The margin of error for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2021-22 appears razor-thin. For that reason, it certainly helps to have a thick-skinned player like CJ McCollum helping guide the way. After yet another offseason of trade speculation and an underselling of his positive traits, the talented two-guard is poised to hang around for a ninth consecutive season. Here’s what’s worth watching when the season tips off next Wednesday.
CJ McCollum, 2020-21 Stats:
AGE: 30 | EXPERIENCE: 9 seasons
CONTRACT: $30.8 million in 2021-22, guaranteed through 2024
2020-21 Stats: 23.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 0.9 steals in 34.0 minutes per game over 47 games
45.8 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from 3-point range, and 81.2 percent from the free throw line.
49th in total points scored, 23rd in points per game (did not qualify), 69th total assists, 39th in assists per game, 60th in free throw percentage, 27th in 3-pointers made, 46th in 3-point percentage, 113th in free throws made, 120th in free throws attempted, 120th in minutes played, 24th in minutes per game, 87th in turnovers per game, 30th in PER, 48th in win shares per 48.
Is it possible for a player to be “too consistent?” It’s a bottom-shelf question on a Trail Blazers team with far bigger concerns, but it’s something to consider with Portland’s longtime two-guard. Dating back to 2015-16, McCollum has six straight seasons in which he’s never averaged more than 23.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists, but no fewer than 20.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. If you’re searching to find McCollum’s true floor and ceiling in 2021-22, be sure to wear a helmet; it’s as tight and bumpy as one can get.
For the Blazers to succeed, McCollum’s role likely needs to be similar to what it was at the beginning of 2020-21, in which he averaged 27.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 47-43-84 percentage splits (with 11.3 3-point attempts per game). McCollum didn’t sacrifice any of his herky-jerk style and dribbling “wiggle,” and his trusted midrange shot remained there when given. But it’s well-documented that the nine-year vet took a step back to chase that extra point and had his pick-and-rolls set much further back for optimal space. Last month, he called the ability to shoot 3-pointers off the bounce the “separator between good to great,” and that’s forced defenders to come out even further to guard him.
It should be interesting to see if McCollum and Lillard have their minutes staggered. For what it’s worth, during his playing days in Detroit, new head coach Chauncey Billups had at least 500 minutes without star guard Richard Hamilton in-game (and vice versa) from 2003-04 to 2007-08. They almost always drew a net positive as long as one of them remained on the floor. When looking at McCollum’s role, it likely means taking as much pressure off of Lillard as possible, again, building upon last season’s facilitating chops, being a reliable safety valve in the deep corners on those short roll 4-on-3 situations that come with Lillard’s screens, and keeping last year’s shot profile.
And then, there’s the question of whether or not the two of them can evolve into something less mortal in the Playoffs at the same time. Even during their best run in 2019, Lillard’s best — the first round — and McCollum’s best — the second round — ran in conflict. Last season, McCollum entered a three-player club of players to average at least 20 points in six straight regular seasons and postseasons, but mostly underperformed to his standards in a winnable series against Denver.
Areas for Improvement:
The Blazers’ defensive struggles have been discussed ad nauseam at this point, but it remains their biggest problem. Under new head coach Chauncey Billups, the term “accountability” has been added to the bingo board. At 30-years-old, is a miracle short of another growth spurt, which limits his potential versatility, but he can control some of the little things, such as getting around pick-and-rolls and still contesting. Personally, he’s similar to Lillard, in that he’s historically done well in high-leverage situations and against marquee stars. But what’s the level of focus like on a random Tuesday night in January against Bryn Forbes or Facu Campazzo?
Offensively, McCollum is the type of player that would likely be sitting on at least a pair of All-Star appearances if not for an abnormally-competitive Western Conference. In looking at situations he can get better at, it likely starts with getting to the free throw line more often. In 63 preseason minutes, he earned one trip to the free throw line. Chalk it up as one of those “it’s only preseason” statistics if you wish, but the regular season trends haven’t been tons more optimistic.
In the Blazers’ preseason opener, Lamar Hurd and Kevin Calabro made mention of how much stronger McCollum looked, and he was doing his part in terms of getting to the rim, and he’s also went into detail about strengthening his core, trunk, and legs, so it’s very reasonable to suggest that McCollum puts everything together and into the most productive season of his career. Of all of the things McCollum has said on TV shows, podcasts, and even radio shows, his confidence about having a full offseason to rehab without dealing with back fractures and broken feet are reassuring. At full health, perhaps things swing towards a strong season.
There’s certainly a case to be made about the Trail Blazers flirting with insanity by observing an already-undersized backcourt and tripling down on it. Though, the results haven’t been awful; Portland produced the second-best offensive rating in NBA history in 2020-21, and built upon the longest-running streak of Playoff appearances. McCollum is aging, fittingly, like wine on the offensive end, having put up the second-most efficient season of his career. This defense doesn’t need to be elite; if they’re merely average, Portland will be among 2021’s surprises.
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