The Portland Trail Blazers had one of the most surprising seasons in recent memory in 2015-16. Around this time last year, most projections had Portland finishing as one of the worst teams in the league after losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo. It seemed a rebuild was imminent.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum had different plans.
The Blazers won 44 games and captured the fifth seed in the competitive Western Conference, with their talented backcourt leading the way. Now, one year later, Portland is viewed very differently. The general consensus is that they have one of the most promising young teams in the league along with the ability to compete now.
Lillard was a known commodity and All-Star prior to this past season, but it was McCollum’s ascent during the 2015-16 campaign that shocked people and really helped Portland exceed expectations. After playing sparingly and starting just three games during his first two seasons in the NBA, McCollum stepped up last year and took full advantage of his opportunity when minutes and touches opened up. The 24-year-old’s emergence was similar to the Blazers’, with both outperforming even the loftiest of predictions.
McCollum went from averaging 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes to 20.8 points in 34.8 minutes per game, which earned him the NBA’s Most Impoved Player award. As he became more of a household name, he earned praise for his excellent shooting (he shot 41.7 percent from three-point range on 5.9 attempts per game) as well as his crafty ball handling and noticeable love of the game.
Because of McCollum’s incredible jump in productivity (and to keep him off the market), the Blazers and McCollum’s camp agreed to a contract extension this summer that is reportedly worth $106 million over four years. But even with the lucrative new deal, McCollum continues to work as if he’s fighting to make the team. That’s just how he’s always approached things, and he’s determined to maximize his full potential.
This offseason he’s been working with Portland’s assistant coaches to improve his defense, while also continuing to participate in side projects like his annual basketball camp at the Beaverton YMCA in Oregon. McCollum started hosting the camp when he entered the NBA and wants to continue doing it each summer. C.J. had a blast throughout the event, whether he was playing defense against a kid wearing his camp shirt or challenging another youngster to play one-on-one. He made lasting memories for these children, many of whom come from struggling households. Lillard also attended the camp to his support his teammate and close friend.
Basketball Insiders caught up with McCollum at his basketball camp to discuss his contract extension, offseason workouts, how he’ll follow up his breakout season, Portland’s offseason additions and much more.
Basketball Insiders: How is your offseason going?
C.J. McCollum: “It’s been busy, man. I’ve been traveling, always in a different place, but it’s been good. Putting in a lot of work, just doing a lot of things.”
Insiders: You signed a large extension to remain in Portland after putting in a lot of hard work and showing significant improvement. How does it feel to get a big deal?
McCollum: “It’s a great feeling, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It shows that your organization believes in you and what you’ve done. They value me and it’s a great feeling to know that the feeling is mutual. When an organization has that much confidence in you it makes you want to perform that much harder and continue to work to get better.”
Insiders: Is there any added pressure for you because of the pay raise?
McCollum: “The only real pressure is the pressure I put on myself. As long as I’m continuing to work and get better, no one is going to put pressure on me but myself.”
Insiders: What have you been working on this offseason?
McCollum: “I’m working with our assistant coaches, continuing to work on defense. I’m building more lower-body strength and core strength, continuing to gain more athleticism in order to help me on the defensive side of the ball.”
Insiders: What’s your biggest goal as a player next season? Collectively, what are the team goals?
McCollum: “I want to get better on defense. I’m really trying work on my lateral movement and tracking down the ball on defense. I know getting better on defense will help this team, so I’m just trying to get better at all-around defense. The past couple weeks, I’ve been working with our assistant coach David Vanterpool, continuing to focus on the other side of the ball. As far as the team, this team’s goal is making the playoffs at the highest seed possible. I’m confident we’ll do that. We just take it one day at a time.”
