The Portland Trail Blazers have been ruled by a clear hierarchy since LaMarcus Aldridge skipped town in 2016: Damian Lillard, then CJ McCollum, then whoever else can scrounge up a few points here and there. For the last five seasons, the Portland backcourt has provided about half of the team’s overall points.
Since the Blazers have consistently been in or near the top 10 in offensive rating and points per possession since Aldridge dipped, the lion’s share of the credit goes to Dame and CJ. Lillard, though, has gotten more shots to go down, had control of the offense, and has the highlights, All-Star berths, and All-NBA accolades. CJ has been a second banana that’s occasionally been scapegoated for the Blazers’ failings and shortcomings—mostly for reasons beyond his control (like height and injuries). He’s always been the sidekick, the Robin to Dame’s Batman.
That may be changing this season.
Now, I’m not saying that the Blazers are going to suddenly be employing two Batmans. (There must be SOME level of fairness maintained, unless you’re the Lakers.) McCollum has seemingly graduated from Robin to Nightwing this season.
His stats this season:
McCollum is currently on pace to set career highs in 20 different categories, including points, rebounds, assists, steals, field goals and threes, with a career low in turnovers. He’s currently leading the league in field goals made and attempted and threes made and attempted. He’s seventh in scoring in the NBA behind Lillard, who’s fourth; the only two teams with two players in the top 10 in points per game are Portland and Boston (with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum). He is destroying everybody from 10 feet to beyond the arc, shooting 56% from 10-16 feet (midrange) and a truly filthy 62% from 16 to the three-point line, AKA the worst shot in basketball.
McCollum has always been a midrange master—that little pull-up from 12-15 feet on the baseline has been his pet shot for almost a decade—but he’s been especially lethal from the midrange in 2021. His improved driving and slashing (and those nasty dribble moves) plays a part in that, but he’s also squirted free a few times after some poor sap, out of position, flies at him trying to stop the three. That panic is understandable, given McCollum is shooting his best percentage from distance ever, by a wide margin. He’s been around a 37% career shooter from three, and now he’s one of the most efficient high-volume shooters in the NBA.
I’ve called McCollum, “Short Reggie Miller”, for years because their career averages have been very similar, even if how they got their points were different (Miller mostly ran through a maze of screens till he got open, CJ breaks down his defenders one-on-one or catches a pass from Lillard for a secondary action). Averaging 21-3-3 with C+ to C- defense, high accuracy with a jumper, and a flair for the dramatic—that’s Reggie Miller in 20 Words or Less, and McCollum too.
CJ’s not as accomplished as Miller because Reggie’s career has been overrated and went on three years longer than it should have, and unlike Miller, he’s spent his career playing with someone better than him. That might be changing a bit this year, though. McCollum’s on his way towards his first All-Star game berth, and if he can keep this great shooting going for a full season (and stay healthy—he suffered a left foot sprain Saturday), he might garner some votes for All-NBA.
The talk about the Blazers the last couple seasons has been about finding serviceable wing players to help out the undersized Lillard and McCollum on defense, and can some threes on offense. That hasn’t totally materialized, sad to say.
Robert Covington has been underwhelming, shooting just 31% from three this season. There’s a reason he’s been traded all the time—he’s replaceable, and Portland’s had too many replaceable players on the wings since Lillard was drafted. Gary Trent Jr. is also undersized at the 3. Nassir Little is raw as sushi. Carmelo Anthony is too slow and too disinterested in defense, and can no longer make up the difference on offense. Derrick Jones Jr. is still learning to be a good defender, and is shooting 27% from three. Rodney Hood is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Maybe the key to the Blazers going from “tough playoff out” to “contender” isn’t a solid wing rotation, or health and improvement from their bigs (the Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic injuries really sting, and not just because we get 30 minutes of Enes Kanter on a team that already had so much trouble defending). Maybe it was CJ McCollum going from a nice second option to an All-Star level talent.
Leaps in age-29 seasons typically only happen from failed lottery picks or journeymen that finally found a right team, not sub-stars routinely averaging 20 a night, so there is good reason to be skeptical of McCollum’s blazing start. He’s had hot streaks before, but some minor injury or Lillard strongly asserting himself has always snuffed them out. If his foot keeps nagging him, the Blazers could be sunk, which would be a huge shame since things seem so wide open this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trump Administration’s complete and total incompetence has left damage on the United States that may never be repaired or reversed, and we’re seeing that in every part of life, including sports. It’s doubtful that the incoming Biden Administration will have the pandemic under control before the end of the NBA season, or before the start of the 2021-22 season—Biden’s plan to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days is a catchy slogan, but a near-impossible task in reality, and there are new variants of the coronavirus already on American shores courtesy of the United Kingdom. Things will range from dangerous to just plain weird for a long while yet, I think. And weird in the NBA might benefit teams like Portland, if the virus doesn’t decimate the locker room or injuries once again derail them.
That’s why the forward positions being a big pile of meh is a disappointment so far, and it’s also why the ascent of CJ McCollum could be the difference. If he keeps this up, he could go from being a nice story to THE story of the 2021 playoffs.