The Portland Trail Blazers have been getting it done on both sides of the floor to start the 2021-22 regular season. They rank in the NBA top 10 in scoring (8th, 113.6), field goal percentage (10th, 45.8%), three-point percentage (6th, 37.7%), opponent field goal percentage (7th, 43.3%) and defensive rating (6th, 102.1). All of this has happened with Damian Lillard struggling early. In his place, CJ McCollum has lifted the team with his play.
New CJ, Who Dis?
The primary star of a team is responsible for taking charge and being the main reason for the team’s success. In today’s game, it’s essential to have at least two to compete with the elite teams. Lillard is only averaging 19.2 points, shooting 37.1% overall and just 26.2% from three. Although this won’t last much longer, McCollum has taken that next step to be that elite “Robin” player and he’s getting it done on both sides of the floor.
Due to Coach Chauncey Billups’ new offensive implementation, the Blazers are showing much more ball movement than they have in recent years. McCollum is getting the ball more to initiate plays and be aggressive off on-ball and off-ball screens. When he’s coming off DHO’s (dribble handoffs) he’s hunting his shot, which he’s attempting in a multitude of ways. He’s averaging a career-high 24.2 points per game and connecting in style.
McCollum has a plethora of moves: three-ball, midrange, floater, or layup, He’s shooting a ridiculous 44.9% (career-high) from three on an insane 9.8 attempts (also a career-high). That means he’s hitting 4.4 of those per game. McCollum does it in many ways: spot up on the wing/corner and off-the-dribble, which makes it more difficult to defend when he can get it how he wants it.
- McCollum starts in the corner, walks his man down toward the baseline and comes off a screen and “J” cuts to the top where there will be second screen. If the defender cheats the screen, he flares away for an easier passing lane and shot. If not, he curls off the second screen. Harrison Barnes was left in the dust so Richaun Holmes jumped the screen and McCollum flared for the open shot.
- He starts in the corner, comes off an Anfernee Simons screen, proceeding around the wing to the top of the key for an open three.
- He’s finding open spots around the perimeter whether it’s the corner or wing to be ready for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
And the beauty of all these situations is if the shot isn’t there, there’s a big man waiting for two-man action for pick-and-roll to create another opportunity.
- When McCollum brings the ball up, the Blazers set high screen-and-rolls, well above the three-point line, which gives him a headstart to obtain spacing to get off a high quality shot, whether that’s driving all the way, shooting a midrange or three. You’ll see this multiple times against the Suns.
- Sometimes the team spreads when he’s at the top of the key so he can take his defender salsa dancing and jumping for joy.
Defense is one of Portland’s traditional Achilles’ heels. Lillard or McCollum have to make that conscious effort to showcase better defensive skills for this team to accomplish one goal: win a championship.
This year is starting is DIFFERENT due to McCollum making that effort. He’s leading the team with 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks (both career-highs). He’s making an effort to not only stay in front of his man, but use active hands to get his deflections and steals. He’s also playing in help mode, watching the weak side to obtain steals in the passing lanes and blocks. As stated above, the Blazers have the sixth best defensive rating and are holding opponents to 43.3% shooting overall and 40.9% in their last three. McCollum’s defensive efforts have been very instrumental for the success in that department.
Optimism Under Billups
Coach Billups’ offense looks much more fluid and diversified with the ball in McCollum’s hands instead of running everything through Lillard. He’s bringing out the best in McCollum and Anfernee Simons. Billups himself was never the fastest or quickest guy on the floor, but he sure knew how to pick his spots. McCollum is similar, but is an even better ballhandler than Billups. I think it’s rubbing off extremely well.