City of Black Roses: The Bright Spot in Portland’s Dark Season

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This could happen only to Portland, the NBA’s unexplained karmic losers. For two years, the Blazers searched for a bench that wouldn’t give away leads their vicious starting five built up. They finally appear to have found one — right as injuries ripped apart that starting lineup, and with three-fifths of it headed into free agency during a summer that could define the franchise’s next half-decade.

As the season comes to a close, Memphis, San Antonio, Houston, and the Clippers are jockeying for seeds ranging from no. 2 through no. 6 in the West. They all want to avoid each other, and three of those teams especially would like to avoid Spurs Bot Version 2015. The less-spoken subtext: Bring on the Blazers and Mavs!

Halfway through the season, Portland looked like a dark-horse contender — a two-way powerhouse seasoned with rare roster continuity and some playoff experience. Their starters could hit the marks of Terry Stotts’s “flow” offense while wearing blindfolds, and they had improbably sharpened into a borderline top-five defensive team.

It has been hell ever since. LaMarcus Aldridge hurt his thumb, Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles, Chris Kaman and Nicolas Batum battled through nagging issues, Robin Lopez hasn’t been the same since a hand injury of his own, and Dorell Wright broke his hand. The Blazers are a middling 10-8 since Matthews’s devastating injury, and their defense ranks 20th in points allowed per possession since the All-Star break. A dream season, frankly, looks ruined.

Which is why it’s important to appreciate the silver linings that could make Portland a grittier out than the West juggernauts might imagine: C.J. McCollum has been playing his ass off since Matthews’s injury, and especially over Portland’s last dozen games, in which he’s averaged 13 points on 52 percent shooting — including 42 percent from deep. He’s the off-the-bounce bench weapon it’s never really had, he can play alongside Damian Lillard in some matchups, and he has eased into a background role when he’s on the floor with Portland’s stars.

That was a challenge for McCollum coming from Lehigh, where he ran the offense and did whatever he wanted. He has some Jamal Crawford in his game — the ability to stop the ball, work fancy dribble moves, and drop pull-up jumpers in your grill. That doesn’t fit with Stotts’s offense, which features lots of passing and cutting around Aldridge post-ups and Lillard pick-and-rolls.

“I like shots that come within the team framework,” Stotts says.

“It took some time,” McCollum says. “I used to over-dribble a lot. I was used to just having the ball in my hands.”

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail BlazersSam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

McCollum had trouble earning both minutes and Stotts’s full trust; his playing time was the subject of some gentle push-and-pull between the coaching staff and front office. The minutes crunch was almost inevitable given the unusual way McCollum entered the league: as a lottery pick headed to a good team. Portland floundered in 2012-13, a.k.a. the Year J.J. Hickson Played Center and Everyone Scored Baskets, but it was primed to take off last season — McCollum’s rookie year and Lillard’s second.

“If you’re picked in the top 15, you usually go to a team that’s developing,” McCollum says. “You’re able to get the ball and play through your mistakes.”

McCollum broke his foot in training camp as a rookie and didn’t even crack 500 minutes for a 54-win team. He broke his finger less than a month into this season. He learned to shoot with a splint, and then with medical tape on his shooting hand. He lost his feel for the ball and eventually ditched the tape — against the wishes of the team’s training staff, which advised him to wear it all season, he says. He felt his shot returning at the trade deadline, and then he watched as the Blazers dealt for Arron Afflalo.

“It has been a roller-coaster start to my career,” McCollum says, “to say the least.”

It’s finally coming together. A bench scorer who wants major minutes has to learn to play with both backups and starters, and that means taking on something of a dual personality. The other reserves in bench-heavy units need a guy like McCollum to grab the ball and create offense, but Aldridge and Lillard don’t. With those guys, McCollum would have to wait for the ball, and when he got it, he would not have the luxury of stopping the offense to go one-on-one.

McCollum is shooting 40 percent from deep, and he has become really good at hunting for cracks in the defense. He is never standing still on the perimeter; he’s bouncing on his toes, making small cuts into spaces that open up as Lillard and Aldridge bend the defense. If Lillard drives toward the basket, McCollum will slink from the wing down into the corner, giving Lillard a clean outlet for an easy straight-line pass. If McCollum’s defender sinks into the paint to deter a Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-pop, McCollum might slide just five or 10 feet along the sideline. If his defender returns to the spot where he left McCollum, he’ll find empty air; McCollum will be elsewhere, jacking an open 3.

