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CJ McCollum’s Defense Appears to be Improving

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Damian Lillard made defensive strides the last two years. Now his backcourt mate is making progress too.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has often been maligned for his defense. Despite being one of the most talented guards offensively in the league, McCollum’s smaller frame as a shooting guard has often held him back from being even an average defender. Certain outlets have pointed to defense as a reason to put him on the trading block and break up the offensively dynamic backcourt he shares with Damian Lillard.

While McCollum has historically been a bad defender, but this year has been a slightly different story. He hasn’t been a Jrue Holliday-level ball-stopper, but there have been signs of subtle improvement on the defensive end for McCollum.

ESPN’s real plus minus ratings show that McCollum ranks in the top 20 in DRPM among shooting guards at 1.22 . Last year McCollum finished the year at -1.05. The year before that he was -2.04. He was 70th in DRPM both of those years. By this metric, he hasn’t been a complete negative on that end.

One aspect of his game that has changed is his ability to block shots. McCollum has never averaged more than half a block in a season over the course of his career. This year he is averaging 0.8 blocks per contest. He’s the current leader among guards in blocked shots per game and total blocks, which is a sentence that most Blazer fans would not expect to either type or read.

CJ’s shot-blocking has come in handy on a couple occasions. He enjoyed a four-block performance in a win against the Sacramento Kings on December 4, a career high.

This isn’t the only blocking outburst he’s had. He recorded three blocks against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers back in November. The 2016-17 season is the only other season where he’s eclipsed three blocks in a game (which he did four times). He’s already done that three times this season through 28 games.

There was also that time where his shot-blocking, you know, helped get the Blazers to their first conference finals since 2000.

It’s not just blocks either. McCollum’s defensive matchups aren’t shooting as well against him either. Last year his defensive field goal percentage was 43.8%. This season, it sits at 37.8%. His DFG% is not good from 6 feet or less, but it has been better (59.2% this season compared to a dreadful 68.8% last season). He’s noticeably worked harder at trying to stick to guys so he can make plays like the block on Buddy Hield in his four-block game.

Even though these stats show that McCollum has improved in these areas, it would be naive to suggest that this means he’s a good defender now. His DBPM sits at a dreadful -1.7 and his defensive rating of 109.5 is plain bad.

Neither stat is perfect, since they are team-dependent. For reference, Lillard -- who has improved dramatically as a defender over his years in Portland -- has a defensive rating of 109 right now. No one in Portland’s lineup has a good defensive rating because the team just isn’t good at it. Even if McCollum doesn’t turn the team’s defense around, he isn’t the only issue, and stats show that he has individually improved slightly.

For a defense that has been all-around abysmal this year, McCollum’s improved shot-blocking and extra effort to make his matchups miss has been subtly a positive development.