When LaMarcus Aldridge decided that he wanted to take his talents elsewhere in search of greener pastures, he left behind one of the NBA’s more passionate fanbases and one of the league’s most promising young superstars.
In the blink of an eye, the Portland Trail Blazers had gone from a fringe contender that seemed one of two pieces away from seriously challenging for the Western Conference crown to a team that had no chance of qualifying for the playoffs would be stuck rebuilding for the next several years.
It seems that neither general manager Neil Olshey nor guard C.J. McCollum got the message.
Entering play on February 7 at 25-27, these Blazers are one game outside of the playoffs and, one could argue, have a brighter future than they did with Aldridge.
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During last season’s playoff run, it became obvious to quite a few inside of the Blazers organization that Aldridge seemed to have had one foot out the door. Despite making an earlier proclamation to the contrary, his body language and conduct told a different story.
If Aldridge really were leaving the franchise, then, from Olshey’s perspective, it would have made all the sense in the world to rid himself of the elder players who had emerged as Aldridge’s running mates and go young. That’s exactly what ended up happening.
Aside from Aldridge, the Blazers would ultimately say goodbye to Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews and Thomas Robinson. Four of those five were starters along with Lillard while Afflalo replaced Matthews in the starting lineup after he went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
In the blink of an eye, Olshey pulled the plug on the Aldridge era in Portland and immediately turned the franchise over to Lillard. The idea was to surround Lillard with other young players and to build a community and a family around him. In came Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh from the Charlotte Hornets with Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis soon following. With Mo Harkless being acquired in mid-July, the youth movement was on.
With Lillard already having matured as a floor general and proven himself capable of being a franchise-caliber point guard, the hope for Olshey and his staff was that Lillard would commit to the franchise for the long term. He did, and the new era was set to begin.
Looking at the names on the Blazers roster, even today, doesn’t necessarily strike any type of fear into the opposition. Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe and Ed Davis, for example, each log more than 20 minutes per game for Terry Stotts. Aminu and Davis have each had trouble sticking with one team while Crabbe joined Gerald Henderson and McCollum as players for whom the Blazers had nothing more than high hopes.
The prevailing thought out in Portland was that with a winning tradition, a head coach who had proven himself competent and a young superstar in Lillard, that the Trail Blazers could make compelling pitches to free agents to be over the coming years. Traditionally, restricted free agents had been hard to steal, but even those guys, it was thought, would consider calling Portland home. When Olshey signed Enes Kanter to a maximum-salaried offer sheet this past summer, he did so not knowing whether or not the Oklahoma City Thunder would match its terms and retain the Turkish center. They did, but that doesn’t make Olshey any less likely to throw some money at the likes of Harrison Barnes or Festus Ezeli, both of whom will be restricted.
In fact, with just $57 million on their books for the 2016-17 season and their ability to reduce that commitment by not re-signing some of their own free agents, the Blazers will enter July 2016 with a fairly good outlook. That is true even if this team, full of rebuilding youngsters, fails to qualify for the playoffs.
In Lillard, they have a budding superstar. In Olshey, they have a general manager who has proven himself to be both wise and capable. And in Stotts, they have a head coach who has playoff experience and the respect of those who sit on his bench.
Even better, though, the Blazers have McCollum—the runaway recipient of this year’s Most Improved Player Award.
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Now in his third year, out of necessity, McCollum was thrust into a big role for these Trail Blazers. After spending his first two years playing behind Wesley Matthews, Mo Williams and Arron Afflalo (to name a few), McCollum entered the 2015-16 season with an opportunity to solidify himself as the franchise’s starting shooting guard for years to come. That is an opportunity he has taken full advantage of.
Through 50 games, McCollum is averaging 20.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. While those numbers are impressive, what is more impressive about him is his increasing efficiency. Through his first two seasons, McCollum played just 14.5 minutes per game and took 5.4 shots in those minutes. He converted just 42.9 percent of those opportunities. This season, he is playing 35 minutes per game, is taking 18 shots per game and has converted on 44.4 percent of those.
Unsurprisingly, his per-36-minute numbers tell a similar story. He is being asked to do a lot more than he has done previously and he is flourishing in his new role. As the team’s primary offensive weapon behind Lillard, he is now the primary subject of opposing team’s scouting reports, yet he is still finding a way to be successful and efficient on the floor.
Entering this season, the Blazers thought themselves set at the point guard position for years to come with question marks everywhere else. It seems, though, in short order, that McCollum has become one of the answers for this franchise.
Having recently celebrated his 24th birthday, McCollum is under contract for the remainder of this season and will likely have his fourth year option picked up, which means that the Blazers will likely have him under contract for $3.21 million next season.
What’s most impressive about the third-year guard, though, is his ability to create scoring opportunities for himself. He has poise and grace and an explosive first step, as well as an ability to hit step back jump shots. He has seemed to improve so dramatically, so quickly.
At this point, the scariest thing to ponder isn’t simply how good McCollum will be two years from now, it’s how good he, Lillard and another superstar caliber player can be together.
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The gross majority of NBA pundits (myself included) thought the Trail Blazers would be a lottery team this season. Truth be told, the only team I would have bet to finish the season behind the Blazers in the standings were the Los Angeles Lakers.
But as the New Orleans Pelicans continue to try to pick up the pieces in what has been an injury plagued season, the old adage holds true: You’ve gotta play the game.
Fortunately, for Olshey, he is playing it not only with Lillard, but also with McCollum. With a bevy of youngster surrounding this dynamic duo and salary cap flexibility, there are definitely worse places to be.
Rest assured, over the next few summers, a few prized free agents may find themselves thinking exactly the same.
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