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Portland Has Its Own Splash Brothers

The NBA’s splashiest backcourt outside Oakland resides in Portland. Trail Blazers stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have combined to make 1,645 threes over the past four seasons, more than any duo in the league besides Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.1 Steph and Klay are also the only backcourt in the league to average more collective points per game over that span of time than Dame and CJ.

The Splash Brothers are still (somewhat obviously) the superior pairing. Curry and Thompson are widely considered two of the greatest shooters of all time, and they completely warp opposing defenses. Thompson is also far and away the best defender of the four players. But when the quartet squares off in the Western Conference finals, which begin Tuesday night, the Blazers won’t just be bringing an inferior version of the Splash Brothers to the table. The Splash Brothers Lite are mostly just different — and there are even a few things Dame and CJ do a bit better than Steph and Klay.

For starters, Portland’s guards attack off the bounce far more often than their Northern California counterparts. Lillard averaged 13.3 drives per game this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, and his 7.7 points per game on drives ranked 17th among the 353 NBA players who appeared in at least 40 games. McCollum, meanwhile, averaged 9.4 drives that created 6.3 points per game, a figure that tied for 28th among the same group of players. Each of the Blazers’ guards averaged more drive-points per game than the Warriors’ backcourt duo combined.2

This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. The Blazers’ guard duo has consistently been more aggressive in attacking the paint than the Warriors have been — both before and after Golden State acquired Kevin Durant prior to the 2016-17 season.

Even in the area where the duos are most similar — long-range sniping — they are still markedly different because of the disparate ways the players come by their threes. Lillard and McCollum have almost exact inverse splits between the percentage of their 3-point makes that have been pull-ups vs. catch-and-shoots over the past four years, per Second Spectrum, while Curry and Thompson’s splits have not lined up quite as cleanly.

The Splash Brother pairs shoot their threes in different ways

Share of made 3-pointers in the regular season that were pull-up vs. catch-and-shoot, 2015-16 to 2018-19

Pull-up Catch-and-shoot
Damian Lillard 60.5%
36.1%
CJ McCollum 40.7
58.7
Stephen Curry 46.7
51.3
Klay Thompson 14.0
84.8

Source: Second Spectrum

This, of course, is the natural result of the contrasting job descriptions of these players, which flow from the differing roster constructions in Portland and Golden State.

Thompson is a classic shooting guard like you might have seen in the early 2000s. He works almost exclusively off the ball, flying off pin-downs and flare screens, spotting up when Curry runs pick and rolls or making split-cuts when Draymond Green has the ball in the post. Curry, meanwhile, may be Golden State’s point guard, but he is more of a co-lead ball-handler, along with Green and Durant, because that structure allows the Warriors to better weaponize his shooting abilities.

By contrast, Lillard is essentially the prototype of the modern-day attack guard who is at the controls of the offense at all times, while McCollum splits his time: working off the ball alongside Lillard, on the ball as a de facto backup point guard in certain lineups and off the ball again in bench-heavy units alongside Evan Turner or Curry’s brother Seth. By wading into the tracking data on NBA.com, we can see that in each of the past four seasons, the ball has been in Lillard’s hands for a greater share of his time on the floor than Curry and Thompson’s shares combined, and McCollum has had the ball in his hands nearly as often as Curry and usually more than twice as often as Thompson.

Portland’s guards handle the ball more

The time of possession rates* for each pair of players, 2015-16 to 2018-19

Year Lillard McCollum Curry Thompson
2015-16 24.5% 15.2% 16.9% 5.1%
2016-17 22.5 13.6 15.9 4.9
2017-18 21.5 12.3 16.0 4.9
2018-19 21.7 10.0 14.1 4.6
Average 22.6 12.9 15.8 4.9

* Calculated by dividing the number of minutes the ball was in a player’s hands by that player’s total minutes played during a given season.

Source: Second Spectrum

Despite the fact that these guard pairings have carried similar usage rates them over these past four years (30.7 percent and 26.7 percent for Lillard and McCollum; 31.1 percent and 25.4 percent for Curry and Thompson), the above figures show that they have come by that usage in vastly different ways. This is further driven home by the fact that Curry and Thompson have been assisted on their baskets far more often (52 percent and 82 percent) than have Lillard and McCollum (29.6 percent and 38.5 percent).

These differences naturally stem from the high-end talent disparity between the two teams. Curry and Thompson have had the benefit of playing alongside Green and Andre Iguodala for the entirety of their run, and they’ve had Kevin Durant as an additional wingman for the past three years. Lillard and McCollum, meanwhile, have spent the majority of their time playing alongside Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, as well as one of big men Mason Plumlee, Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter. Those three are all nice players, and they have each proven incredibly valuable for Portland at different times, but none of them brings anywhere close to the brilliance of Durant or Green, none has the versatility of Iguodala, and none is the caliber of playmaker any of the aforementioned Golden State players are.

The Warriors thinned out their bench in their series against Houston, but not to the point that Curry and Thompson had less help on their side than Lillard and McCollum do — and anyway, Portland is not Houston. The Blazers don’t have the ability to go small as often or as dangerously as the Rockets did when they put P.J. Tucker at center, which means that Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney and even Jordan Bell can be on the floor more often. As good as Lillard is, the Blazers don’t have a singular player who has broken the game quite in the same way James Harden. And they don’t have the deep wellspring of wing shooters Houston has, either.

What they do have is a star guard tandem and a deep group of players who have supported Dame and CJ on this run to the conference finals. That construction has generally not been enough for teams to beat the Warriors in the past. It may not be now, either. But the Splash Brothers Lite will try to make it work.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The four-year period starts when McCollum was elevated to the starting lineup — after the offseason departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum — and became the Robin to Lillard’s Batman.

  2. Curry’s 7.7 drives per game created 3.9 points per game, (73rd) while Thompson’s 4.4 drives created 2.1 points per game (132nd), which means they combined for only 6.0 points per game off the drive.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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