The Blazers’ sidekick is no sidekick anymore after the first two rounds of the playoffs, but how high can he really soar?
The NBA playoffs shape status. Individual reputations harden, mature, or crack.
Right now, in one form or another, C.J. McCollum is stepping up the ladder. One month ago, he wasn’t even considered the best player to not make the all-star team. His ceiling was as a brilliant, flawed sidekick. But as he enters the Western Conference Finals, McCollum’s place in a league that’s perpetually viewed him as trade bait is trending up. Not many players can say they dropped 37 points on the road in a pivotal Game 7. McCollum has long had the tools to do such a thing, but perceptions change when the theoretical becomes reality.
It’s dangerous to overreact after one performance, but McCollum’s Game 7 was a blade through Denver’s stomach. Just under a third of his points were from the mid-range and none of his fourth-quarter baskets were assisted. On the road, as Damian Lillard lost his balance, McCollum became someone who held a meaningful NBA moment in the palm of his hand. The Blazers wrapped themselves around McCollum’s shot-making with their season on the brink in a way that made him feel like something more. His career can’t be viewed the same way after that game.
But pinpointing exactly where McCollum goes from here isn’t easy. Will he steady himself as a perennial all-star, or continue his current path with scattered heat checks and little else to show for it?
We know McCollum’s a great shooter and crafty scorer. His effective field goal percentage after seven dribbles in these playoffs is better than everyone except Kawhi Leonard, who’s also the only player who’s made more unassisted twos. But heading into this postseason, McCollum was typecast as the proverbial little brother, dismissed by Kevin Durant on his own podcast when the conversation turned to championship contention. These playoffs have allowed McCollum to sway that belief, recalibrate who he can be, and change Portland’s future. If McCollum can be 10 percent better in an ecosystem that doesn’t ask him to step outside his lane, why can’t Portland become the Western Conference’s No. 1 contender next season, assuming Durant jets east?
An objective, unemotional look at McCollum’s run may lead you to think he’s a bit one-dimensional. He’s tallied three or fewer assists in eight of his 12 playoff games and attempted two or fewer free-throws in six. But the very best of what he can do—i.e. prevail as an independent flamethrower—is priceless, particularly in an NBA that increasingly values shotmakers who can turn switching schemes into swiss cheese.
McCollum’s brilliance shows itself in chaotic situations. When a play breaks and the lights go off, this man is the only one wearing night-vision goggles. His freestyling nature, be it off the wrong foot, with an off hand, leaning one way, or fading another, makes him a slippery one-on-one assignment.
These plays are thrilling, but they can also be a curse. When McCollum’s game is working, it has you feeling like he sold his soul to the devil. Anything is possible in one game, or even a lengthy series.
But to get over the hump and emerge as a key piece on the valid championship contender Durant scoffed at, tricky 18-footers are not a sustainable diet for just about anybody, even if McCollum made 50 percent of his mid-range shots this year. For every Game 7 against the Nuggets, there’s a Game 5 when tough shots don’t fall.
If and when he goes up another level, it’ll be thanks to reallocated shot selection. To beat the Warriors, this stuff can’t be on display in the middle of the shot clock.
McCollum is at the heart of a question that applies to every pure scorer in the league: what’s a bad shot? Long twos—as opposed to threes, layups, and free-throws—look nice when they fall but aren’t a permanent solution. Of his playoff-leading 266 field goal attempts, 47 percent have been two-pointers not launched at the rim. In a small sample size, he’s sunk enough to justify a battle against the math, but despite making 41 percent of his threes, only 30 percent of his shots have come from behind the arc. If we’re looking for McCollum (who only made 42.9 percent of his mid-range shots last season) to scorch the earth on a more consistent basis, more threes aren’t a bad thing.
Some of his in-between game is by necessity. When a defender runs him off the line, McCollum is good enough to create space for himself in no man’s land. The constant threat of a pull-up lets McCollum do magical things.
But a reliance on long twos and acrobatic floaters is dicey for anyone who doesn’t draw fouls or exploit the arc as often as he should. His True Shooting percentage ranked 35th out of 52 players who took at least 1000 shots this year. There’s room for improvement.
The good news for Blazers fans: we’re already seeing a slight shot profile shift. According to Cleaning the Glass, 49 percent of McCollum’s playoff threes have been unassisted. In all his previous trips to the postseason, that number has never dipped below 64 percent. (It was 73 percent during the regular season.) It shows a player who’s starting to hunt the type of shots that can make him far more efficient than he is.
Here, McCollum has a backpedaling Nikola Jokic in front of him, while Will Barton only leaves about an inch of space trailing from behind. It doesn’t matter. It’s fun to think about what may happen if the step-back he’s consistently used to create space in front of the arc is unleashed behind it—a trend that’s gradually increased over the past few years. (In these playoffs, 14 percent of his three-pointers have been stepbacks, which is up about six percent from the regular season.)
Though his stats plateaued over the past few seasons, it’s possible to view McCollum as the skeleton of a scoring champ, with room still to grow. McCollum’s Game 7 performance against Denver was a testament to all he can be, and it also showed what’s left, internally, for him to conquer. Nobody is asking him to hunt threes and layups as aggressively as James Harden, but how does McCollum look with a shot profile that’s more analytically disciplined?
Without any change, McCollum is still co-piloting an offense that approaches the Warriors’ and Bucks’ when he’s on the floor and splinters into the Detroit Pistons when he’s not. There’s nothing wrong with who McCollum is and the Blazers should feel vindicated for holding onto him and not making a hasty trade after last year’s postseason meltdown. But there’s still hope that the best, for McCollum and Portland, is yet to come.