“He’s got a great feel for the game,” Stotts says.

McCollum’s mom, a high school player, warned him he wouldn’t have the ball as much in the NBA,1 and McCollum watches crazy amounts of film to learn new tricks. He watches himself, point guards he admires (Chris Paul, Jarrett Jack, Lillard), and shooters who do their work away from the ball. “I’m more involved with Synergy,” he says of the video service. “I’ve got all the passwords.”

He had a flashbulb NBA moment earlier this season when talking to J.J. Redick about life as an off-ball threat. “He told me that my mind-set has to be that every play is being run for me, even when I don’t get the ball,” McCollum says. “He thinks every play is for him. He’s always running around, trying to get the ball.”2

Jacking a 3 might be Plan A, but any good spot-up guy needs a Plan B — and the smarts to initiate it in an instant. If that defender closes out on you in time, you don’t get to catch the ball, pause for two seconds while the defense resets itself, start a sequence of go-nowhere dribbles, and jack an 18-footer. You don’t get to be Dion Waiters. If you’re going to drive, you do it immediately — when that defender is rushing out at you, his momentum going the wrong way, with the defense still in rotation. You keep the machine moving, keep the defense scrambled.

“Early in my career, I’d take too many dribbles,” he says. “I wouldn’t make a decisive choice. That’s the biggest thing for me: When you see a closeout, it’s shoot, drive, or pass — right away.”

McCollum has become a more decisive driver at the start, and then a more patient driver once he’s by that first line of defense:

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Going right off the catch keeps the defense at a disadvantage and Portland playing something like 5-on-4. Slowing the pace after that has unlocked more options. If the next line of defense doesn’t rotate all the way out to him, McCollum can launch his floater — his go-to move. He can keep his dribble alive, maintain inside position with a defender on his hip, and search out passing lanes to more efficient shots. His turnovers are way down.

“He’s not just looking at the basket,” Stotts says. “He’s seeing the whole court. You have to catch and go, or catch and shoot, and so much of that is just feel for the game.”

All told, McCollum has produced just over 1.2 points per possession on spot-up chances, per Synergy Sports — tied for 17th among 311 players who have finished at least 50 such plays. The Blazers let him run pick-and-roll, often after some initial action bends the defense, and McCollum has a calm, herky-jerky rhythm that keeps defenses off balance:

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Portland over the last month has scored 112 points per 100 possessions with McCollum on the floor, a number that would top the Clips’ league-leading offense, and blitzed opponents by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, per NBA.com. And there will always be times McCollum can hijack the offense for his Crawfordian highlights — favorable one-on-one matchups, end-of-clock situations, or switches that leave him against a plodding big. “Trying to beat your guy one-on-one will always be part of the game,” Stotts says.

“I just know that when I become that ball-stopper again,” McCollum says, “I better knock it down.”

McCollum doesn’t get to the rim much or earn many free throws, and he could probably trade in one floater per game for a pass to an open shooter. A guy this gifted at puncturing the defense should drop more than two dimes per 36 minutes. “Getting to the rim is the next step in my progression,” he says, adding that the numbers show he already finishes well when he gets there. (He’s right.)

Offense is nice, but the best way to earn a coach’s trust is to prove reliable on the other end — to avoid the defensive boners that implode a scheme. McCollum has made huge progress on that end. He’ll never be a lockdown defender — he’s undersize compared to just about every wing player — but he’s slithery getting around screens, and he has shown he can rush inside to snuff out a pick-and-roll, sprint back out to his original assignment, and keep that player in front of him:

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Most young guards will tell you that that specific action — that help-and-recover closeout — is the hardest part of NBA defense. To shift your momentum that many times, in a split second, and stay balanced enough to keep an NBA ball handler from blowing by you — good luck. McCollum wrote about his struggles with it as a rookie in The Players’ Tribune, and he spent much of the summer going through sliding drills with David Vanterpool, a Blazers assistant, that were designed to train his body for this precise thing.

