There are two NBA teams that stretch defenses to their absolute limits. One just cruised to an NBA title and is shooting for the single-season wins record. The other lost its best player and three other starters from a team that won one playoff game last season.
Okay, so the Portland Trail Blazers aren't dominating the basketball world like the Golden State Warriors. They're still six games under .500, with a leaky defense that just got flooded by the 5-37 Philadelphia 76ers. Best-case scenario, they end up as the Warriors' sacrificial lamb in the first round of the playoffs.
Yet there is something Warriors followers should admire about the way the Blazers are catching so many unsuspecting teams by surprise. Strip the Warriors' lethal attack down to its core, and it's just two sweet-shooting guards attracting defensive attention far from the basket, which then gets leveraged into even bigger openings on an open floor for everyone else.
The Blazers aren't the Warriors, but they're lighting teams up with the same core principle. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can make any shot from anywhere on the court, whether it's 30 feet, three feet or any distance in between. Their handle is so tight and their patience so ingrained that your threatening defense doesn't scare them. They hit difficult shots and they work overtime to get easier shots.
And like the Warriors' stars, you can't trap them, because that's when they really have you beat.
Look at this sequence. It sure looks a lot like Stephen Curry drawing two defenders, then flipping to Draymond Green to make a play in a 4-on-3 situation.
"They make it easy for everybody," reserve guard Gerald Henderson said after the Blazers' double-digit win in Brooklyn last Friday. "We get a lot of really good shots just because they draw so much attention. They draw two and are willing passers."
Lillard and McCollum are best friends and kindred spirits, and their on-court chemistry shows it.
They have the skills to break defenses by themselves, whether directly via a barrage of buckets or indirectly by sucking defenders into their vortex. As McCollum's playmaking has improved, coach Terry Stotts has entrusted him with running Portland's second unit, so one is always on the court to divide and conquer opponents' troops.
Defenses have every reason to stretch their normal shape to account for the two Steph Lites. Lillard was a brilliant deep shooter and patient pick-and-roll operator from Day 1 in this league, but he's grown into a two-time All-Star by adding mid-range shots and floaters to his bag of tricks while becoming a strong, yet slippery finisher around the basket. He's not quite as dangerous as Steph pulling up from well beyond the three-point line, but he's close.
"He doesn't shoot them right on the line," Henderson said. "He's shooting them from two steps behind the line."
The threat of Lillard's jumper means teams must bring their big man up to the three-point line, which ultimately plays to his advantage. He has the quickness to get around those giants and the instincts to find exactly the right angle to attack. Teams are paralyzed trying to defend either threat, so Lillard just takes whatever he wants.
"[He still gets threes off] because he's also a threat to drive it to the basket," Stotts said. "When you can explode to the basket and you can shoot, it's hard to guard."
If Lillard is Steph Lite, McCollum is Dame Lite, though that characterization probably undersells the leading Most Improved Player candidate.
McCollum doesn't have Lillard's power right at the basket, but his game is stocked with runners, step-backs and floaters stolen from peers and years of film study. He's not as quick as Lillard, but he's able to get where he wants with a series of herky-jerky hesitation moves. Of course, "where he wants" is anywhere, since it seems like he has an endless library of shots and moves.
"It's a little uncanny how he's able to get shots off and make shots," Stotts said.
Whereas Lillard terrifies opponents because he can so easily generate the two most efficient kinds of looks in the game, McCollum freaks teams out because he's efficient where he's not supposed to be. Among guards that have taken at least 75 mid-range shots, McCollum is third in the league in mid-range percentage and fourth on non-restricted area shot attempts in the paint, despite absorbing a heavy volume in both areas. That's how he's able to remain effective despite struggling around the basket and rarely getting to the free-throw line.
"You can't always get to the rim, and sometimes you're not going to be able to shoot a three, so I think it's important to have that in-between game," McCollum said. "Especially with the 7-footers and the athleticism they have today. You can't finish over them every play."
Stopping Lillard and McCollum occupies Column A and B on every Blazers scouting report, but actually doing it is easier said than done.
Teams that stick with their base defense are giving them the space to dictate the move they want. How do you force them to take shots they're uncomfortable taking when those shots don't exist?
Trapping them then seems like the only option. It's tempting to scan the rest of Portland's roster, see a bunch of random names and vow to force any of them to beat you.
By that point, though, the Blazers already won.
For one, trapping Lillard and McCollum offers no guarantee of actually corralling them. Both are fast enough to speed past the help or nimble enough to split the double team.
More importantly, the Blazers design the rest of their offense to exploit that coverage. Their other players may be unheralded, but they are skilled passers, intelligent floor spacers and excellent shooters that keep the play moving. Stotts' system provides the ideal framework to stretch a defense, and the Blazers' player development culture emphasizes the right set of supplementary skills. When Lillard and McCollum move the ball, they're creating a numbers advantage the other four players can exploit.
Does that alignment look familiar? It should.
The Blazers don't have Draymond Green, but they do have four smart big men adept at catching the ball at the free-throw line and making quick pass/shoot/drive decisions.
Mason Plumlee is the best playmaker of the bunch, but Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and young Noah Vonleh are pretty good too. They can diagnose the odd-man advantage quickly and generate easy shots for themselves or a teammate.
"If two guys come to us, we can hit the middle and basically make that next play," Lillard said. "Ed's been really good making that next play. So has Noah. When they make that next play, it's either going to be a layup for them, or they're hitting the weakside for [Gerald Henderson], [Allen Crabbe], C.J. [McCollum] or myself. Whoever's on that weakside is getting a good look at the rim."
Plumlee and Davis can also roll hard to the rim when warranted, while Leonard is a deadly pick and pop option. The Blazers routinely combine those elements into a delectable double pick-and-roll mix.
That process creates openings for Portland's wings, and they exploit them quickly.
Teams saw Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Henderson as undesired spare parts in the past, but Stotts and his staff have simplified their roles and have them making quick decisions on every possession. They fire threes with confidence, even though only Crabbe is a natural shooter. They keep the flow going by attacking driving gaps, even though only Henderson is a natural off-the-dribble scorer. All they need to do is make themselves available and go.
This process yields efficient, open shots from all over the court. The Blazers' wings aren't nearly as multi-dimensional as Golden State's supporting crew, but they receive the same kind of spot-up looks in a similar system. Missing shots isn't the end of the world, either. Portland is fourth in the league in offensive rebound percentage because defenses are too scrambled to find the right man to box out.
It all adds up to the NBA's ninth-best offense, despite having only two players that can create their own shot.
"When we play that way, teams are more aware that they need to get back out of that trap, and they run away," Lillard said. "Then, it kind of loosens up as the play goes on."
Portland has a lot of issues to address before it makes any real noise in the West.
Still, they're far ahead of schedule because they're brewing a Diet Warriors offense. They eventually need Lillard and McCollum to start pulling more of their weight defensively to become a contender again, but that's a problem for another time.
They're this far because of two amazing guards, Stotts' flexibility and GM Neil Olshey's offseason bargain hunting. Last year, Stotts bent the system toward LaMarcus Aldridge's sweet mid-range shooting. This year, he's adjusted it to enhance the grave scoring threat Lillard and McCollum present. Olshey uncovered many of their unselfish teammates while losing nearly every key player from a division champion, all with a payroll that's $19 million lower than any other team in the league.
They have a long way to go, but Warriors Lite isn't a bad place to start.