Another season, another playoff exit for the Portland Trail Blazers. That’s now seven straight under Damian Lillard and Terry Stotts, which is a positive and/or negative result depending on your expectations.
Regardless, the partnership of Lillard and CJ McCollum falls under the media knife year after year. Can a pair of undersized guards with shortcomings on the defensive end lead a team to the championship while point forwards and wings reign king? If so, in a small market with the two absorbing a significant chunk of the payroll, can the front office surround them with the appropriate players to create a title-contending squad?
The answer to both isn’t a simple yes or no. If it was, the Blazers would either have a ring by now or McCollum wouldn’t be on the team anymore. But statistical and conceptual contexts exist to address those questions, which The Athletic’s Seth Partnow explored through a Sixers-tinted scope recently.
“…there isn’t a hard and fast line between ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ in terms of being the best player on a legit contender. Rather, we discover there is a continuum, whereby the better the top player, the more forgiving the construction of the rest of the team can be.”
Essentially, players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are so good that the pieces around them have more flexibility than a player of Lillard’s caliber while remaining a “legit contender.” That’s not to say Lillard can’t be the No. 1 option on a championship team. For Lillard to be in that position, his teammates must complement him impeccably, especially considering his deficiencies on defense.
Here is the continuum mentioned in the excerpt from Partnow’s story:
Lillard can reach that orange tier—if he’s not already there. Chris Paul said it the other day after his Game 6 victory over the Houston Rockets: “When it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people built for it. Some people shy away from it. You saw Dame…some people built for it.”
Instead, the concern stems from where his teammates are on the curve.
I don’t have access to the metrics used for this graph and therefore cannot precisely point to McCollum or Jusuf Nurkic’s location, but based on similar catch-all metrics, I can identify the regions where Portland’s core lies.
Predictably, McCollum likely falls in the yellow tier as a borderline All-Star. However, his win shares, a metric used in calculating the y-axis values, have notably decreased annually since peaking at 7.6 in 2016-17. The Blazers need him to be trending toward the blue tier, but he’s slipping out of the yellow and into the red tier without any marked improvement year over year.
Couple McCollum’s regression with his overlapping skill set in the backcourt and the roster flexibility around Lillard shrinks further.
Nurkic, conversely, offers a complementary play style to both Lillard and McCollum. He’s a brick wall screener who effectively runs pick and rolls and formidably defends the paint.
In his fullest season with Portland in 2018-19, Nurkic’s single-year win shares (7.8) surpassed McCollum’s best mark. Plus, the big man has substantial untapped potential; his outside shooting, playmaking on the move, finishing around the basket, and defensive wherewithal should all improve going forward. As noticed in 2018-19, Nurkic can become Portland’s second-best player and potentially reach the upper edge of the yellow tier.
Like with most playoff-caliber teams, there’s a drop off from the core duo or trio to the role players filling out the rotation. As of right now, the only for-sure rotation players rejoining the team next year are Rodney Hood, Gary Trent Jr. and Zach Collins.
Those three, plus one or two other pieces who would feature in a shortened playoff rotation, must address team needs not covered by Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic. Simply put, they must be 3-and-D guys who dot the red tier.
Hood and Trent Jr. are proven spot up shooters with an added bonus of passable shot creation abilities. Both defend with energy, but, alongside Lillard and/or McCollum, are asked to punch above their weight class. We witnessed Trent Jr. defend LeBron in the playoffs; he’s much better off defending a smaller offensive threat like Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker.
Again, the margin shrinks for a contending roster built around Lillard, putting even more pressure on an undeveloped Collins and the additional wings (possibly Trevor Ariza or Carmelo Anthony) to flawlessly fill the 3-and-D role.
Ultimately, this exercise isn’t intended to be fuel for the trade-CJ wagon. It’s merely a different, more founded way to look at the current roster composition and plausibility of constructing a contender around Lillard.
Not all championship teams are built the same, as explained in Partnow’s article, but most revolve around a star talent. A small market team like Portland doesn’t acquire a player of that caliber all too often, not to mention a star like Lillard willing to duck super teams and stick it out in Portland.
The organization is running out of time to build a championship squad around Lillard, and the margin to work with is thin given who’s already on the team as well as the financial situation going forward.