Blazers Backcourt: Criminally Underrated

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By Ben Radhuber – Summer Staff Writer

The only people who watch Blazers games are Blazers fans, diehard fans of the opposing team, and degenerate sports gamblers. In other words, not many people watch Lillard and McCollum play on a regular basis. The casual fan simply doesn’t realize how good these two are and how much they carry this team. They played for mid-majors in college, so they never had much media hype surrounding them despite being lottery picks. When watching them play in the playoffs last year—which is one of the few opportunities they have to show out in front of a national audience—Twitter pundits seem surprised when Lillard hits his third three in a row from the logo or McCollum breaks someone’s ankles. They think Lillard and McCollum are “hot,” but they don’t seem to understand that they do this every game. This is who they are. This year, coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, with their team decimated by injuries, they’re combining for 51 points, 8 rebounds, and 12 assists while turning the ball over just 4 times per game. Portland has made it to the playoffs every year of this duo’s six year run. They’ve carried the Blazers to the 3rd spot in a packed Western Conference in each of the past two seasons, yet nobody really talks about them, and when they do, it’s usually not with the same adulation that they talk about backcourts led by Westbrook, Harden, CP3, or Kyrie. 

Source: Forbes.com

It feels weird calling a 5-time All-Star underrated, but Lillard is just that. He rightfully gets more attention than CJ in the media and amongst fans because he is the face of Portland’s organization and has averaged a ridiculous 27 points and 7 assists over his past 5 seasons, a model of elite consistency. However, we are in the golden era of the NBA in terms of the quality of athletes in the league, with some incredibly talented players and teams that often overshadow Lillard and the Blazers. Steph and the Warriors have been an unbeatable dynasty for the better part of Lillard’s career, and players like Kawhi, Giannis, Harden, Westbrook, and AD are all once-in-a-generation talents. That’s without even mentioning LeBron and Durant. You know you’re in a golden era of basketball when a guy who’s averaged 27 and 7 over the past 5 years isn’t ranked as a top 10 player in the league on many experts lists. Even James Harden, who has averaged 35 ppg over the past two seasons, is arguably not a top 5 player in the league when everyone is fully healthy.

This year, Dame D.O.L.L.A. has gotten more media attention from his rap battles with Shaq than from his performance on the court – he’s also the best rapper in the NBA, but that’s another article for another day. One big reason why he doesn’t get as much attention as other elite point guards is because he isn’t the best in any particular category— Steph is the best shooter, Kyrie has the best handles, Harden has the best step-back, and Westbrook is the best dunker and has that whole triple-double thing going for him. But if Lillard is known for being the best at anything, it’s being Mr. Clutch. He’s gained a reputation for heating up in the 4th quarter, also known as “Dame Time,” and has made some of the most iconic game winning shots of all time. Last year in the playoffs against the OKC Thunder, Dame nailed a cold-blooded 37 footer that effectively disbanded the Thunder’s franchise. And let’s not forget about his game-winning three that ended the Houston Rockets’ season in the 2014 playoffs. In fact, only four other players in NBA history have ended a playoff series at the buzzer, and Lillard has done it twice.

Source: NBCSports.com

Lillard was even more underrated for the first half of his career, but he’s been getting more attention recently due to his ability to hit deep threes at high percentage. In just 44 games this season, Lillard had already drilled more shots from 30+ feet in a single season than any other player in NBA history. Over the past three seasons, he is shooting 30.3% from 30+ feet, ranking better than Steph Curry (27.8%) despite similar volume, and has shot them at a crazy 40% clip this season. Not only does he stretch the defense with his range like Steph, but he’s also more explosive, a better dunker, and an underrated passer. Nobody acknowledges how underrated he is more than his opponents, as he was voted as the second most underrated player in the NBA in an anonymous player poll in 2019. Simply put, the guy is the least talked about First Ballot Hall of Famer in the NBA right now. Barring injury (he’s played in 95% of his possible games in his career), he has a reasonable shot of finishing his career as the highest-scoring point guard in NBA history (as does Harden if you consider him a point guard). The current owner of that title is Oscar Robertson, with 26,710 points, and Lillard has already scored 14,586 points. Steph Curry is 3 years older than him and has only scored 2,000 more points than him (one average Lillard season). Lillard is one of only eight players in NBA history to score at least 1,500 points in each of the first eight seasons of his career. These are historic numbers for a point guard under age 30. Although he’s been starting to get more credit recently, if he can’t bring the Blazers to the Finals, he’ll continue to be underrated by the vast majority of the public. 

As for the second half of this two-headed monster, McCollum is even more underrated than Lillard and when you watch him play, you realize pretty quickly that he could easily be the face of a team if given the opportunity. He is one of the most gifted scorers in the NBA right now, and packs arenas due to the creativity and fluidity he displays with the ball in his hands, and the effortlessness with which he makes tough shots.

Source: Slam.com

Here’s a blind stat comparison to think about: over the past 5 seasons, Player A has averaged 21.6/2.4/3.7 while shooting 42% from three and 47% from the field on 17 shots per game, while Player B has averaged 21.7/3.7/3.8 while shooting 40% from three and 46% from the field on 18 shots per game. By the numbers, these players are almost identical. You’ve probably guessed by now that one of these players is McCollum. It’s Player B. That might not be so surprising to you. What might be surprising to you is how his numbers stack up against Player A, Klay Thompson. Ask any casual NBA fan who they think has had better stats over the past 5 seasons and I guarantee you they’ll guess Klay. They’d be wrong. Here’s the kicker: over the past 5 seasons, Klay Thompson has made 5 All-Star Games. As for McCollum? Zero. Yup, zero. I get that Klay is a “Splash Bro.” I get that he is one of the greatest shooters of all time, that he scored 37 points in a quarter, and that he has played for a dynasty for the past 5 years. But it’s hard to argue that McCollum isn’t extremely underrated after reading this. Did you watch him against the Nuggets in the playoffs last year? He DOMINATED that series, averaging 26 points over 7 games, including a 37 point Game 7. Put some respect on his name! In terms of backcourts, this is definitely the 1B to the Warriors 1A, and no other backcourt is close. Basketball fans will look back on this era and see that this backcourt was always criminally underrated. 

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