(Coach David Vanterpool: “C.J. is an incredibly quick learner who’s able to adjust well. He is always comfortable being uncomfortable, so when we try something new, he takes to it like a fish to water. This is no different. He’s been great just trying to add little pieces to his game, and defense is an area I don’t think enough people put emphasis on when they’re working individually to improve. It’s easier to work on a jump shot or offensive move because it’s more glamorous. But honestly, defense can be improved upon without even having a ball! We spend close to 30 minutes of an hour-and-a-half workout solely focused on defense, and it’s also incorporated into the other offensive work we do. He’s great at using angles and his hands, and he seems to enjoy the effect [his defensive strides] have had on his game. I love how hard he works at everything we add. Without question, he’s truly wrapped up in the process of getting better.“)
Insiders: What are thoughts on the offseason acquisitions the Blazers made? In addition to keeping the core together by re-signing your own free agents, the front office added Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Shabazz Napier and Jake Layman.
McCollum: “I think the organization is heading in the right direction. We have a good roster and a good group of guys. We are continuing to build for now and the future. Now, the work begins to continue that process [and growth]. I’m excited to be a part of this team.”
Insiders: How hungry is this team after advancing to the second round and experiencing some playoff success?
McCollum: “We’re extremely hungry. Team success is how you leave an impression and mark on the game. Our motivation is proving to people that last year wasn’t a fluke. Many of us are out there to prove that our team can be even better this season than last.”
Insiders: Just like Damian, you participate in a lot of activities aside from basketball. What motivates you to do things such as writing for various media outlets, DJing on 107.5 in Portland and launching a high school journalism program?
McCollum: “I really enjoy being out in the community, building my journalism knowledge and taking advantage of my opportunity. My only job is being an NBA player; that is my number one priority. But this game only lasts for so long as a player, so you’ve got to set yourself up for when that time comes.”
Insiders: You’re a big music fan and, as I mentioned, you even host your own radio show. Who have you been listening to lately? Any recommendations?
McCollum: “I always have my regulars like Jay Z, J-Cole and Nas. But as far as new music, random fire is just coming out man. That Khaled album came out and I’ve been listening to that a lot. ‘I Got The Keys’ is nice.”
Insiders: Can we expect a #4BarFriday appearance from you?
McCollum: “Maybe. I did some earlier in my career. Maybe I’ll get something going, you never know.”
Insiders: Are you still confident that you can beat our mutual friend Kristen Ledlow in HORSE? She certainly responded with some crazy shots…I’m just making sure you still feel the same way.
McCollum: “I’m beyond confident! We all know those shots were lucky. She isn’t beating me.”
Insiders: How do you decide who pays for dinner on the team? With you, Damian, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and others all getting pay days, is it, “I pay this time, you pay the next?” Or is there a generous guy out of the group who just continues to take care of you guys?
McCollum: “I’m on my rookie minimum still! That contract of mine doesn’t go into effect until next season, so those guys will definitely be picking up the tab – no doubt! I’m not making close to what they’re making yet.”
Insiders: Do you remember anything about the camps you attended when you were young, and did that influence you in any way as you put together your own camp for kids?
McCollum: “Yeah, I used to go to Eric Snow’s camp when I was a kid. It was great. I specifically remember one year when he brought Allen Iverson and that was great because he was someone I looked up to.”
Insiders: How is it having your own camp?
McCollum: “It’s great. All the kids look up to you and want to play you one-on-one, shoot against you or play defense on you. Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have my own camp with 300-plus kids wearing my shirt; that was a dream. So it’s a ton of a fun, and I love seeing all the kids.”
NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers
The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.
With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.
Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.
However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.
“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”
Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.
In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.
“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”
Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.
The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17
Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.
It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.
As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.
The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.
There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.
Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.
Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.
How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.
Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.
Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.
Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.
Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.
Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.
Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.
Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets
The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.
It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.
Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.
Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”
After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.
The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.
“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.
“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”
Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.
Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.
“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.
“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”
It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.
When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.
In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.
Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.
Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.
“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.
“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”
Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.
“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.
But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.
“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.
With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.
Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.
But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.
That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.