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 AM: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.