C.J. McCollum’s 2015 playoffs performance and implications


C.J. McCollum has had a rough go in his first two seasons in the NBA, as foot, ankle, and hand injuries have robbed him of a sizeable chunk of his early career. McCollum only appeared in 38 regular season games his first year in the league, and 62 this year. This means that he has only played in 61% of all possible games during his first two seasons – something that was rough on both his development and the team.

However, that is why it was all the sweeter for Blazer fans when McCollum exploded at the end of the Portland Trail Blazers’ first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He ended up putting in 26, 18, and 33 points in the final three games.

There is a key distinction here, though – his explosion only occurred at the end of that series, not the beginning. In fact, McCollum’s first two games against the Grizzlies were atrocious. In the two games combined, he shot 4-21 (19%) overall, 0-6 on threes (0%), and had no free throw attempts. It was in the last three games that he shot 28-46 (61%), a blistering 11-17 from three (65%), and went to the line 13 times. Over these three games, McCollum averaged 25.7 points.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. The first is that these games occurred during the stretch when Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley was injured and then held out. McCollum is more of a shooting guard and Conley a point, but no matter how you slice it, Memphis losing an elite perimeter defender definitely made things easier for McCollum.

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It’s also not fair to just single out the good games. Those final three don’t make up for McCollum’s first two, when the Trail Blazers lost by double-digits both times. Becoming consistent is a key component to any NBA player’s sustained success, so McCollum has improvements to make on that front. I suspect with McCollum’s injuries, he hasn’t had much of a chance to truly find any sort of groove.

What those final three games do provide, though, is an exciting look into the future. Assuming one (or maybe even both) of Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo do not re-sign in free agency, at worst, McCollum has probably locked up the backup shooting guard position for next season. This will allow him more meaningful minutes and further development. Performances like these may start happening more frequently.

Apr 29, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Portland Trailblazers guard CJ McCollum (3) shoots a three point shot in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Memphis defeated Portland 99-93. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

McCollum will not consistently shoot over 60% from the field and average 25 points a game, but that stretch showed his single game potential. It also has raised my hopes that McCollum can start edging his overall game-to-game performance closer to that ceiling. Again, drastic improvement won’t happen immediately, but hopefully this playoff stretch gives McCollum a shot of confidence and can help kick off the next phase of his career.

With so much of the Trail Blazers’ future in flux, having some noteworthy internal development from McCollum would go a long way toward smoothing over the sure to be significant obstacles that will manifest this off-season.

If there is one thing that this year’s Finals have taught us, it is that you need more than one threat on the offensive end. With LaMarcus Aldridge’s future decidedly unclear, the one remaining sure-to-return threat is Damian Lillard. If McCollum can turn himself into a serviceable secondary scorer, (or ideally more than just serviceable), this would help give the Trail Blazers’ offense a far greater punch.

I always harp about the importance of defense, and by and large think that you really do need it for sustained playoff success. Yet, on the other side of the coin, in said playoffs, you will be playing other solid defenses. As non-LeBron Cleveland Cavaliers throw up miss after miss during this year’s Finals, the value of having someone who can simply get the ball in the hoop is becoming abundantly clear.

Now, this may be getting way too far ahead. McCollum had three noteworthy games in the pressure cooker that is the NBA playoffs, which is certainly a great positive. They were, however, preceded by two pretty poor games. He still has not played more than sixty-two games in a season, and he did not even earn 16 minutes a game last season. He has a long ways to go.

Yet, the flashes are there. That really was a great three-game stretch. As the Golden State Warriors have showed us during this historic season, internal development is crucial for teams to take the next step. They have gotten to where they are largely based on these improvements from within. If McCollum can make a similar jump, it could go a long way toward stabilizing the Trail Blazers’ future.

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