With three minutes to go in the Portland Trail Blazers’ final game before the All-Star break, Damian Lillard suffered a groin injury and walked straight to the locker room without consulting teammates, coaches or the medical staff. Without him on the floor, Portland proceeded to lose to the Memphis Grizzlies and fall four games back on the eighth seed.
Although the All-Star break provides more than a week off, there is no indication that Lillard will be ready by the Blazers’ first game back on Friday. Groin strains have sidelined some of the NBA’s best for extended periods; LeBron James missed 17 games and Steph Curry missed 11 with similarly labelled ailments in the last four years.
Terry Stotts didn’t anticipate Lillard practicing with the team on Wednesday, and in an interview with NBC Sports Northwest’s Dan Sheldon, the coach said about groin strains, “You never know. Could be a week. Could be a month.”
That brief period from Lillard’s injury to the final buzzer presented the team with yet another obstacle to conquer this season. Between trades and enough injuries for the next few seasons combined, Portland’s offense has had to adapt several times this year: Hassan Whiteside took over for Jusuf Nurkic in the summer, Carmelo Anthony replaced Zach Collins, Kent Bazemore for Rodney Hood, and most recently, Trevor Ariza swapped into Bazemore’s position.
Offensive adjustments stemming from these personnel changes were potholes for the Blazers – an occasional tire change or just continuing to drive as if nothing happened. But losing Lillard, even for a handful of games, is like driving into a ditch. No simple solution exists to fill the void he leaves behind. The entire flow of Portland’s offense originates from Lillard running high pick and rolls with Whiteside or attacking his defender off the dribble.
Historically, CJ McCollum has risen to the challenge of replacing his backcourt buddy. Sans Lillard in the last 4.5 seasons – he played all 82 games his first three professional campaigns – the Blazers are 14-13. This season, despite McCollum averaging 29.5 points and 7.5 assists on 47.1% shooting in the two games Lillard sat, Portland is without a win.
Missing its usual depth, the team has relied on Lillard even more to create opportunities through drive and kicks, shooting gravity, or self-creation. McCollum can contribute in a similar manner, but not at the level Lillard does. That’s not a knock on McCollum – very few players can match the offensive production of his teammate.
In the pick and roll, which Portland runs on more than 30% of its possessions, Lillard scores 1.13 points per possession (96th percentile). McCollum scores 0.9 PPP (65th percentile).
Whiteside’s production takes a hit in the absence of Lillard because McCollum doesn’t create the same opportunities for the roller out of pick and rolls. A majority of the big man’s shot attempts come after setting a screen, but McCollum hasn’t mastered the bounce pass to catch Whiteside on the roll for in-close opportunities.
Defenses can collapse harder on McCollum-Whiteside pick and rolls because the Blazers don’t have a three-point shooter as dangerous as McCollum on the wing anymore. The shooting guard ranks second in the league (among players with two or more attempts per game) for catch-and-shoot three-point conversion and forces defenders to stay honest on the perimeter when Lillard drives.
However, the opponent doesn’t necessarily need to overcommit on pick and rolls spearheaded by McCollum. He often settles for difficult shots in the midrange rather than attack the rim; the defending big man can contest those shots well enough on his own in the event of a switch. This season, McCollum has a free throw rate of 11.8%, a career low and historically low for such a high-volume scorer.
Assuming wing defenders remain on the perimeter when McCollum and Whiteside run a pick and roll, Ariza, Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons won’t enjoy as many open threes as they do when Lillard kicks it out.
Lillard’s absence indirectly impacts the bench unit as well. Since McCollum will be running point with the starters all game, he can’t facilitate the reserve offense, too. This leaves ball-handling duties with Simons or Hezonja, both of whom had opportunities to operate in such a role earlier in the season but failed to impress.
The injury to Lillard might force him to watch from the sideline for the first few games post-All-Star break. To stay in the playoff picture, Portland needs to play at least .500 basketball in this time, and the only way to do so is to play by committee. McCollum can shoulder some of the load, but it takes improvement from the entire roster to compete without its star.