The Portland Trail Blazers made a controversial move last season, trading shooting guard CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans, making room for Anfernee Simons to play Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman. Almost a third of the way into the new season, the returns are good. But how good? That’s the subject of this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
How do you compare the backcourts of Dame/CJ and Dame/Ant? I would say Ant brings more interior scoring, athleticism and defense, yet they are also very similar.
Well, let’s see.
CJ McCollum’s highest point production for a season was 23.1 in 2020-21. Anfernee Simons has played 26 games this season and is averaging 23.7. CJ averaged 19.0 for his Blazers career.
CJ McCollum’s highest three-point percentage was 42.1% on 5.5 shots per game in 2016-17. His second-best mark was similar. Simons is averaging 39.3% on 10.3 three-point attempts this season. He’s twice been over 40% for a year. CJ’s career mark with Portland was 39.6%.
McCollum’s career-high assists per 36 minutes in Portland was 5.0 for his half-season last year. Simons is averaging 4.7 per 36 so far this year.
McCollum’s Portland career-high for field goal percentage was 48.0% in 2016-17. Simons is averaging 44.8% this year.
Statistically, Simons is a few percentage points off of McCollum in shooting, fairly even in production. But keep in mind, we’re comparing him to McCollum’s career highs. In other words, through 26 games, Simons is giving the Blazers a pretty good imitation of the best version of CJ.
There are differences. I vacillate on whether Simons is really better than McCollum defensively overall. Some nights it seems obvious he is. Other nights it looks like wishful thinking. I’d say he’s better, but he has far more to prove.
McCollum got more rebounds and steals than Simons does, but neither is a point of emphasis and the margins are slim, so that’s nothing to hang your hat on.
The big difference comes in their approach on on-ball, off-ball play.
McCollum was devastating with the ball in his hand. He was much more apt to get a clean shot from the mid-range. He was a unique talent that way. Simons gets to the hoop more, but he doesn’t have the same move set CJ did.
Simons is developing into a more ready passer than McCollum was. His journey isn’t complete yet, but CJ was never a comfortable point guard, even with the second unit. Simons may be.
Off ball, the differences are clear. McCollum preferred to dribble and explore, even when he caught on the weak side. He would catch-and-shoot, of course, but he had options. Simons is absolutely devastating on the catch-and-shoot. If you like three-pointers in droves, Ant is your man.
Simons also makes really good use of screens, even at a young age. McCollum did well, but with that quick release, Simons promises to grow into a devastating, maybe unstoppable, shooter coming off of picks.
Consider also that Simons makes $25 million per year. The veteran McCollum was in the mid-$30 million range and rising.
For all those reasons, I’d say the Blazers are more than satisfied with Simons manning the shooting guard position, even though McCollum was excellent. McCollum was more Dame Two, in instinct rather than style. He belonged as a number one option. Simons could be a number one easily, but his game adapts better to being the second option than McCollum’s did.
In short, no matter which player is better at the moment, the Blazers got exactly what they wanted and needed by retaining, then paying and starting, Simons. They wouldn’t be doing better with CJ. They’d be playing a slightly different style and paying more to do it. At least in early returns, trading CJ and promoting Ant was the way to go.
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