For Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum, the 2015-16 NBA season was a resounding success. He averaged career highs in every statistical category and transformed from a semi-disappointing prospect to near-All-Star.
McCollum spent his first two years in the league as an afterthought, mired by injuries and buried on the bench behind veterans like Wes Matthews and Mo Williams. But when the Blazer effectively hit "reset" on their roster last summer, and presumptive starter Gerald Henderson missed the start of the season to recover from hip surgery, McCollum was unexpectedly thrust into the starting lineup.
As a first-time NBA starter, McCollum thrived, averaging 20.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. In his previous two seasons he had never averaged more than 6.8 points and one assist. Media members recognized his ascendance and nearly unanimously voted McCollum the league's Most Improved Player last month.
While most players would have been pleased with the accolade, McCollum seemed to take umbrage at the award, believing that his improved stats were the result of opportunity and not improvement.
"I don't necessarily think I'm the most improved player in the NBA," he told SiriusXM's NBA Today. "I think I've always been a good player, it's just more about opportunity and role increasing."
That view, however, overlooks McCollum's improved efficiency this season. According to Basketball-Reference, he posted career highs in eFG%, TS%, AST% and ORTG despite his usage increasing from 20.5 to 27.1. McCollum's improved assist rate was especially impressive, more than doubling from 10.3 percent to 21.6 percent. Generally, when players see major increases in usage their efficiency ratings tumble - more time as primary playmaker and the presumptive focal point of the defense makes it difficult to stay as efficient. Impressively, McCollum trended in the opposite direction. That's not a sign of opportunity, but rather is a sign of a player who has significantly improved his decision making and shot selection.
McCollum's efficiency did not "flip on" like a lightswitch when the season began; he improved consistently throughout the year. Coach Terry Stotts staggered his rotation such that either McCollum or Damian Lillard were always on the court together. The rotation made McCollum the de facto point guard for the second unit and meant that he rarely played with multiple other starters while Lillard was out of the game. Initially, McCollum struggled in this role under the increased defensive pressure, showing significant drops in efficiency when Lillard was out of the game.
But that trend reversed in December and McCollum quickly became equally as effective regardless of whether or not Lillard was in the game. McCollum's efficiency jump began as Lillard sat out several games around Christmas. After a very poor performance against the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 23, in which McCollum could barely get into the lane, he averaged 27.4 points on 52 percent shooting over the next five games without Lillard. There was a notable increase in aggressiveness, as McCollum began attacking the lane more frequently after the game against the Pelicans. Accordingly, his efficiency rose for the rest of the season.
McCollum's offensive effectiveness is the result of a dazzling midrange game. Analysts gushed all season over his array of stepbacks, floaters, and cross-overs designed to create enough space to shoot over taller players. The practical result was some of the most entertaining highlights of the season for the Blazers:
Impressively, McCollum continued to improve his moveset within the season. He debuted new midrange tricks on a seemingly game-by-game basis, peaking with this "how is that legal?!" move against the Clippers in the playoffs:
McCollum's offense reached an apex against the San Antonio Spurs on March 17. The Blazers shooting guard regularly shredded the best defense in the NBA, and forced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to switch NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard onto him - a cross-matching move usually reserved for only extreme scenarios. McCollum finished with 26 points on 10-20 shooting.
The in-season improvement McCollum displayed was especially impressive given the rigors of the NBA schedule. With minimal practice time during the season, players rarely show noticeable improvement in December and January, instead reserving July and August for expanding their personal game. McCollum bucked that trend and improved both individually and within the team context. In a season of impressive moments, both sustained and fleeting, this was perhaps the most jaw-dropping achievement.
Despite the overall improvement to McCollum's game, it's also necessary to point out that he still has room to make major improvements. As noted above, McCollum is a wizard in the midrange, but he struggles around the basket. He shot only 47.4 percent from the field at the basket this season - nearly identical to his shooting percentage from 20-24 feet.
McCollum also failed to draw free throws, finishing the season averaging fewer free throw attempts per game than any other 20 point per game scorer in league history. The low free throw rate and poor conversion percentage around the rim are the result of his style of play: He avoids contact at all costs as he drives to the basket, preferring to slide around the less mobile big men or stop short of the rim and fade for a mid-ranger. McCollum also prefers to stay close to the ground and rather than trying to elevate and finish at the rim he "sneaks" quick scoop shots up around the long arms.
Defensively, McCollum also has room for significant improvement. Like Lillard, he often struggles to stay in front of quicker guards on the perimeter, causing the Blazers to cede big games to scoring point guards all season. McCollum also struggles with defensive fundamentals off the ball, regularly getting caught on screens and surrendering open jumpshots to active players such as Klay Thompson and JJ Redick.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, many of McCollum's skills and weaknesses closely overlap with Lillard. This led many analysts to question whether or not the Blazers can win in the long term with two undersized, scoring-oriented, defensively challenged starting guards. For their part, McCollum and Lillard have bristled at the critique, arguing that the strengths of two reliable 20 point per game scorers outweigh any weaknesses. The friendship between the two has also been cited as a primary reason for the team's success, further complicating any potential trades.
Regardless, fans will soon learn GM Neil Olshey's views on the long-term viability of the backcourt pairing. McCollum is eligible for a contract extension this summer, or he will likely become a restricted free agent after the upcoming season. How the Blazers handle the negotiation will go a long way toward definitively answering whether or not the Lillard/McCollum pairing is viewed as a long-term solution.
But with contract negotiations still six weeks away, fans can take a moment to appreciate McCollum's stellar 2015-16 season. Over the course of eight months McCollum transformed the question around his performance from "Can he be a 'microwave' type scorer off the bench?" to "Can he be an All-Star?" The practical result was a Most Improved Player trophy and 44-wins for the Blazers. Regardless of what happens going forward, McCollum's 2015-16 campaign will go down as one of the more impressive individual achievements in recent team history.