The NBA is a business. In a business, statistical findings must take priority over emotional connection. Portland loves Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum; there’s no question about it. There’s also no question about Dame or C.J.’s love for Portland. But there is one question that remains uncertain: Can Lillard and McCollum co-exist on a championship contending team?
Something isn’t working for the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s an especially unsettling feeling for fans as no one can quite pinpoint what has gone wrong. Not much has changed with this team since its surprisingly successful 2015-2016 campaign. In fact, many predicted that they’d go above and beyond the success of their prior season. A couple of garbage-time players were replaced by Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Maurice Harkless all returned to the rotation with some extra cash in their pockets. Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey got another offseason to craft their ideal lineup.
So, what happened? What exactly caused this unpredictable downfall? Is it the interior defense, or lack thereof? Maybe that was a motive behind the Mason Plumlee trade to Denver in exchange for 22-year-old Jusuf Nurkic? Perhaps it’s the jumbled mess of forwards competing at the 3 and 4? This didn’t seem like a problem last year.
Oh, oh, oh; it’s got to be the inefficiency of Turner and the fact that Ezeli has yet to log in a single minute for the Trail Blazers!
Last year, instead of Turner and Ezeli, it was Chris Kaman and Luis Montero.
Maybe the real reason is one that no Trail Blazer fan wants to admit, much rather think about. Maybe the real reason is that Portland’s golden boy backcourt comes with one major flaw. Maybe that one major flaw is currently holding the Trail Blazers out of the playoffs in 2017.
Lillard and McCollum are, arguably, the most electrifying backcourt to ever grace the homecourt hardwood in Portland. By the numbers, they’re currently the fourth-best scoring duo in the NBA, averaging a combined 49.1 points per game. What they also bring is a rich, positive culture to the locker room, as well as the local community; a breath of fresh air after the infamous ‘Jail Blazers’ era. But there’s one thing that they haven’t provided in Rip City, however, and that’s defense.
The most common excuse for Portland’s lack of success has been its miserable interior defense. There’s a problem with that claim, however, and it’s quite surprising. The Blazers rank first in defensive field-goal percentage 0-3 feet from the rim. You heard me right – First.
Even more surprising, is that the Trail Blazers’ defensive numbers for two-point field-goal percentage rank them comfortably at the number three spot in the NBA. That means that, for two-point field goals, they tote the NBA’s third-best defense.
So why did Olshey make a move for Nurkic? There are various reasons, but maybe none as important as the fact that Portland averages 44.9 rebounds per game, which places it 23rd in the association. If anything is evident from this, however, it’s that the interior defense is not to blame.
You can’t begin to blame Al-Farouq Aminu, Harkless, and Turner for their defensive efforts at the forward positions. Respectively, they rank second, third, and fifth for defensive box plus/minus on the Trail Blazers.
So why do the Trail Blazers allow 110.1 points per game, the fifth-most in the NBA? It falls directly on the shoulders of Lillard and McCollum.
Portland’s perimeter defense ranks 27th in the NBA, allowing opposing teams to shoot .381 percent from behind the three-point line. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of Lillard and McCollum’s defensive woes.
McCollum has a DBPM of -2.2 while Lillard has a DBPM of -2.4. This ranks Lillard 13th and McCollum 14th on the Trail Blazers, only ahead of rookie Jake Layman. These atrociously bad numbers are careers lows for both starting guards.
Lillard has a DPS of -88.94, which ranks him fifth-worst in the NBA.
McCollum has a DPS of -86.07, which ranks him ninth-worst in the NBA.
Finally, there’s ESPN’s DRPM, or defensive real plus/minus. DRPM is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. This statistic features 450 qualified players for the 2016-2017 season, and the results might just make you cringe.
Lillard has a DRPM of -1.93, which ranks him 410th in the NBA.
McCollum has a DRPM of -2.03, which ranks him 415th in the NBA.
A common mishap in Lillard and McCollum’s defense is their inability to defend the pick & roll. Lillard allows an average of 5.1 points per game as a defender of the pick and roll. This ranks him as the fifth-worst pick & roll defender. McCollum, on the other hand, allows an average of 4.5 points per game off of the pick & roll. This ranks him as the 12th worst pick and roll defender.
Here is a full breakdown of where Lillard and McCollum rank in points allowed per game per play type.
The Trail Blazers’ aforementioned perimeter defense woes are directly connected to Lillard and McCollum, and the stats prove it.
Lillard allows opposing players to shoot 43.6 percent from 25-29 feet, which places him dead last in that category among all NBA starters.
McCollum allows opposing players to shoot 40.4 percent from above the break three, which is the worst among all starting guards in the NBA. Lillard allows opposing players to shoot 40.3 percent from above the break three, which is the second worst among all starting guards in the NBA, just behind his teammate.
At this point, there’s no denying that Lillard and McCollum are bottom-tier defenders in the NBA. But is their defense that big of an issue? Found below are two tables featuring the DRPMs of the three most played guards on each playoff team, formatted in their respective conferences. For Portland, this is Lillard, McCollum, and Crabbe.
Western Conference (DRPM + rank out of 450)
Eastern Conference (DRPM + rank out of 450)
Portland’s three guards feature the worst total DRPM out of these teams, and it’s not even close. With an averaged DRPM of -2.27, the news gets much worse for Portland’s backcourt. Between Lillard, McCollum, and Crabbe, they possess the worst combined DRPM of any team’s three-guard rotation in the entire NBA.
So, maybe it’s not all Lillard and McCollum’s fault? It’d be a stretch to suggest that given their personal downfalls, but perhaps what Portland needs is an elite defender who can play significant minutes on the floor, pairing up with C.J. or Dame as they rotate. Allen Crabbe was supposed to be that guy, recognized as a developing ‘three-and-D’ athlete who was Olshey’s solution to his all-offense, no-defense backcourt. Unfortunately, Crabbe’s defense has severely regressed since receiving his $75 million payday. After providing Rip City with glimpses of defensive greatness last season, he now possesses the eighth-worst DRPM in the NBA.
Is it time for the Trail Blazers organization to search for a true, dependable defensive specialist to put alongside Dame and C.J.? It’s an idea, but one that could create an awkward logjam. Who’s going to put minute restrictions on Lillard and McCollum? Nobody in their right mind, that’s who.
Maybe it’s a coaching issue? But then again, what about the defensive success of Harkless, Aminu, Plumlee, and other Trail Blazers who have featured a DRPM over the league average this season? Maybe it’s that Stotts and his staff run a poor defensive scheme for guards?
Remember a man named Wesley Matthews?
There are no more excuses left. It’s time for the Trail Blazer faithful to stop pointing the finger elsewhere. It’s time to acknowledge the real issue that’s holding this team back from its true potential.
After spending hours upon hours thoroughly analyzing their defensive statistics and performances, I did exactly what every Trail Blazer fan needs to do. I swallowed my pride, put aside my love for Dame and C.J., and realized what the real problem is in Rip City.