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CJ McCollum Is Playing More Like a Number One Option

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Portland’s second guard might prosper on a team where he could be the first look.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Like backyard BBQ’s and tourists flocking to the beach, Portland Trail Blazers fans devising new ways to trade shooting guard CJ McCollum is an annual rite of summer. Since at least 2016, passionate followers and analysts alike have wondered whether McCollum’s pairing with backcourt mate Damian Lillard was a viable way for the Blazers to ascend to contending status. Each season, McCollum produces brilliantly. Each off-season, it doesn’t seem like quite enough.

Even with the repeated ritual, 2021 is different. Part of that comes with age; Lillard will turn 31, McCollum 30 before the start of next season. Part of it is Portland’s disappointing playoffs showing against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of this year’s playoffs, a plight exacerbated by Denver getting swept by the Phoenix Suns in the series after. There’s more intensity, and a greater bitterness, to the conversation this year than in years past.

But an even greater part of the change can be chalked up to McCollum himself. He was not the same player in 2020-21 that he was in seasons prior. One of the question Blazers fans need to ask themselves is, “Which CJ McCollum would be trading?” That question will be echoed by the fans and front offices of any team looking to receive him.

Up until this year, the read on McCollum was consistent: he’d play a ton of minutes, scoring bunches of points from the mid-range—or on catch-and-shoot threes—as a secondary option to Lillard. He wouldn’t give you much defense and he wouldn’t always be the most efficient scorer, but if you needed raw points from a guy who wasn’t your #1 option, you couldn’t find better than CJ.

Some of those things remain true. McCollum is a point-producer and his defense is spotty. But CJ also transformed his game in 2020-21, or perhaps had transformation thrust upon him. Intentionally or not, the CJ McCollum the Blazers might trade this summer is different than any version we’ve seen before.

Minutes are Down

In his first two seasons, between 2013 and 2015, McCollum struggled through injuries and acclimation to a veteran, wing-laden lineup. He played relatively little during those years.

When the Blazers reset after the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge in the Summer of 2015, McCollum became a fixture in Portland’s starting five. At that point he transitioned into one of the highest-minute players in the NBA. In 2019-20 he led the league with 2556 total minutes played. That was in a COVID-shortened season. In three out of the four prior years, he topped 2700 minutes.

Injuries returned for McCollum this season. He appeared in only 47 out of 72 games. He averaged 34.0 minutes per, all but tied for the lowest mark of his post-2015 career.

Presumably McCollum will be able to return to pre-injury form, but that’s not as tight of a guarantee at 30 as it was at 26. More to the point, the question arises whether he should be logging that many. He’s been Top 5, often Top 3, in the league for time immemorial. It might be safer for the Blazers, or any team, to scale back his minutes rather than running him to the red line. This is especially true if his next coach (in Portland or elsewhere) favors a higher-octane attack than the Blazers did under departed coach Terry Stotts, who played to the strengths and tempo of his halfcourt-proficient guards.

Either way, McCollum’s accomplishments this year came with less court time, and more uncertainty, than he’s experienced since he joined Portland’s regular rotation.

Scoring is Up

Since he came into the league, McCollum has played in Lillard’s considerable shadow. That remained so this season. Lillard scored an All-NBA-worthy 28.8 points per game on 19.9 attempts. McCollum wasn’t far behind him at 18.8 attempts, though his 23.1 points trailed his backcourt mate by a considerable margin.

The difference between the scoring production of Portland’s guards can be attributed almost entirely to foul shots. Lillard attempted 7.2 per game, scoring 6.7 points off of them. McCollum attempted 2.8, scoring just 2.3 points. That left a 4.4-point gap. If CJ drew fouls like Dame, he’d score more like Dame.

It’s important to isolate that factor because it counters the narrative that CJ is simply a second-fiddle, a catch-and-shoot player who feeds off of the attention defenses give to Lillard. Other than foul shooting, McCollum’s game in 2020-21 came closer to Lillard’s than it ever has.

We already mentioned that McCollum trailed Lillard by only 1.1 field goal attempts per game. He actually tied Dame in per-minute and per-possession attempts. He’s been encroaching on Lillard’s attempt numbers for the past few years. He’s now caught up. They’re less Options 1 and 2 in Portland’s offense, more like twin first options.

McCollum also took the offense more into his own hands this year. His Usage Percentage of 27.1% tied for the second highest in his career. His percentage of assisted two-point shots was relatively high at 30.1%, but his assisted three-point shot percentage was a career-low 61.5%. Taking possessions, creating shots from deep...he was not just playing off Lillard, he was playing as Lillard.

This was particularly true during the first 13 games of the year. Prior to the injury that would cost him half the season, CJ averaged 26.7 points on 20.0 shots per game with 5.0 assists, playing the same 34 minutes that he would average for the season. Those are not the numbers of a player looking for second-banana status. That’s a kumquat, two pineapples, and some Froot Loops besides. He would reprise the show somewhat after he returned from injury, but several low-attempt games in early April would prevent him from reaching the same averages.

Just as importantly, McCollum obliterated his former high marks in per-minute and per-possession scoring. His 24.5 points per-36-minutes mark was nearly a point higher than his previous record, 2.5 points higher than his production the season prior. Similarly, 33.0 points-per-100-possessions added a half-point onto his career high, skyrocketing more than 4 points over his 2019-20 performance. It was an astonishing leap, by far the highest variance since he began playing regular minutes.

By comparison, NBA scoring champion James Harden averaged 24.2 points per 36, 32.4 points per 100 possessions. McCollum edged him in both categories, finishing 25th among all NBA players who played 1500 or more minutes. If Lillard didn’t obliterate pretty much everybody (28.9 and 39.2, respectively), CJ would stand out brightly.

Range is Out, Efficiency is Rising

The newfound joy in CJ’s numbers is attributable, in large part, to an amplified three-point game. McCollum attempted 47.5% of his shots from distance this season. That’s a massive increase over his 37.8% rate in 2019-20, which in itself was a high-water mark since he joined the regular rotation. McCollum also shot 40.2% on those threes, his third-highest accuracy ever.

Those shots raised his True Shooting Percentage to .577, second only to his .585 posting in 2016-17 when he was tabbed as one of the league’s brightest young stars.

McCollum isn’t among the league’s stars in True Shooting Percentage, but he did rise from 143rd in the NBA in 2019-20 to 94th this year.

A Little Bit of Playmaking

With offensive hub Jusuf Nurkic on the shelf for much of the year, McCollum took over more of the playmaking duties for his squad in 2020-21. He averaged 4.7 assists per game, 5.0 per 36 minutes, 6.8 per 100 possessions, all career-highs.

Conclusion

The book on McCollum up to this point has been that he’s a point-producer who prospers by taking the least efficient shots in the game, disguised by a glittering superstar as his backcourt mate. That’s not unwarranted, but it’s clear that McCollum has made strides to change the story this season. He’s become even more of an apex scorer, developing a self-generated three-point shot while salting in a few extra assists. If he’s not a singular superstar in the vein of Lillard, he’s at least making claim to holding his own against the rest of his NBA peers.

There’s still an argument to be made that McCollum has more game to show. That’s an interesting claim for a player heading past 30, coming off of a season in which he had every excuse to cruise. McCollum may not be a good fit next to Lillard if the Blazers want to contend, but he might be able to fill a greater role with a team lacking a true first option than his history in Portland would seem to indicate.

All stats for this article came from basketball-reference.com

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