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Managing Space Without Lillard Crucial for the Blazers

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Damian Lillard requires the full attention of opposing defenses. It is now CJ McCollum’s turn to lead the Blazers in the same way.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the Trail Blazers received their first Lillard-less loss of the final stretch of the 2019-20 season. Due to Damian Lillard’s groin injury, Portland transitioned to an attack that is led by fellow backcourt dynamo CJ McCollum. Both players are known for their superb contributions on offense, but there are clear and obvious differences between the two players. Mainly, the space that Lillard generates for his fellow teammates is noticeably different than his counterpart.

Before diving into the numbers and looking at examples, here is how ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton summarized player gravity, a concept that is pertinent in this comparison.

In a basketball context, gravity is the tendency of defenders to be pulled to certain parts of the floor.

Every offensive player has gravity — but not all players have the same gravity. (More on that in a second.) Beyond them, the ball has gravity, because of the need to pressure the ball-handler and keep him from getting a wide-open shot. And the basket itself has gravity, since the highest-percentage shots tend to be taken from close range.

More than anything else, the primary factor determining a player’s gravity is their shooting ability.

For anyone who has observed the Blazers in recent years, it is clear that the Lillard and McCollum are above average shooters from distance. When working in tandem, they have the ability to absolutely expose opposing defenses.

This season, despite overall team struggles, McCollum has maintained a level of efficiency that is on par with the rest of his career. He is shooting 44.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. Lillard, who is enjoying a career year, is converting 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts and 46 percent of his shots from the field.

Scoring and creating with “gravity” are two separate beasts. When it comes to generating assists, there is a chasm between the two backcourt operators. Lillard boasts a 35.2 assist percentage. McCollum’s assist percentage sits at 16.7 percent.

It is important to consider that a look at the overall statistics puts McCollum at a disadvantage in a head-to-head comparison with Lillard. As Pelton noted, a defender’s ability to help off their primary assignment is a key component to gauging how an offensive player impacts available space. McCollum’s outside shooting prowess is an obvious ingredient to Lillard’s defense-altering efficiency. A head-to-head comparison must also consider that McCollum’s primary duties most often occur alongside the second unit.

Looking beyond the numbers, here is an example of how Lillard exploits extra attention from opposing defenders. Josh Jackson is forced to crowd Lillard at the logo while McCollum snakes around an off-ball pick. Instead of watching the screen, Brandon Clarke is caught protecting the lane from Lillard. The result: a three-pointer from McCollum that benefited from just enough space.

On this play, it is Torrey Craig who is forced to check Lillard near the half-court line. Once Lillard breaks downhill, all five defenders shift their attention away from their individual matchups. Malik Beasley sagged off his man in the corner, Juancho Hernangomez crowded the lane and Nikola Jokic prepared to divert Lillard away from the rim. Monte Morris is the unlucky winner of this play. He completely abandons Gary Trent Jr. and gets stuck in the lane, leading to a favorable three-point attempt.

The final example looks at the Blazers’ offense with McCollum at the helm. Much like Lillard, only to a lesser degree, each defender shifts their focus when McCollum receives the ball. The windows are smaller, but they are still there. Regardless of the increased pressure, McCollum powers to the rim for a contested finish.

It is important to note, that not all outlet players are created the same. In the final example, Anfernee Simons doesn’t maximize the lack of attention paid to him by rotating to a clear passing lane and Carmelo Anthony fails to drift towards the corner.

In order to maximize their postseason chances, the Blazers must continue to exploit the gravity that Lillard and McCollum generate. Despite some less-than-encouraging results, the current roster is better equipped to do just that. Freed from a reduced role, Trent’s 47.5 three-point percentage over the last month has added a much-needed bite to Portland’s perimeter. Ariza, who replaced Kent Bazemore, is shooting 39.5 percent on three-point attempts since joining the Blazers—a considerable improvement over his predecessor’s 32.7 percentage from beyond the arc.

McCollum has a chance to dictate the action in a similar fashion with Lillard rehabbing his groin, but he must do so with smaller windows available.