As we continue to reflect on the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season in preparation for the summer to come, let’s take a quick look at the five most surprising developments of the year.
5. CJ McCollum is THAT Good
Everybody who saw CJ McCollum win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2015-16 understood that he was going to carve out a career for himself without much problem. 21 ppg on 45% shooting spoke for itself. But really, how much more could he accomplish, especially playing alongside a dominant scorer in Damian Lillard?
As it turns out, plenty. When the curtain closed on McCollum’s M.I.P. victory lap year he had averaged 23 ppg on 48% shooting while maintaining an incredible 42% rate from the three-point arc.
By the way, 42% was the lowest average McCollum posted from any range on the floor. He shot 45% between 16 feet and the arc, 51% between 10-16 feet. By comparison, LeBron James shot 31% and 44% from those same distances. CJ’s accuracy wasn’t just sick, it was wrong.
Other players score more, are more physically imposing, have better chops one-on-one. If you’re looking for a guy to hit consistently in the team offense you’d have to dig deep to find a better player than McCollum right now.
4. Allen Crabbe Goes Bonk
Coming into the season, McCollum looked to have competition in the “most versatile guard” category from Allen Crabbe. Crabbe wasn’t the volume scorer that CJ was, but his all-around shooting ability drew similar praise. His theoretical defensive potential made up enough of the scoring gap that the Blazers were willing to match a Brooklyn Nets offer of $18.5 million per year for him last summer.
Crabbe’s three-point shooting rose from 39% to 44% this season. Everything else flat-lined or went backwards. The defense never materialized. The Blazers ended up giving Crabbe a $17.5 million raise to score the same 10.5 ppg he averaged last year.
This may not be all on Crabbe. His place in the rotation was squeezed and he wasn’t set up to his full potential...ending up more of a specialist than a true scorer. Nevertheless, in a year full of aching disappointments for several players, Crabbe losing ground on the promise of last summer ranks near the top.
3. They Signed Who? For How Much???
The Summer of 2016 was set up for the Trail Blazers to make a huge leap forward. Coming off a surprise second-round playoff appearance, they had momentum on their side. They had two bona fide scorers to build around in McCollum and Lillard. Most importantly, they had oodles of cap space, hoarded for just this occasion. After years of penny pinching under the guise of “maintaining flexibility”, this was the payoff moment...the trip to Toys ‘R Us for the long-awaited free agent birthday present.
Though hopes were high, nobody would have faulted Portland for failing to land Kevin Durant or Hassan Whiteside, the two premier free agents on the market. Al Horford was debated, but probably still beyond reach. Dwight Howard was a controversial, but salvageable, back-up plan...likely the price point at which most fans consider the Blazers buying in.
When the Blazers started chasing Chandler Parsons, those same fans started realizing that the birthday payoff was going to be less center-aisle than clearance bin. When Parsons rejected Portland to head to Memphis, the Blazers inked Evan Turner to a $70 million contract. At that point the Portland faithful exited the store, logging the experience under, “Things I’ll end up telling my therapist about someday.”
Turner performed well enough for Portland, his value and contributions increasing as the season progressed. Bashing him would not only be ill-advised, it’d miss the point. After years of frugality, Portland nearly doubled their salary cap for a roster in which Turner was the featured acquisition...accompanied by Festus Ezeli who never played a minute in their uniform.
Even with the summer spending spree for modest acquisitions, the Blazers didn’t project to be worse than last year’s 44 wins. If nothing else, they retained every player that had taken them to the playoffs the year prior.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said pre-season that moving Al-Farouq Aminu to power forward would produce dividends and that their internal projections put them at 54 wins...a 10-game improvement.
Instead they ended up 3 games worse, winning only 41 and getting swept out of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors.
Aminu battled injuries over the course of the season, appearing in 61 games. The 54-win projection represented a 66% winning rate. The Blazers actually won 54% of the games in which Aminu played 15 minutes or more. Stretched over an entire season that percentage would have given them the same 44 wins they notched the year prior.
It’s worth noting that the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic buoyed the team’s late-season record. If you take away the games in which Nurkic played plus the ones in which Aminu was injured—counting only the games in which last year’s lineup played mostly intact—Portland’s winning pace dropped to 46.5%...good for just 38 wins if stretched over a season.
Not only did the Blazers pay big money last summer, they paid it for a team that wasn’t going to reach .500 as it was comprised. Nobody expected that.
1. Jusuf Nurkic Turns It All Around
The only surprise greater than a 41-41, $113,000,000 season was the remarkable recovery the Blazers experienced to get to that point. Trading Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for Nurkic changed the narrative entirely.
Nurkic’s stats tell part of the story. His per-game points, rebounds, blocks, and assists pretty much doubled when he joined the Trail Blazers. His per-minute gains weren’t as dramatic but they were measurable.
More important, though, was the renaissance in Portland’s outlook. High screen-and-rolls that had previously resulted in contested jumpers or looping leaners suddenly produced dunks. Missed defensive assignments became blocked shot opportunities. The low block, long a void in Portland’s offensive system, suddenly transformed into valuable scoring territory. Along with the expanse in horizon came a lift in spirits. Nurkic’s passion and energy was infectious, transforming December’s lethargy into April awesomeness. The Blazers went from “playing out the string” to “playing to win”.
Late-season revivals are commonplace in Trail Blazers lore; seemingly every season features one. But the dramatic difference in depth versus height in this season’s, timed with the arrival of the Bosnian Beast, left a sense of shock that will no doubt engender hope through the summer to come. That makes the Nurkic Effect the most surprising event of Portland’s 2016-17 campaign.
What surprises did we miss? Comment on these five or add your own below!