Any discussion of great NBA backcourts always seems to eventually veer to Portland and the Blazers’ combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Their scoring prowess is unrivaled, but there’s more to quality basketball than simply putting the ball in the basket. You’ve got to stop the other guy from doing it too, for example.
With that in mind, and with acknowledgment that Lillard is one of the top 20 players in the league in a bunch of the advanced stats, let’s put the spotlight on the other guy in this partnership and ask a simple question:
Is C.J. McCollum good? Or is his reputation purely a result of playing alongside one of the 20 best players in the entire league?
Stats, as always, via Basketball Reference. Let’s-a go!
We Begin With The Obvious
Well, for one thing, McCollum’s made half of his threes entering Thursday’s game against the Lakers. He’s making 41.6 percent of them for his career, and last year his 42.1 percent efficiency from out there coupled with a multiple-ranged shot that led to 48 percent shooting overall.
Oh, and he led the league in free throw percentage at 91.2. That’s a bit high relative to the rest of his body of work, and his 83.3 percent clip this year has been a regression to the 84.3 mean, but still. He’s money from the stripe.
McCollum managed 6.2 Offensive Win Shares last year, and he’s a positive Box Plus/Minus guy for his career on that end of the floor.
Put simply, dude can score in bunches. He’s been over 20 points a game each of the last two seasons and so far in this one as well, and unlike plenty of other players like that (Andrew Wiggins, looking at you), pretty darn efficiently, too.
And Then The Problem
If you score 20 and your man scores 30 when you’re guarding him, are you still good?
OK, so McCollum isn’t that bad. If anything, he’s underrated as a defender. He harassed the hell out of Victor Oladipo in the win at Indiana, holding Oladipo to 5-of-17 shooting. Nobody he’s guarded has yet torched him so badly that it was Shaqtin’ worthy. Toronto’s the only team that came close to clowning him, and even that wasn’t completely awful, it was just DeMar DeRozan creating matchup problems; DeRozan scored 25 in that contest.
The BPM numbers on defense stand at minus-0.7, but 0.3 Defensive Win Shares so far and a 104 Defensive Rating? Yeah, it’s seven games, but the question at some point has got to come up…does this mean a corner’s been turned and McCollum’s figured out defense?
I’d say that’s hardly a problem at all.
And When You Add It Up…
Lackluster defense has always stood between McCollum and approaching that .200 WS/48 mark that defines the true superstar—only 16 players who qualified with enough minutes got there in 2017, and every one of them was either an All-Star or had a damn good case for being one (the five men out: Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, and Karl-Anthony Towns.)
C.J. only got to .131 last year. He’s at .181 this season. Lillard, his backcourt mate, got to .185 last year (and stands at .220 this season.)
That’s the standard McCollum is setting as he manages somehow to continue to grow and evolve as a player.
What’s all this mean? Well, the thing about this column is that sometimes it comes in with certain notions inspired by the conventional wisdom, and one of those is that Portland’s backcourt can score but not defend, and McCollum, who has spent his career as a marginal defender, was just Jerry Stackhouse with better publicity.
Well, in the context of another sport, namely college football and the legendary Lee Corso:
“Not so fast, my friends!”
McCollum is, in the small sample size that is the 2017-18 season, and truthfully if you watch his evolution over time, moving from a one-dimensional scorer to being one of the best shooting guards in the league.
Is C.J. McCollum any good? This one is emphatically, no doubt, runaway Confirmed.