For years, Portland Trail Blazers fans and analysts have argued that breaking up the Damian Lillard - CJ McCollum starting backcourt is the team’s clearest path to improvement. The Blazers and their fans are getting a look at the prospects of a post-McCollum lineup as their starting two-guard sits with a punctured lung. So far, results have been dicey... and that’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’ve been pretty firmly in the trade CJ camp since 2020 but now I’m doubting myself. We’re not winning at all without him and I wonder if it’s really the right move now to lose him. What do you notice with CJ gone? Are you still in favor of a trade?
The trade question always depends on who the Blazers would get in return. I’d certainly be in favor of a productive trade. I don’t think moving McCollum without tangible benefit would be smart. (Hint: it never is, which is why it seldom gets done.) I also think McCollum’s impact on the team is underrated. People see the issues but miss the greatness that his unique offensive skillset provides.
Let’s take a look at this table, showing Portland’s numbers in several key categories prior to the point McCollum went down versus now.
The right side of the table is where the Blazers are on December 22nd, following their loss last night to the New Orleans Pelicans. The left side indicates where they were in those same categories prior to McCollum’s lung issue, which has kept him out of action from December 6th to this point.
It’s important to note that these are not stats with and without McCollum in uniform. This table shows the team’s snapshot in these categories after 24 games (all with McCollum) and then again after 32 games (8 of them without McCollum).
A red marker indicates a trend dragging averages downward since McCollum departed, green a trend upward.
As you can see, Portland’s offensive production has trended downward since the McCollum injury. This isn’t an issue of percentage as much as number of shots. The Blazers still shooting well and taking as many threes. They aren’t getting as many points in the paint and they just aren’t scoring as efficiently or productively without CJ.
On the other hand, Portland’s defense has trended upwards. The only category showing a significant drop is Fast Break Points allowed.
This isn’t a huge surprise. Most people would expect the Blazers to be not quite as good on offense, better on defense without CJ.
There are a couple caveats, though.
The Blazers have experienced multiple injuries alongside McCollum’s. CJ is not the only one affecting the trends. A bunch of different players and lineups are muddying the waters.
Secondly, and just as importantly, the loss of offense takes Portland from good to mediocre. Because they started from such a low point, the increase in defense takes the Blazers from really bad to...also really bad. Even with Coach Chauncey Billups playing some of Portland’s most apt defensive lineups, the Blazers aren’t improving on “D” without CJ as dramatically as they’re losing it on offense...or at least not enough to produce victories.
The upward trends are there, but whether they’ll matter enough is an open question. Portland’s record during their CJ-free stretch seems to indicate, “Not.”
The final step in the process, of course, would be to imagine how a McCollum replacement would further affect the trends.
Tracking like this, even small changes can be significant. It’s easy to imagine a really good defender building on the foundation that the Blazers are starting to lay already without their two-porous-guards starting lineup. But Portland cannot discount CJ’s scoring ability entirely. They don’t have a ton of great alternatives without him. Whomever they brought in would need to be able to generate offense, probably off their own dribble, replacing some of the fire McCollum brings.
An eight-game absence isn’t enough to pronounce firm judgment, but it’s looking like the “addition by subtraction” theory won’t hold water. The Blazers can’t get better simply by ousting McCollum. He’s too good of a player and Portland is too offensively-challenged around him to make a go without a reasonable substitute. On the other hand, you could make a case that they’re already looking better defensively, and that switching up the Lillard-McCollum backcourt brings near-automatic improvement on the defensive end even without a full substitute.
In short, the Blazers would almost certainly defend better if they moved CJ, but defending better, in itself, isn’t the point. Winning games is. They haven’t done that without McCollum and there’s no reason to think they would in the future. If they trade him, they need to get something significant in return, either to make up for the offensive lack or bolster the defensive gains to the point that they matter in the win-loss column.
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