Immediately after the All-Star Break, a number of Portland’s deeper options saw more minutes than usual in the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge (injured at the time). We saw a bit more Thomas Robinson (now injured), a bit more Will Barton, a bit more Victor Claver, and a bit… less… CJ McCollum. For the first time in his 23 game NBA career, McCollum’s minutes dipped into the single digits. They did so while the Trail Blazers were extremely shorthanded on three separate occasions.
McCollum’s minimized presence has several possible implications. It could be that some facet of his game presents a liability that Head Coach Terry Stotts doesn’t want jeopardizing the Trail Blazers’ record as they jockey for playoff position. It could be that Stotts wants to expand development to players like Barton (whose minutes have increased), and it’s taking minutes from McCollum. It could even be that McCollum just doesn’t fit like Stotts had hoped he would.
Most likely, it’s a combination of the three with some other factors thrown in. I suspect it has something to do with a shift in coaching strategy. Gone are the early season days of the guards launching threes at every opportunity. Stotts has his backcourt slashing more and more. McCollum is a gifted three point shooter (42.6 percent), but he doesn’t yet have the instincts to finish at the rim amid the NBA’s 7-footers. He’s shooting under 50 percent on shots within 8 feet of the hoop, where Barton is shooting over 60 percent. Stotts may be calling Barton’s number more because he’s longer (6’6” compared to 6’3”) and a more explosive finisher.
As Stotts seeks more sustainable scoring options than pure jump shooting, McCollum’s combination of inexperience and size are catching up with him. Damian Lillard has been able to make the necessary adjustments because he is Damian Lillard, but McCollum will need additional development to get there. This would be perfectly doable if that playoff position caveat weren’t an ongoing issue. So prepare for fluctuating doses of the young guard as his adaptation could be rocky moving forward. The more Stotts experiments with the inside game, the more we’ll see from Barton while McCollum gets up to speed.