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How Much Better Can CJ McCollum Get in 2021-22?

Assuming CJ McCollum is back for a ninth season in Portland, are there subtle ways he can improve his play?

Western Conference Finals - Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

They say the NBA off-season hasn’t officially began until your favorite players start circulating on Twitter in photoshopped L.A. Lakers jerseys and trade packages. But one other telltale sign that summer is closely upon the horizon? The resurfacing of trade rumors for Portland Trail Blazers star guard CJ McCollum.

From the very moment McCollum’s ascension up the NBA ranks began, the talented two-guard has been subject to trade discussions, one after another. Think back to as far as McCollum’s breakout season in 2015-16, when he averaged 20.8 points per game while commanding just $2.5 million annually — a one-of-a-kind bargain. Even then, the question wasn’t so much how the Portland Trail Blazers could build around this backcourt, but rather, what could they obtain by shipping him away. Five seasons, one Western Conference Finals appearance, and $106 million later, very little has changed. The threat of the Blazers dealing McCollum has never felt more imaginable than now. But — in the event that Portland opens 2021-22 with that ever-familiar backcourt — can we expect anything different?

One of the common indictments on McCollum, for most fans, is that he hasn’t made tangible improvements on his box score ledger. Over the past six seasons, he’s never averaged fewer than 3.0 rebounds or assists, but no higher than 5.0 either. It’s with great irony that he’s become “too consistent,” a hallmark typically reserved for celebration. Furthermore, his defensive tracking numbers don’t suggest an upcoming incline. Assuming McCollum is still 6-foot-3 when next season begins, here are three reasonable adjustments that could move Portland’s needle, even if slightly.

No. 1: Upping his free throw rate

Before this most recent Blazers-Nuggets series, it was almost always a safe assumption that CJ McCollum would ramp up his level of play when the importance of games ratcheted up. From 2014-15 to 2019-20, he frequently produced jumps in regular season statistics (19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 0.9 steals per game) in comparison to his postseason numbers (22.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals per game) without sacrificing much efficiency. Along the way, he’s developed into an unspeakably-underrated performer in elimination games. His willingness to put his body on the line in search of free throw attempts is a preeminent reason why.

In theory, it makes sense; tug-of-wars in the postseason are decided by those who hunt favorable matchups and execute most effectively. In today’s “switch everything” NBA, bigs and wings are at the mercy of shifty guards who know how to get defenders off-balanced. McCollum’s among those who feast through that principle, getting to the line on about one-fifth of his offensive possessions (19.1 percent). While that number is still remarkably low, it does give Portland’s efficient offense another reliable hub.

The question now is simple: does the soon-to-be 30-year-old want to necessarily add on the bumps needed to get to the free throw line more habitually? That age isn’t necessarily a “magic number,” but players approaching that milestone have generally logged considerable mileage. Just as an illustration: over the past two decades, there have been only 17 “guards” that averaged 20+ points per game at age 29. Six of them — Jalen Rose, Michael Redd, DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Allen Iverson, and James Harden — saw higher free throw rates in the following season.

McCollum becomes an interesting study, because of recent comments on his “Pull Up” podcast. He noted that this past season was his most difficult, given his battle with a back fracture and a broken foot in one calendar year. To have a full offseason with no rehabilitation is something he’s said to be excited about. McCollum is a competitor, and while true competitors never tell, one could surmise that he wasn’t fully healthy this postseason. He sometimes appeared to lack the lift and zip needed to get past and shoot over the likes of Facu Campazzo and Austin Rivers. At full health and anxious to restore order, perhaps this is one method that puts McCollum in position for future fortunes.

No. 2: Building on 2020-21’s shot profile

Hypocrite, me. This goes against everything we’ve discussed in the exclusive “LaMarcus Aldridge Fan Club” of one. But for a shooter of McCollum’s caliber, it’s reasonable. It’s unclear what changes with a new coach, but the Blazers were already trending in this direction with McCollum in 2020-21, and it led to the most fulfilling 13-game stretch of his career. He averaged 26.7 points per game on 20.0 field goal attempts, but his 55 percent 3-point rate is what jumped out. At that point, no player in the NBA had connected on more 3-pointers.

In getting there, Portland followed a similar blueprint to what they did with Lillard, stretching his pick-and-rolls out further to maximize space. While it did lead to McCollum taking the lowest amount of shots from his trusty 16-foot-to-3-point range area, the Blazers knew they could at least count on that trusted “middy” in isolation or low-shot-clock situations. Done over a full season, it might’ve been enough to push him over the top of his stiff competition — Alex Caruso and Klay Thompson — in the All-Star voting.

One could say that Portland, the NBA’s No. 2 ranked team in 3-pointers, already takes enough. There were losses from this past season where you could point to the overreliance on the long-ball as a scapegoat. But it’s difficult arguing with the math. In those pick-and-rolls, McCollum averaged 1.03 points per possession, had his most efficient regular season, and earned a career-high +6.7 on-off swing. Perhaps he’s even able to kill two birds with one stone, using the threat of his shot to bait defenders into jumping. The pump fake side-step into a shot has become a staple in what he does, and that should remain going forward.

No. 3: Can McCollum reach a new level on defense?

For those supporting a McCollum trade, there may be no factor more damning than the Blazers’ defensive numbers under their star backcourt. It’s possible that circumstances change under a defensive-minded coach. But Neil Olshey and the Blazers’ front office would be flirting with the definition of “insanity” to expect different results; Portland has finished above average in defensive rating just twice since 2012-13.

Despite the NBA’s continued migration towards “small ball”, there’s only so much that McCollum can do against opposing two-guards at 6-foot-3. The potential is there; what he put on tape defensively against Oklahoma City a few postseasons ago and other higher-consequence games is inspiring. But can a player with his offensive workload be a cog in that type of machine over another full regular season?

There’s no need to belabor on Portland’s defensive shortcomings further. Last year’s defense was terrible, but it somehow got worse when McCollum sat (117.9 points allowed per 100 without McCollum, and 115.5 points allowed with him).

A deeper look at his statistics point to a few suggestions. BBall Index’s tracking puts him in the 81st percentile at blocking shots when he contests and the 62nd percentile in rim deterrence. Obviously, this either comes when he’s working as a backside defender, rotating over, or if his matchup blows by him and has a shot at the rim. But it’s something that he can build upon. It wasn’t very long ago that McCollum led all guards in shots blocked. It may be ambitious to ask him to do things he’s never done a ton of — such as creating deflections, forcing turnovers, or boxing out more — but subtle refinements are there for the taking.

But there’s the caveat. Is there insurmountable proof that hoping for “ifs” and positive health will change anything? It could be a matter of too little, too late. Blazer’s Edge podcast host and film analyst Danny Marang brought forth an interesting point about how many dominoes can fall solely based on if Portland keeps Norman Powell around. If Powell does re-sign, a trade that allows Portland a chance to add more size and point-of-attack defenders opens up tenfold.

That said, it wouldn’t be the first time it seemed a trade was brewing, only for it to fall through cracks. Under the assumption that McCollum is around for a ninth season in Rip City, this serves as a modest, reasonable base for what could guide the dynamic two-guard towards perhaps the most fulfilling year of his career.