The Portland Trail Blazers have gotten off to a mediocre 3-4 start to the 2020-21 NBA season, but one member of the club is flying high despite the record. Shooting guard CJ McCollum is averaging 27.7 points per game, almost five points over his career-high. He’s also averaging career highs in three-pointers taken, three-pointers hit, and assists per game. Is McCollum now Portland’s MVP? Dia Miller and Dave Deckard tackle that question and all things CJ today.
Dia: CJ McCollum has come out this season swinging. The man is on fire. I don't know if it’s the James Harden trade rumors, or he’s just finding his groove, but whatever it is, I’m here for it. He’s always been a great player, but he seems to be reaching new levels this season. Is he Portland’s MVP this season so far? I’d say yes. This is always a hard conversation for me because a team takes more than one person to win, and we have a lot of contributing members this season. But in a season that started slow, and isn’t normal to begin with, Jusuf Nurkic seemingly not himself, and a full half where Damian Lillard didn’t score, McCollum has been necessary.
Dave: Agreed so far, but how many of those issues link together? In 2019-20, Lillard and McCollum combined for 39.8 shot attempts and 52.2 points per game. Lillard accounted for 20.4 shot attempts and 30 points. So far this year they’re combining for 40.0 shot attempts and 53.2 points per game, but CJ is taking 21.8 shots, Dame only 18.2.
At first blush, we all say, “Yay! Just about the same number of shots per game from the guards, and a full more point per game from them. This must be working better!” I’m not sure, though.
I don’t know that McCollum is going to stay that hot from distance (45.6% compared to a career average of 39.8%. If he reverts to that average (which is actually higher than he shot in 2019-20), the Blazers lose 2 points per game on the same number of shots. Now they’re going backwards. They’d lose 2.5 points if McCollum shot the same percentage he did last season from three. I’m not saying that will happen. I’m saying we can’t tell if this is an early-season hot streak or a real evolution.
Make no mistake, three-point production is where this is all coming from. McCollum is attempting an astonishing 11.4 threes per game this season, 1.6 times the number he took per game last year, which was itself a career high. His success rate on two-point shots is as low as it’s been since his sophomore season, nearly a career-low.
On the one hand, Lillard setting up McCollum and other shooters might be just what this offense needs, even if it costs him a couple shots. On the other, I’m nervous. The success of the scheme so far is riding on huge, outlying career highs and the capital financing them comes from Lillard’s shots and production.
I don’t know that the Blazers are better off long-term taking away from Lillard to boost CJ. I don’t need Dame to score 30 like he did last season, but he’s down almost 5 points per game. His assists are off. His shooting percentages are way off... I’m just having a hard time jumping on the CJ bandwagon at that cost yet. Tell me I’m wrong about this!
Dia: I don’t necessarily think you’re wrong in your thought process. However, I don’t think that’s what is going to happen. I’m hopeful that CJ is stepping up and that the same thing is going to be true for Dame soon. While Dame isn’t shooting much lower than we are used to according to the stats you just shared, he hasn’t seemed to be his usual Dame self. I’d like to see CJ continue his streak, and see Dame and the other guys (Namely, Jusuf Nurkic) step up and contribute the numbers we are used to from them. That being said, in order for CJ to have those numbers, Dame is obviously making plays and sacrificing some of his own possible points. But can you imagine a scenario where we get Bubble Dame and Bubble Nurkic, and 2021 CJ? That would be absolute fire. Add in the defense of Derrick Jones Jr, and Robert Covington (and maybe a few more successful shots from those two as well), and that is a killer starting line up.
Dave: As we’ve talked about on the Dave and Dia podcast (shameless plug) Nurkic is the key to that triangle—really the five-man unit—working properly. But this is a post about CJ, so I’ll leave Nurk alone for now, as opposed to singing, “Where, oh where, are you tonight?” from Hee Haw about him.
I’ve loved McCollum’s confidence so far this season. He’s been unabashed taking his shot and owning possessions. He’s looked good with the ball without losing any of his weak-side presence. He’s hit an amazing 60% of his shots between 10-16 feet, an absolutely impossible 69% between 16-22 feet. That’s his wheelhouse, and the wheel is turning. He’s not finishing inside, but that’s not his thing. Almost 50% of his attempts come from beyond the arc, which is half-again his career average. In short, jump shots have become his layups and he’s owning it. That mid- to long-range game, whether catch and shoot or off the bounce, makes Portland hard to guard. It makes up for a host of deficiencies in the forwards and centers so far.
CJ has always been dangerous and skilled, but this is the first time he’s looked like a STAR. It suits him. Do you see it too?
Dia: I absolutely do. I've always known this was there. CJ has been a star in his own right in Portland. I’ve said for the last few years that he hasn’t gotten enough credit and he’s someone who seems to kind of fly under the radar. There have been trade rumors and fans calling to trade CJ for a while. When you look at him as an individual player, apart from Damian Lillard, apart from the team, he's a fantastic player. So that has always been interesting to me. I get that if we are going to make moves, he's probably our most valuable asset apart from Dame, but isn’t that also an argument to keep him? I’m a CJ fan, and I really like what I’m seeing from him. I think he is doing exactly what you said—he’s really finding his confidence and his place on this team. My hope is that this isn’t just a streak, and we continue to see him play this way. If he continues, and the other pieces fall into place, we just might have a shot at making a run this year.
Dave: Anybody who can shoot threes like that is a keeper, almost no matter what else they do. The only possible upgrade would be someone who shoots just as well, but also defends. But there’s the elephant in the hatchback for this season. Gary Trent Jr. might be exactly that guy. Trent, Jr. can’t handle or score in the mid-range like McCollum, but he’s a better defender and he also strokes from distance. Before we go, tell me... if you had to choose between keeping CJ but losing Trent, Jr. at the end of the year or trading CJ for talent at another position and keeping Trent, Jr., which would it be?
Dia: I hate when you ask me hard questions like this. It’s like asking me which child is my favorite. Losing either one would be tragic. But I know how this works. I know we can’t hold onto every player forever (25 man roster anyone?). So if you make me choose, I’m reluctantly keeping Gary Trent Jr. and it’s not an easy call. The reason for that is simply age. CJ and Dame are both in their prime. If they both stay with the Blazers until the end of their career (which I would LOVE to see by the way), then our entire backcourt is gone and we are left to try to rebuild. If we keep Gary Trent Jr, then when Dame is done, we will still have Gary. If Gary continues on his current trajectory, he has the potential to be a star. But I’ll root for CJ until the day he retires. Even if he plays for the Lakers—and of that doesn’t say love I don’t know what does. Heck, I’ll still be rooting for him after he retires. CJ McCollum has a lifelong fan in me, no matter where he goes or what he does.
Dave: Ok, easier question then. Will McCollum be an All-Star this season?
Dia: If he continues playing like this, yes. And he absolutely should be. I can’t wait to see that.
Dave: I could see it happening, but only if he made it in over Lillard. I don’t think they give the Blazers two, unless Portland starts dominating the league. If Dame stepped back and CJ stepped forward, it’s possible. If James Harden gets traded to the Eastern Conference, maybe it’s possible for both to make it.
What say you, readers? Do you think CJ has any chance at an All-Star nomination? Do you think his production will keep up? If so, will that be the best outcome for the team? Share in the comment section below!