Going into this year, I don’t think many Trail Blazers fans expected the amount of press surrounding the team. Now, it seems the world is falling apart in Portland, as CJ McCollum collapsed a lung, and trade rumors are buzzing around the team. Some pundits are calling for the removal of Damian Lillard, while other reports say he wants to play with other stars in the league. Here’s why Dame needs to stay and what the Blazers can do to fix their team.
Big Red-Head and The Glide
Let’s run through the faces of the franchise of the past 50 years in Rip City. Back in the 1970s, when the Portland Trail Blazers came into existence, a unique, wolverine-looking star emerged named Bill Walton. This goliath at center was the face of the Blazers franchise. Walton was known for his defensive dominance in the paint and averaged 18 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. Moving to the 1980s, the face of the Blazers franchise was Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Clyde soared through the sky and excelled at scoring, averaging 27 points per game in back-to-back years, all while dueling with Michael Jordan.
In the ’90s, the face of the franchise started to change hands. Steve Smith, Arvydus Sabonis, and Terry Porter were all above average players in the 90’s but weren’t as transformative as Clyde or Bill Walton. The 2000s saw the same trend as Brandon Roy, Rasheed Wallace, and Zach Randolph. These guys were great for the Blazers, but again weren’t superstars like those in the past. Brandon Roy got the closest, averaging 22/5/5 but could not fend away the injury bug. Pushing into the 2010s, Lamarcus Aldridge started bringing that superstar luster back, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds and was regarded as a top-five power forward in his time there. A three-year overlap with LA and Damian Lillard created a fun pick-and-roll offense between the two until 2015 when Dame officially became the superstar that the Blazers were missing since Clyde Drexler.
Since that 2014-2015 season, Damian Lillard has been in the top eight in win shares per year, peaking at second in the 2019-2020 season, only behind James Harden. Unfortunately, this year has been a down year for Lillard. What bugs me is I should have mentioned this in earlier pieces, but when you see a player of Dame’s caliber struggle to start, your instant reaction should be some sort of lingering injury. Didn’t you know Dame suffered an abdominal injury in the 2020 (technically 2021) Summer Olympics this past summer? This seemed to be quietly mentioned and bubbled up this season. His struggles, we thought, were from the rule changes this year, which I’m sure does have an effect league-wide, but his shooting percentages weren’t even close to where he lays typically (44% career field goal percentage to 38% this year). Lillard has missed six games this year because of that injury which is not normal for him, given he’s played 82 games in the past. Here is where Dame sits amongst all guards this year:
8th in PPG (22.0)
9th in assists (7.7)
15th in offensive rating (113.0)
13th in Assist % (32.3)
If Dame is just hurt and not the issue, then where is the problem?
Too Much (Offensive) Sauce?
One of the stats that I enjoy is the On/Off stats. This is a breakdown of how the teams or lineups perform when certain players are on or off the court. I start by looking at duos on the team, and thanks to Basketball-Reference, that’s possible. The Blazers fans know that alongside Dame is CJ McCollum, so naturally, we should see that duo up top. Check out the top 10 duos that the Blazers have sorted by points scored minus opponents points scored:
|1||D. Lillard | L. Nance||277:16||+9.3|
|2||N. Little | L. Nance||346:23||+3.9|
|3||D. Lillard | N. Powell||573:35||+2.9|
|4||D. Lillard | A. Simons||298:33||+2.8|
|5||D. Lillard | J. Nurkić||547:22||+2.5|
|6||C. McCollum | L. Nance||324:33||+2.4|
|7||L. Nance | A. Simons||358:00||+2.1|
|8||R. Covington | D. Lillard||577:53||-0.3|
|9||C. McCollum | A. Simons||306:25||-1.1|
|10||D. Lillard | N. Little||325:29||-1.2|
Notice the dynamic duo of Dame and CJ aren’t even in the top ten? They’re 13th out of 20th, giving up 2.4 points on average while they’re on the court together. CJ doesn’t show up on this list until 6th, and that’s thanks to Larry Nance’s impact (this is where Blazers fans should consider buying a Larry Nance jersey).
