CJ McCollum’s return from a fractured foot was a welcome sight as the Portland Trail Blazers secured the victory against an up-and-coming, young New Orleans Pelicans team. McCollum only had 10 points (3-11 FG, 2-7 3PT) in 27 minutes of action in his return after missing 25 consecutive games. The Blazers were down by as many as 17 points but clawed their way back into riding Damian Lillard’s 50 points. Despite this victory, there are a few adjustments/takeaways from this game.
After missing 25 games, McCollum should not have started just to get his feet back in live action. Terry Stotts should have stuck with the lineup he’s been using with Gary Trent Jr. starting at the two-guard position to help defensively with Lillard and let McCollum run the second unit. With Trent Jr. having played consistently and stepping up in McCollum’s absence, it makes more sense to keep rolling with that rotation until CJ is back in form.
One of the biggest issues in the past has been the lack of spacing surrounding Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. When they drive in, the defense collapses daring inconsistent shooters to shoot. Moving forward, Trent Jr. should become the full-time starting small forward. At 6’6”, he has the height and defensive IQ to battle bigger players at that position. This move would delegate Derrick Jones Jr. to the second unit. Although Jones Jr. plays great defense, he is still a liability offensively with the lack of consistency from deep. He is shooting a career-high 34.5%, but this doesn’t compare to Trent Jr.’s 40.4%. Forcing your opponent to have to battle with you on both ends of the floor is significant. Either Brandon Ingram or Zion Williamson would be forced to stay glued to Trent Jr., while they can take plays off leaving Jones Jr. open. This will do wonders against opposing defenses giving Lillard and McCollum more room to operate as well as for Jusuf Nurkic, who shall be returning in the next couple of weeks from a fracture wrist.
The Blazers are known season after season as a team that consistently lacks defensive prowess. The acquisitions are of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. were made to fix those woes. Still, the scouting report is extremely important from opponent to opponent. Seeking their strengths and weaknesses is essential to preparation.
In this matchup, Zion Williamson was scoring at will in the paint (28 points, 11-17) and no real adjustments were being made. A guy shooting 62% from the field (almost all at the rim) and a lowly 31.6% from three should be game planned for. There were many times on the perimeter where Zion was blowing by guys to the rim; there should have been an emphasis to give him room while away from the basket. Making defensive adjustments comes down to the coaches mainly to point out what they see. Crowding the paint against a team with a player like Williamson is essential to not let other guys get going. Once Williamson is in a groove, it opens up the game for Lonzo Ball, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ingram, and Josh Hart to operate and be open for perimeter shots.
Don’t Break Up the Duo of Dame and CJ Just Yet
With CJ McCollum just returning after 25 games and Nurkic still out with only playing 12 games, this team should be given an opportunity to compete as a whole this coming playoffs. There is plenty of potential and depth within the Blazers and having all players available would help with chemistry and consistency. The depth chart should look like this:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: CJ McCollum
SF: Gary Trent Jr.
PF: Robert Covington
C: Jusuf Nurkic
PG: Anfernee Simons
SG: Nassir Little/Rodney Hood
SF: Derrick Jones Jr./Carmelo Anthony
PF: Carmelo Anthony/Zach Collins
C: Enes Kanter
With Enes Kanter’s ineptitude defensively, it has allowed teams the comfortability to attack the rim in which Nurkic helps to fill that void. With everyone healthy, this team is definitely a top team in the Western Conference.
It is great news that CJ McCollum has finally returned to relieve more pressure from Damian Lillard. With an improved Gary Trent Jr. and the new acquisitions fitting in, we will finally be able to see the fully healthy Blazers soon enough. Once Nurkic returns, there will be some rust and lack of chemistry figuring out rotations and guys getting comfortable playing together. With all of these obstacles, the Blazers are a fifth seed in a grueling Western Conference. With Dame in MVP mode and key players returning, the Blazers will show why they’re a scary team in the process of this playoff push.