythical, expectations, but he did not dip far below his own track record in anything besides distance shooting.

The Blazers switched their approach early in the season, letting Evan Turner captain the second unit with Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry buttressing. McCollum became a true first-unit player rather than a hybrid guard shadowing Lillard, then scoring however he wished when the reserves came in. The updated system took the ball out of CJ’s hands. Since he’s more rhythm scorer than Ray Allen catch-and-shoot master, peeling away some of his freedom and touches left the cupboard more bare than it appeared.

McCollum averaged 18.6 field goal attempts in 2017-18. He hit that mark in only 3 of Portland’s first 10 games, reaching a nadir against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 1st...a game in which he took 8 attempts, hitting 2. During that season-opening stretch he averaged 16.2 shots per game, scoring 18.8. During Portland’s last 10 games, he’s averaged 17.7 attempts, scoring 20.5 per. Since he bottomed out, the Blazers have been more intentional about getting him looks, and he’s responded.

But even in the lowest moments, McCollum’s stats weren’t actually that bad. He never dipped far in the scoring department. “Slumping” CJ is now averaging 21.1 points per game, 22.2 per 36 minutes. The former number virtually ties last season’s scoring average and the latter number is higher. His True Shooting Percentage is higher than last year’s (.546 vs. .536) as are his overall field goal percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage. His rebounding remains steady. His assists are down significantly, but that’s another artifact of his new, more off-ball role.

In short, the demise of CJ McCollum has been greatly exaggerated. This was true a few weeks ago, and it’s even truer now that the Blazers are making more of an effort to keep him involved. As with Lillard, one can argue about McCollum’s weaknesses, speculating whether he’s closer to prime Monta Ellis than eternal Jason Terry. Either way, though, he’s darn good.

Portland’s backcourt may not be perfect, but they’ve had an A+ start to the season. They’re doing just as well as they ever had and the team is doing better. Bravo.

Later Today: The Starting Forwards

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Want to feel A+ yourself? Why not help us send kids in need to see Portland’s upcoming game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 25th? Here’s how:

To donate tickets to kids for Blazer’s Edge Night against the Nets on 3/25/19:

Click this link or copy/paste into your address bar: https://rosequarter.com/groupnights/

Enter the Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE

Go through the purchase process just as if you were buying tickets for yourself.

If you order through this link with this code, tickets will be automatically donated and designated at Will Call with your order. No need to do anything else, it’s just that easy!

If you run into difficulty or wish to donate more tickets than the online service will allow, contact our Ticket Representative, Alec Botts, at 503.963.3926.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com