He lifted weights with an eye on strengthening his core, so that when ball handlers took that first hard dribble into his chest, McCollum could stand his ground. “You gotta be strong enough to withstand that first bump,” he says. “They put their shoulder into you. And everyone is trying to score on a young guy.”

McCollum has been good enough to earn minutes but not good enough to stop Portland’s slide on defense. Even when he does everything perfectly, bigger guards can still score over him. As cliché as it sounds, his destiny is probably as a hybrid guard sixth man who can defend backup wings but only some starters.

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The starting lineup with McCollum in Afflalo’s place has logged just 30 minutes together — and hemorrhaged points over that tiny sample size — and the Lillard-McCollum pairing might be unplayable against some lineups. Things might be different if Lillard were an elite defender or at least a rangier one, but he remains a liability on that end.

“They just won’t play much together [against opposing starters] the way the roster is constructed now,” Stotts says. “We’ll see what happens down the road.”

There is not one obvious explanation for Portland’s collapse on defense — no single hole Stotts could plug with a quick fix. It’s likely a bit of everything, including flat-out bad luck, but that makes the problem all the more frustrating. The schedule has been tough and travel-heavy, and injuries have forced Stotts to play some deep reserves. Afflalo isn’t as good as Matthews, who was probably the best defender on the team. He’s just not as clean getting around screens or tracking his man off the ball.

Matthews is always on point; Afflalo can be a half-step off — enough to ram into a pick instead of squeezing by it, or to find himself closing out on a ghost. Portland is a system-based team; it isn’t loaded with great individual defenders, and perhaps it just can’t afford a small drop-off at one or two positions — small errors compound over a possession until the defense is broken.

Enemies have hit 40.4 percent from deep since the Matthews injury, the second-highest mark in the league over that span. Some of that is probably random. The big-picture indicators of Portland’s defense haven’t changed. It’s allowed the fewest 3-point attempts in that stretch, and the most midrange jumpers, per NBA.com. It’s cleaning the defensive glass, avoiding fouls, and forcing very few turnovers — the one negative result of an ultraconservative scheme that fits this group.

The scheme is producing the same shots; one particular subset of those shots are going in at an unusual rate, and they happen to be worth an extra point.

“We have been really snakebitten from 3,” Stotts says, citing some unlikely bombs from Luol Deng (4-of-4 against the Blazers in one game last month), Jeff Green (5-of-7), Udonis Haslem, and Nick Calathes. “You hate to just give in and say it, but it might just even itself out,” Stotts says.

That may well happen. Opponents hit 35.6 percent of their uncontested 3s before Matthews’s injury, per SportVU data provided to Grantland; they’ve hit 44.9 percent since, the fourth-highest mark in the league. They’re drilling more contested 3s, too — 36.7 percent since Matthews went out, compared to just 29.6 percent before.

It’s not as if the Blazers were allowing a ton more open 3s, either. Opponents jacked 8.2 uncontested 3s per game before Matthews went out, and that number has nudged up only to 8.6 since — with a corresponding drop in the number of contested triples. Every small change in shot distribution matters, but it doesn’t solely explain a free fall down the defensive efficiency rankings.

Opponents will probably cool off. But not all “contested” 3s are equal, especially as personnel changes, and the Blazers do appear to be allowing a few more wide, wide, wide-open 3s per game. Their perimeter players have been caught helping much farther into the paint than the coaches would typically like in a scheme designed to minimize such help:

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Some of the help has been necessary, the result of a breakdown at the top of the defense — Lillard slamming into a pick, a point guard crossing up Meyers Leonard, a spot-up guy slicing into a clean driving lane. The deeper the initial penetration, the more severe the help has to be from the sidelines.

Some of it has probably been out-of-scheme improv from guys who don’t have as much in-game experience playing Portland’s system. That’s expected given the trades and injuries, but it may not correct itself in time for the first round.

But if the math does tilt back in Portland’s favor, the Blazers won’t go easily in the first round — especially because they appear to have unearthed a new weapon in McCollum. The Matthews injury almost certainly ended their chances of winning three straight series, but these guys won’t be pushovers.

McCollum’s emergence means the Blazers might finally have the team they want next season — if Matthews recovers, and all three of Matthews, Aldridge, and Lopez come back. But that’s still an “if.”

Filed Under: NBA, Portland Trail Blazers, CJ McCollum, Terry Stotts, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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