PORTLAND – Player development is one of the NBA’s most popular buzzwords. We can thank the Spurs for that. But also the Heat of Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra. Sam Presti’s Thunder. John Hammond’s Bucks. And in Portland, the challenges and benefits of player development for Neil Olshey’s squad were on full display this past season, if you know where to look.
Player development can mean a lot of things. Kawhi Leonard improving his three-point shot to become an elite shooter. Serge Ibaka developing a reliable jumper. Giannis Antetokounmpo improving his ball-handling to become a destroyer of worlds.
In Portland, there is another unique case worth studying: can you build the best aspects of one player into another and vice versa?
The rebuild since the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews in 2015 hasn’t gone without its difficulties. After the Blazers surprised everyone by taking advantage of an injury-riddled bottom Western Conference to finish with the fifth seed in 15-16 on their way to a second round appearance, team improvement stagnated in 16-17. Their massive free-agent spending spree didn’t translate to wins and key players from last year’s success (Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis) saw shooting percentages drop while they were on the wrong side of injury luck in 16-17, as the Blazers finished with three fewer victories and barely made the playoffs thanks to a late-season surge from the Jusuf Nurkic trade.
All of that overshadows what has been another successful season in player development for Portland’s two best players: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Their development begins five years ago when Lillard first met with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool.
“We have talked since he came in his rookie season about him growing into a leader,” Vanterpool said of Lillard. “It’s different from being one of the best players or the best player on the team and we talked about why that’s different. It’s the mental aspects of the game, trying to become like Neo in the Matrix. I had this discussion with him when he was a rookie that we will improve everything mentally so that you get to the point where this is like Neo at the end of the Matrix. It was like a computer program It became easy for him. He didn’t have to focus on a whole lot because he was so focused that it was whatever he wanted. I think (Lillard) is progressing to that point and he has grasped on to that from the beginning.”
McCollum entered the NBA with a background that, on the surface, is so similar to Lillard’s, the comparisons between the two grew tired even before they were teammates.
“Damian had the success, came from a small school. Four years, all the same stuff,” Vanterpool said. “Family dynamics, blah blah blah. Just like Damian Lillard. And they are so vastly different in my opinion.”
It’s the differences between Lillard and McCollum that have served as a road map for ways each can improve.
“He’s worked his tail off to become highly skilled. And being that we workout together, basically CJ fell in line with Damian’s approach to improvement and it's helped him become better.”
It was also easier for McCollum to follow, because he already had an affinity for weird drills and shots that most players–and most basketball analysts in 2017–find uncomfortable. As alike as their narrative arcs are, it’s the differences in their games aided by their similar mindsets that have led to improvement and hope for more than win totals in the low 40’s.
And as close as they are on the court, during the season you’ll rarely find them apart off it. You can usually find Vanterpool supporting the passions of both players, watching film with them or just grabbing dinner. It’s on the floor where his genius and the open-minds of Portland’s two stars start constructing the vision of the Blazers, that even after a grey scape of a season, gives the franchise hope for more beautiful days ahead.
It’s opening night of the 16-17 season, generally a night where weird things happen. The Blazers are facing the Utah Jazz, who enter the game without Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, their best player and their No. 2 big man. Joe Johnson is looking ageless, putting the Blazers on their heels in a game they should win handily against a depleted Jazz team.
Rudy Gobert, one of the league’s most intimidating rim protectors is patrolling the paint, but the Blazers look as though they’ve got him on a string. In the second half, Lillard and McCollum turned things on for a victory. Lillard finished with 39, nine rebounds and six assists with George Hill draped on him all night while McCollum finished with 25, including a deep 28-footer to put the Blazers in front for good. It was one of the better moments for the Blazers in a season that most players characterized after the season ended as “up-and-down.”
On that night and for the rest of the season, Lillard looked much more comfortable changing speeds in the lane and creating angles to make otherwise impossible shots. All told, Lillard finished the 16-17 season shooting 60 percent on shots three feet or closer, the second-best (64%) mark of his five-year career, according to Basketball-Reference. He did that while recording just four dunks, by far the lowest number of his career. And if you look close enough, you can see the reflection of McCollum in every one of Lillard’s euro-step laden journeys into the paint.
“In the summer when we’re both in town we work out one behind the other,” Lillard said. “He go then I go, he go then I go. Before practice it’s one behind the other, after practice it’s one behind the other, so he learns things from me, I learn things from him. As similar as we are, we’re different. There are things that he does very well that I can get better at and there’s things that I do well that he can get better at and it’s great that we can just do that off each other every day.”
McCollum continued his growth from last season that saw him win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and he’s continuing his evolution into one of the game’s elite shot-makers. His growth into a more athletic player, adding aspects of Lillard’s game to his, helped give his best skills the proper platform to thrive. He also averaged career-highs in points per game (23.0), True Shooting and dunks. For the first time in his career, McCollum recorded more dunks (11) than Lillard.
“You steal stuff from each other,” McCollum said. “We workout together, watch each other, whatever works. We have to be successful and take it.”
As Vanterpool explains, this isn’t a simple case of learning through osmosis.
“We crossed the two,” Vanterpool explained. “It was very difficult for Dame to pick that up. It was hard. It was difficult for him. For CJ it was difficult to explode in that manner. It was really difficult and not just exploding jumping, but when you’re making move on a pick and roll when you’re going from point A to point B. From slow to quick, then explode. Dame can do that in his sleep. We worked on cross matching that. Taking one aspect from one’s game and trying to get the other to pick that up. It’s a process. It still is.”
When hearing Olshey tell reporters that Lillard and McCollum are “untradeable” following exit interviews, it becomes even clearer that the development of each player is the product of a symbiotic relationship. That’s something Trade Checker can’t tell you.
“We try to predicate things on becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable,” Vanterpool said. “I try to put them in situations in whatever we’re doing where we’re doing something new, where they are improving the skills they already have and where they’re working at being comfortable being uncomfortable in certain situations offensively and defense. We do a lot of defense in stuff that we do.”
Vanterpool pushed Lillard to be craftier in the lane and he watched McCollum to take notes. Vanterpool wanted McCollum to be more explosive off the dribble and at the basket, while McCollum could see how it’s done by Lillard.
“I do think it’s important for the team’s best player to extend himself to others of the team,” one Eastern Conference executive told me. “Offseason workouts can be a big part of this. Great for team building and bonding.”
“Dame has been a multiple time All-Star, top performer, MVP candidate now and I still can yell at him and put my foot in his behind,” Vanterpool said. “It’s the same as me patting him on the back. Because he allows it. CJ is the same things. He’s been incredible, most improved, has a lot of buzz going around the league about him and his ability. He’s never wavered when it comes to trying to learn, trying to improve when it comes to me trying to help him learn in situations. To me (their open-mindedness) the key to all of it.”
Is this model a replicable for other franchises? Perhaps. But more than anything, the case of Portland’s two best players gives us more validation about the importance of collaboration in concert with proper evaluation and invested coaching. The questions about whether the Blazers can play good enough defense will still be there, but so long as their stars improve, they’ll have something to build on. Being great on offense and average on defense is a pretty good NBA existence. Just ask the Rockets.
So as we continue in this era of Spurs' appreciation, where every franchise looks to replicate the model of sustainable success in the NBA, the case study of Portland’s two best players re-affirms what the Spurs have tried to tell us for decades: if the players don’t make it happen, it never will.