How do you know that McCollum is the problem here? Well, CJ is, without a doubt, an uber-talented offensive player. Going into the On/Off stats I mentioned earlier, while CJ is on the court, the Blazers score 113.1 points per 100 possession which is right behind Dame at 114.4. Off the court, the Trail Blazers dip to 105.8 points per 100 possessions with McCollum off the court. The impact is more drastic with Lillard being off the court at 103.7 points per 100 possessions. Doing some quick math, the Blazers score 7.3 points more with CJ on the floor, second on the team behind Dame at 10.7 points more scored per 100 possessions.
Defensively is where we find the sizeable gap in CJ’s game. With McCollum on the court, the Blazers give up 116 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst on the team. When he’s on the bench, the Blazers give up 109.4 points. This 6.6 point disparity is also the worst on the team.
Using these stats, it’s logical that the difficulties that plague the Trail Blazers are their defense. CJ McCollum is a fantastic offensive player, but his defense bleeds the team of any offensive gains they may have with him on the court. Therefore, if the Blazers make a trade, they should move CJ McCollum instead.
Trade Machine Time!
CJ McCollum’s contract is a hefty one at three years, $100 million. This year, he’s due $30.8 million, making it a difficult one to move, but let’s try. Two big names in the trade market are Jerami Grant and Ben Simmons. I also have one trade I think would instantly improve the Blazers. Granted, it’s purely speculative, but what trade rumors aren’t? Let’s check each out:
CJ McCollum for Jerami Grant and Hamidu Diallo
DISCLAIMER: This trade wouldn’t be official until January 14th as Hamidu Diallo cannot be traded before then, as he signed a free-agent deal this offseason. Therefore I can’t show you the fancy trade machine picture.
Why would the Pistons do it?
- The Pistons are obviously in a rebuilding phase and would receive a new face of the franchise. While Cade Cunningham was the first pick last year, getting a high offensive scoring guard may be enough distraction to the horrid season the Pistons will have and help develop the rookie point guard.
How would this change the Trail Blazers?
- This would keep most of the scoring that McCollum brings, given Grant and CJ both average 20 points per game.
- This trade would be a lateral move defensively at the guard position. Still, it would improve their forwards’ defense and scoring, allowing a big lineup of Dame, Powell, Grant, Covington/Nance, and Nurkic a possibility.
CJ McCollum and Robert Covington for Ben Simmons and Danny Green:
Why would the Sixers do it?
- Ben Simmons has no interest in playing for the Sixers, and this may be their best offer. The Sixers gain another floor spacer, something that Joel Embiid has been vouching for these past three years.
How would this change the Trail Blazers?
- Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate when he plays because of his ability to guard almost all five positions.
- It gives Lillard a break at PG when Ben is on the floor with him, allowing for more spot-up opportunities, thus saving Dame’s body.
- Lateral move defensively from RoCo to Danny Green while providing a better three-point shooting threat in Danny Green.
While I’m not sure this is the desirable or splashy trade that would get Blazers fans excited, the impact on defense would be incredible.
CJ McCollum and Nassir Little for Mike Conley and Royce O’Neale:
Why would the Jazz do it?
- They can add another scoring guard to the second-best offense in the league while offloading the underperforming Mike Conley and picking up some potential in Nassir Little.
How would this change the Trail Blazers?
- This year, Royce O’Neale is a top 25 defensive player in the league and a top 50 overall player. He can guard four positions and is shooting 40% from three this year.
- I’m serious; he’s 25th in Defensive Win Shares (1.2) and 43rd overall in Win Shares (2.4)
- Conley will also provide Lillard with that off-ball opportunity mentioned before with Ben Simmons.
Whenever a team struggles, the immediate blame is on the team’s superstar. While Damian Lillard is having a down year due to injuries and rule changes, he is the superstar and is not why the team is struggling. When you dig into the team’s issues, it’s because of the subpar defense of the team. It turns out that CJ McCollum’s defense may be the center of the problem. If the Blazers want to trade any players, they need to move McCollum for a solid defensive player. Jerami Grant and Ben Simmons seem to be the most available according to all of the rumor mills, but I think the front office should go for the tag team of Royce O’Neale and Mike Conley. Regardless, the current state of the franchise cannot solely rest on Lillard’s shoulders, and trading him would spell the end to competitive basketball this year for Rip City.