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Moving CJ McCollum Around in the Trail Blazers Lineup

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A reader suggests that the Blazers might be better off with McCollum in a different rotation spot when he returns. We examine.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers fans are still hoping CJ McCollum returns from a knee injury in time to participate in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. One Blazer’s Edge reader suggests that, in light of Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending injury, CJ could return to a role that isn’t quite aligned with his previous one. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I would like to get your opinion on a topic that I would have discounted as idiotic if someone had asked me my opinion on it a week or two ago.

I am starting to lean towards the thinking that with a capable, starting caliber(albeit not star level) SG in Rodney Hood inserted into the starting line-up, the Blazers might be a better team with CJ coming off of the bench after his return. I have never been one to buy into the narrative that the CJ/Dame duo has to be broken up for the Blazers to succeed(outside of the salary cap implications being the detriment to bringing in a third star of course). That said, I don’t see a big drop off offensively with Hood in the starting line up in place of CJ. I don’t know the advanced numbers but my eye test tells me that defensively Hood would even be an upgrade over CJ in that line up.

I know there are locker room dynamics at play and I don’t know how happy CJ would be coming off of the bench. I do think that if the Blazers were able to compete at a similar level with Hood starting in place of CJ, they would crush teams with a CJ lead second unit. Putting another shooter around ET and having a near all star level guard playing against second units might be a formula that teams would have trouble countering in a playoff series. ET creating, Seth shooting the lights out like he has all season, Layman cutting and CJ being all things CJ would make a pretty impressive second unit with either Collins or Leonard at the 5(the offensive deficiencies in either would likely be hidden in this lineup).

The Blazers are a wounded animal without Nurk with little chance of long term playoff survival this year. The team took a huge step back in the odds of playoff contention when the big man went down. I think with the Bosnian Beast sized hole in the Blazer’s defense, it leaves the Blazers one hope to make a deep playoff run. I believe that hope is to become a high scoring offensive juggernaut. It is a shot in the dark but where do you stand on Hood starting and CJ coming off of the bench during the playoffs to try to create that 48 minute non-stop offensive scoring machine? It sounds like lunacy, but is it?

Thanks. I look forward to your response. - ClassyUSA

The Blazers aren’t likely to change any part of the rotation they don’t have to in the playoffs. They’ll have earned their seed with a certain style of play and their conventional pecking order. They need to dance with the one that brought them, which very much includes CJ McCollum starting at shooting guard.

I could see Hood taking over that spot, but only if he agrees to a mid-level exception and supplants McCollum after the latter is traded. Hood wouldn’t be the worst possible replacement. The Blazers would need some serious talent at forward to make that exchange viable, though.

If that doesn’t happen, I could also see McCollum and Damian Lillard returning to a more staggered progression next season, with CJ’s minutes overlapping the second unit. The Blazers went away from that this year, but if next season’s bench doesn’t pack the same scoring punch (and it might not with the real possibility that Hood, Seth Curry, and Enes Kanter could all be gone), Portland may not have another choice.

I don’t see any permutation that leads to McCollum coming off the bench for a lesser player, though. People suggest this every once in a while. It’s always a hard, “No”. You mentioned locker room dynamics. That’s part of it; alienating a star-level player is never a good idea. But even if McCollum had few problems with it, the experiment would eventually fail.

Imagine being Rodney Hood in that situation. You’re good. You’re confident you can perform. You’re also playing ahead of a super-talented guy when you haven’t earned the spot. The pressure to justify the new position would be enormous. If everybody else, including CJ, was friendly as mom’s Marionberry pie, you’d still feel every eye in the universe upon you. Every mistake would be magnified, an apparent justification that the idea isn’t sound. Nobody can play under that kind of pressure.

Nor would Hood’s mistakes be the only ones in question. Outside of certain games from the Golden State Warriors, every NBA contest is a symphony of imperfection. Some errors are large, others small, but they’re there. Causes are multiple, but apparent causes (and associated blame) tend to narrow down to one or two obvious cores. You experience this every time the Blazers lose and people blame it on the coach, even though a hundred factors actually played in.

Hood starting over McCollum would become an instant blame magnet, a black hole for every bit of rancor surrounding the team. Even if the professionals inside the locker room could tell the difference, they wouldn’t survive the onslaught for long.

Unless the Blazers shot to the top of the standings, fans, local media, and national pundits would harp on the subject incessantly. The coach would be explaining to everyone from the newspaper columnist to his own General Manager (and by proxy, the team owner) why starting a cap-exemption guy over a $30 million, 20-point scorer was justified. He could point out that their struggles had nothing to do with the backcourt, that the big man rotation was far more to blame. Few would listen. That might be unfair, but it’d also be unavoidable.

Add in having to explain to other bench players why they’re not starting, especially at positions where the competition is far closer (hello, small forward) and this idea is a non-starter. As, for now, is Rodney Hood.

Thanks for the question! Keep sending them to blazersub@gmail.com as you wish!

(P.S. If you’re going to start Hood, maybe think small forward? The defense would be utterly abominable, especially with Kanter in the lineup, but hey...)

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