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How Damian Lillard’s Absence Changes CJ McCollum’s Style

McCollum has way more in the trunk than he normally gets to show.

NBA: Miami Heat at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

National pundits frequently pigeonhole Portland Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum into the same player classification: undersized, score-first ball handlers. Their similarity in style and contributions have been the principal point of concern when evaluating Portland’s championship chances in recent years.

On the surface, that assessment is accurate. Both measure under 6-foot-4 and consistently average more than 20 points per game. And yes, problems stemming from their coupled defense, as well as the team’s limited offensive production on the wings, has stifled playoff runs in consecutive seasons.

But in the games McCollum gets a chance to play point guard in the absence of Lillard, several differences in play style emerge. These differences, when at their best, can keep Portland’s offense running even without its best player. On the flip side, they can also hinder the offense, and the Blazers don’t have the roster to compensate defensively.

One major distinction in how the two guards play is their aggressiveness as the ball handler in pick and rolls. Both like to pull up from three when the opposing big man sits back and the primary defender goes over Whiteside’s screen. The differentiation occurs if the big man comes far enough out to force them off the three-point line.

Lillard attacks the retreating big man head on. He uses first-dribble explosiveness and speed to get past the defender and craftily finish at the rim. He’s improved his ability to draw fouls on these drives as well; his free throw attempt rate is 37.6% this year, compared to 31.5% in 2015-16 and 24.9% as a rookie. If the layup isn’t available, Lillard looks to the corners for a kickout pass after picking up his dribble.

McCollum, conversely, weaves through the midrange and keep his dribble alive instead of attacking the opposing center one-on-one. He is a crafty finisher at the hoop like Lillard but doesn’t draw fouls remotely as effectively, deterring him from the paint. His patience with the primary defender on his back creates floaters on the edge of the key or side-fading midrange jumpers; both are reliable options for McCollum when not heavily contested. Instead of locating his teammates in the corner, he’s more apt to pass backward to the wing when a help defender pinches in.

Their varying speed and aggressiveness around a high screen alter how Whiteside gets his scoring opportunities as the roll man. Lillard showed major strides in his ability to find Whiteside on a bounce pass closer to the rim, something Blazers fans grew accustomed to with he and Jusuf Nurkic last season.

Because McCollum doesn’t charge at the rim, Whiteside doesn’t roll with as much vigor. He stays a step behind McCollum at all times as a release valve. As a result, when McCollum does find his big man rolling, it’s not as close to the hoop, but it is within distance of Whiteside’s signature shot put shot. In Portland’s three games post-All-Star break, the center has averaged 17.7 points on 59.5% shooting. On the season, he’s posting 15.9 points on 61.1% shooting.

Outside the pick and roll, McCollum has been making a lot more passes in general. Duh. That’s what happens when a player moves from shooting guard to point guard. But it’s worth noting that he’s at 63.7 passes per game over the last three matchups, roughly 10 more than Lillard makes on the season. McCollum’s creating 17.3 potential assists and 25.3 assisted points per, and the other starters are benefitting from his continuation of the usual ball movement.

Nonetheless, McCollum has endured stretches of the head down, dribble-heavy, lone gun offense he frequently resorts to with the bench unit. Against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, consecutive possessions wound up in a contested jumper at the end of the shot clock without another teammate touching the ball, leading to Boston’s lead ballooning to more than 12 points in the third quarter.

The Blazers shouldn’t expect to compete with top-tier teams with Lillard out; it’s worth remembering that not only is Lillard out, but so is Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood. McCollum is the only healthy starter of Neil Olshey’s ideal five-man lineup for next year.

Although McCollum has outperformed expectations as a facilitator thrust into the void left behind by Lillard, outside of a tight win against the lowly Detroit Pistons, Portland is 0-2 and quickly watching the playoff race slip away. If the All-Star point guard continues to miss time, more than just McCollum will need to step up in a major way.