The NBA isn't a fantasy league. Sometimes players don't fit.
This is the ongoing struggle of building an NBA roster. It's why teams labor over every transaction, and why it takes time for teams to develop. It's why it took Miami a full two years before they were able to win a championship with their Big Three, and why LeBron James wrote in Sports Illustrated that it isn't a foregone conclusion his new Cleveland teammates will win a championship.
In the end, sometimes good players don't get opportunities because the fit isn't quite right. In Portland, there's one guy that knows how important fit and opportunity really can be.
Drafted as the 10th overall pick in last year's NBA Draft, C.J. McCollum seemed to be in the perfect situation. For starters, he was an NBA-ready player on a team that had no reason to be back in the lottery (they were likely losing their first-round draft pick while having to please their star so he didn't bolt in the offseason). Additionally, McCollum added another shooter to the roster for the Blazers -- a skill they desire in abundance.
It wasn't going to be an easy road, but the 21-year-old mid-major star seemed poised to contribute immediately: he was a two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, led the country in scoring before he broke his foot in 2013, and followed up his college career by scoring at will in the Summer League. There was even speculation (albeit extremely altruistic) that McCollum could have an opportunity to eclipse Wesley Matthews in the starting lineup.
Then, less than a month before the season began, McCollum broke his left foot -- the same one he had broken in college -- and required surgery. The Blazers were obviously cautious with McCollum, who didn't see any action until the early part of January. By that time, the Blazers were rolling into 2014 with less than ten losses (they wouldn't get that tenth loss until mid-January). Portland had the mojo going, the rotation was set and everything was looking glorious in Blazerland.
Reasonably, McCollum wasn't a priority.
The rest of the season went by in a flash. McCollum would get a few minutes here or there, maybe more if the game was a blowout. His minutes would amp up -- he scored 19 points against Minnesota in February -- then cool off. In the end, he wasn't part of the short rotation both at the finish line of the regular season or much of a factor in the postseason.
This offseason hasn't exactly focused on McCollum either: the biggest storylines were the recent signings of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, as well as LaMarcus Aldridge proclaiming he wants to be "the best Blazer ever." In fact, the only story that had McCollum's name in it was a story by ESPN's Kevin Pelton (KP2) that tagged C.J. as a "potential bust" from the 2013 draft class.
However, even with everything stacked up against him and the guy running under the radar, we may need to start paying a little more attention to what McCollum's role will be next year.
Realistically, the odds weren't in his favor to start last season. He missed a few dozen games to open the year. At that point it was truly an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" situation for the Trail Blazers roster -- they were a leader of the Western Conference, they had a happy superstar and the team was capturing the league's attention. Why would they mess with that?
The roster makeup didn't exactly favor McCollum either. The game that he developed both in college and briefly over the summer was one that required the ball to be in his hands. This style was much of the reason that McCollum's game was compared to Damian Lillard's when he came out of college. However, in Portland, Mo Williams was the established sixth man and the ball needed to be in his hands (some would argue to a fault at times). Even if McCollum were to crack into the rotation, his game didn't match what the Blazers were trying to do with their second unit. Again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Yet, this year, things might be looking up for McCollum.
First of all, the players that they signed this offseason aren't nearly as ball-dominant as Williams. The only player that's guaranteed to push McCollum for playing time is Blake. The ex-Blazer had to learn how to play alongside Kobe Bryant, who is notorious for needing the ball. Blake also shot at or near 40% from distance the last two years, a skill that will fit well with the drive-and-kick nature of McCollum. This all means that McCollum may be able to fill the Williams role, and will fit well with other personnel.
Additionally, if healthy, C.J. should get playing time at the beginning of the season. Really, it's between him and Will Barton as to who could be the backcourt scorer off the bench. McCollum's game does have some parallels with Lillard's (especially that outside shot), which may not be a bad thing for the second unit. Knowing McCollum's high praise headed into last season -- plus the likelihood he doesn't get squeezed out of the rotation from the jump -- you have to think that he'll have as good a shot as any.
The fit for McCollum last year wasn't the greatest: he was pushing a veteran with a similar skillset for playing time, and he didn't really have a wrinkle in his game that made Terry Stotts willing to go against the status quo (especially after missing so many games). Not unreasonable, just reality. However, this year, he may not only be able to fill the void left by Williams if he leaves, but could have to if the team requires it. If so, we could really see the potential of McCollum this upcoming season.
Not every player fits with every other guy on the roster. For C.J. McCollum, 2014 might be the time when his piece fits into the Blazer's puzzle.