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Shuffling Lillard & McCollum Makes Sense for the Blazers

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A simple cure to the Trail Blazers’ bench struggles could involve re-tooling the minutes stagger between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Philadelphia 76ers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Trail Blazers scored the fewest bench points per game in the league last season. That’s partially an indictment of the team’s bench and partially a result of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum playing staggered minutes. Besides Gary Trent Jr.’s explosion at the end of the year, a Portland reserve was rarely the first, second or third offensive option on the floor at any given time.

Even with a starter or two gracing bench units, the Blazers frequently sacrificed leads developed by lineups Lillard carried. Ball and player movement ceased as the offense unsuccessfully settled for McCollum isolations, Carmelo Anthony post ups or a contested off the dribble look by someone else.

With everyone healthy for the start of next season (fingers crossed), the Blazers will have a deeper roster. Some free agency maneuvers might change that, but there’s likely to be at least eight serviceable players on the squad by the start of 2021. Ideally, a more experienced bench group can execute better offense and avoid stagnating, but a player-for-player swap might also assist that effort.

That swap: Lillard plays primarily with the reserves in the second and third quarter while McCollum joins the starters in that span. That would mean Lillard subs out with around four minutes to go in the first quarter, then plays the entire second quarter and repeats that process in the third and fourth. Conversely, McCollum would play all of the first, the final six or seven minutes of the second, and repeat that pattern in the second half.

Blazers fans know how well McCollum does as the lead ball handler alongside other starters. In the eight games Lillard sat this year, McCollum averaged 32.4 points and 8.1 assists on ludicrous efficiency. Portland went 2-6 in that span, but that’s an outcome of Lillard not playing at all. McCollum showed off heightened playmaking skills and careful shot selection in his minutes sans Lillard when alongside more starters than reserves.

For Lillard, this swap would transition a portion of his pick and roll possessions into isolation possessions. Without Nurkic alongside him for a majority of the game to constantly run high pick and rolls, Lillard will have to attack the rim and create perimeter opportunities on his own. Last season, the All-Star guard nearly scored the same number of points per possession out of pick and rolls (1.15) as in isolation (1.07). Both ranked in the 87th percentile or higher league wide; not much efficiency is lost.

McCollum would therefore inherit more pick and rolls by sharing the floor with Nurkic. In 2018-19, McCollum scored 0.97 PPP on pick and rolls, which ranks in the 83rd percentile. No one can match Lillard’s otherworldly scoring in the two-man game, but McCollum’s tallies are still top notch.

Finally, the attention Lillard garners from opposing defenses would only climb if he’s joined by the reserves. Opponents will happily abandon wings on the perimeter to help handle the explosive guard. He’s improved his ability to find teammates when defenders trap, blitz or collapse, so Portland’s more single-focused reserve players will get open looks served on a platter, theoretically boosting their shooting percentages.

The Blazers will have a new roster next season and can experiment with various lineup orientations. We know how well McCollum plays with the starters as the ball handler, and we know from last year how Lillard can carry any group of players and elevate their play. Swapping the stagger of those two and pairing them with the defenders, shooters and screeners they benefit from will only help Portland’s offense succeed.

Most importantly, even in spite of this swap, Lillard and McCollum will start and finish games together.