After a dramatic defeat of the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers got a cold slap of reality from the San Antonio Spurs in the first three games of the second round. While they avoided a sweep with an impressive 15-point victory in Game 4 on Monday, San Antonio returns home with a chance to close them out in Game 5, so they still have a massive hill to climb to keep their season alive.
If they lose on Wednesday, one of the most logical places for internal improvement in the offseason is CJ McCollum. The No. 10 pick in last year's draft, McCollum fell behind the eight ball when he broke his foot in training camp and was never able to crack the rotation as a rookie. Even with a groin injury knocking Mo Williams out of Games 3 and 4 against San Antonio, McCollum has played only 15 total minutes in the series so far.
Given the match-up problems on defense caused by the Spurs, it has been hard for Terry Stotts to get McCollum on the floor. And while he should be a much better player after his first full offseason in the NBA, his skill-set replicates, rather than complements, some of Portland's most important players. That's a cardinal sin when drafting players in the lottery and it's why McCollum may need to be traded to fully showcase his game in the NBA.
It's easy to see why the Blazers were high on McCollum coming into the draft. Like Damian Lillard, McCollum was a combo guard from a small school with unlimited range on his jumper. They both had similar knocks on them - the level of competition, their ceiling as seniors in a freshman-laden draft, their position at the next level. Before breaking his foot halfway through the season, McCollum was averaging 24 points a game on 50 percent shooting as a senior.
After four seasons in the Patriot League, where future NBA players are few and far between, the biggest concern with McCollum was his defense. At 6'3 200 with a 6'6 wingspan, he doesn't have the elite athleticism of the league's best PG's or the size of a SG. Very few young players are competent on that end of the floor, but the ones without the physical tools to match up with an NBA position start their career in a much deeper hole.
To be sure, Lillard had many of the same issues coming out of Weber State. The difference is that he plays such a huge role on offense that the Blazers have no choice but to overlook them. McCollum, as a role player who has to find his way in the league and contribute in other areas of the game, doesn't have the same luxury. Portland has enough trouble hiding Lillard on defense against San Antonio - they can hardly afford to hide two guards.
Lillard was torched by Tony Parker in the first few games of the series, forcing Stotts to switch defensive assignments in the backcourt and move him to Danny Green. However, once Manu Ginobili comes into the game, Portland has to pick their poison, putting Lillard on either Parker, Ginobili or Kawhi Leonard. There is no Patrick Beverley in this series - San Antonio puts pressure on your defense from all five positions on the floor.
Going forward, Portland is going to want as much length and athleticism around Lillard as possible. One of the keys to his early success in the NBA has been sharing a starting unit with Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, two versatile defenders who can take the tougher assignments on the perimeter. Even if Williams can play in Game 5, it will be hard for Stotts to play two undersized guards major minutes against the Spurs.
While the tandem of Lillard and Williams had some success in the regular season, the deeper the Blazers go in the playoffs, the less they can use them. Neither one of them is guarding Chris Paul if they play the Los Angeles Clippers and neither one is guarding Russell Westbrook if they play the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they had faced the Golden State Warriors, they would have had a real problem with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
The same holds true for Lillard and McCollum. No one shuts down guys like Parker, Curry, Paul or Westbrook, but putting an undersized offensive-minded guard on one of them is a recipe for getting knocked out of the playoffs. When McCollum played in Game 4, Stotts had to stagger the minutes so he and Lillard didn't share a line-up. That problem isn't going away in the off-season - neither guy is adding inches to his height or wingspan.
In essence, with Lillard entrenched at the starting point guard position, Portland used a lottery pick on a guy who can't play more than 10-15 minutes a game in a playoff series. That's not a great use of resources for a small-market team without many other obvious ways of upgrading their roster in the offseason. To take the next step, the Blazers need guys who can accentuate Lillard's strengths and hide his flaws, not the reverse.
After barely playing him as a rookie, they can't trade McCollum without getting pennies on the dollar. One of the great myths of the draft is you have to take the best player available player on the board, but once you get out of the Top 5, the difference between players isn't high enough to justify that. As Portland will soon find out, BPA doesn't mean much if you end up trying to pound a round block into a square hole.