The lone consolation prize for the Portland Trail Blazers in the wake of CJ McCollum’s knee injury is that it didn’t happen later in the season and he likely won’t miss much, if any, postseason action. The team is firmly in a race for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and need every win they can get, but even if they drop every remaining game on their schedule, they’re not going to fall out of the postseason altogether.
Still, seeding will be of utmost importance in a conference with the bottom five playoff teams all within three games of one another. Only one of the five (Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah, and LA) will host the first two games of the first round in their home building, while the remainder will have to go on the road, whether that’s to the eventual winner of this group or one of the conference’s elite top three teams (Golden State, Denver, and Houston). Portland does have a two-game gap on the Utah Jazz in the hunt for home court, which bodes well for their finish to a season that only has a handful of days remaining.
McCollum’s absence will be felt most on the offensive end, where Portland relies on him as a secondary scorer behind Damian Lillard. Head coach Terry Stotts has been keeping his two stars together as much as he can this season, a departure from his rotational decisions in the past, which has lessened McCollum’s impact as a playmaker, but he’s still been a very efficient scoring threat and has helped propel the Trail Blazers to yet another strong regular season. For now, even more of the weight will fall on Lillard to be the offensive engine for Portland.
As one would expect, Lillard’s usage goes through the roof when McCollum is out of the game. His 35 percent usage in more than 2000 non-McCollum minutes over the last three years puts him up there with the heaviest usages in the league. He’s thrived in those minutes, scoring at a ridiculous clip given that he doesn’t have another star-level offensive player on the floor to lighten the load. His 60 percent true shooting over those minutes would be elite for any player, much less a player responsible for so much of his team’s offensive output. He does it, in part, by using more possessions in pick-and-roll and parading to the free throw line for easy points.
Lillard has been a wonderful pick-and-roll operator this year, ranking out as an elite scorer and playmaker in that area. He and Jusuf Nurkic have a pick-and-roll chemistry that rivals just about any duo in the league and the pressure they put on defenses opens up the rest of the Trail Blazers to take advantage of the openings those two create. Lillard’s pick-and-roll usage will go up significantly in McCollum’s absence; he finished 36 possessions in pick-and-roll (with either a shot, foul, turnover, or pass to a teammate who then shot, was fouled, or turned it over) against Indiana in McCollum’s first game out after averaging fewer than 20 pick-and-rolls per game over his first 68 games of the season. Portland scored 43 points on those 36 possessions, an overwhelmingly elite mark, especially against a Pacers defense that has been very good against the pick-and-roll this year.
Lillard’s increased usage should naturally mean in an increase in his individual numbers, but it’s how he gets his numbers that matter most when McCollum is off the floor. Lillard’s free throw rate (per 100 team possessions) jumps from about 8.5 to 13, a monumental leap, when McCollum exits the game. For reference, James Harden’s overall free throw rate this season is around 15 FTA/100. Lillard’s ability to get to the line when he’s the sole offensive creator for his team makes him an immensely valuable player for the Trail Blazers and a big reason why he should be showered with All-NBA honors for his work this year.
The onus is going to be on Lillard to pick up even more of the slack with McCollum out. Jake Layman will replace McCollum in the rotation but won’t be able to replace his production, especially from a self-created standpoint. McCollum generates so many of his own shots, which takes a significant chunk out of what Lillard has to do, but Layman isn’t going to be able to replicate that aspect of McCollum’s game; that’s what makes McCollum a max-level player and Layman a nice rotation piece for a team to have off the bench. Lillard will have to take on not just his own previous role but most of McCollum’s, but it’s a role he’s played phenomenally well throughout his career.
All stats are through March 19, 2019 and are via Synergy, unless otherwise noted.