Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers had their sights set on an NBA championship. Their well-rounded starting-five included superstars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and many experts believed that the Trail Blazers were a strong challenger with the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference crown.
The final piece to complete the puzzle was shooting-guard Wesley Matthews. After no team selected him in the 2009 NBA Draft, Matthews found a role in Utah, averaging a cool 13.7 points per 36 minutes as a rookie for the Jazz. The Trail Blazers were impressed, and extended Matthews an offer following the season for 5 years and $34 million.
The rest, as they say, is history. In his five years as a Trail Blazer, Matthews started in 333 of the possible 359 games, earning him the nickname of “Iron Man.” Matthews averaged 15.4 points per game while in Portland, and was thought to be an All-NBA caliber defender.
Wesley Matthews was in the midst of a career-best season last year before the injury. After tearing his Achilles tendon, Matthews and the Trail Blazers watched their season’s goal of a championship vanish.
Following the end of the season, Portland decided to clean house almost entirely. Superstar LaMarcus Aldridge left for greener pastures with the San Antonio Spurs. Nicolas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets, and big-man Robin Lopez signed with the New York Knicks. Only Damain Lillard and Wesley Matthews remained.
Then, Matthews signed a maximum contract with the Dallas Mavericks, signifying the end of an era for the Trail Blazers.
Coming off a particularly frightening injury, it was easy to understand why the Trail Blazers were hesitant to sign Matthews to a max-level contract. They entered the 2015-16 season content with an unproven C.J. McCollum replacing fan-favorite “Iron Man” Wesley Matthews.
Call it brilliant management, or great development by head-coach Terry Stotts, or even call it luck, but Portland has not missed a beat with McCollum taking over for Matthews. McCollum’s ascension to stardom has given credibility to the old saying of “next-man-up.”
Portland took a risk on McCollum, and allowed him an opportunity to shine as a starter. They feared sinking millions of dollars into an injured Matthews, having been burned by the sour endings of both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, who themselves were fan-favorites in Portland much like Matthews.
Now, about 30 games into the season, McCollum is trending upwards while Matthews is clearly still hampered by his injury. Portland may only be 13-20 on the season, but fans can be excited for the future after watching McCollum’s breakout campaign.
Offensively, McCollum is already posting better numbers than Matthews ever did as a Trail Blazer. How does McCollum’s season compares to Matthews’ best season? Let’s take a look:
Although Matthews proved to be a more efficient shooter overall (eFG%), McCollum has shown to be a more capable all-around offensive player. Matthews never reached more than 16.4 PPG (in 2013-14), while McCollum has blown past that number already on his way to a >20PPG season, something no Portland shooting guard has done since Brandon Roy in 2009-10 with 21.5.
On the court, basketball-reference.com estimates that last season Matthews was worth +6.8 points per 100 possessions, while this season McCollum only sits at +1.2. What does that mean? Well, it means that we haven’t factored in defense into the equation.
McCollum actually has a respectable 1.3 steals per game, so on the surface he is at least an above-average defender. But, compared to Matthews, it’s no contest. Throughout his career in Portland, Matthews was always considered an elite defensive player.
In both 2013-14 and 2014-15, Matthews received votes to be on the All-NBA Defensive teams. McCollum, meanwhile, must still improve on that end of the floor if he wants to truly surpass Matthews as the next Portland shooting guard.
Still, don’t let that detract from the impressive season that McCollum is having himself. Although he may not make an All-Star team this season, that speaks more to the talent of the Western Conference than it takes away from McCollum.
Perhaps the most compelling part of McCollum’s game is his ability to create shots for himself. As great as Matthews was in Portland, he still relied heavily on Damian Lillard to put him in position to score. Here are a few examples of how McCollum finds an opportunity to score:
As we see, McCollum is perfectly content pulling up from three-point range off the dribble. Shooting three-pointers off the dribble is incredibly valuable, something that superstars like Stephen Curry have perfected. McCollum is on his way to becoming a deadly isolation shooter.
Not only is McCollum turning into a sharpshooter, he also is adept at driving and scoring in the paint. Showing off a nearly ankle-breaking hesitation dribble, McCollum speeds by the defense on his way to another two points.
Don’t mistake McCollum for merely a pure scorer though, he is also a willing and accurate passer, seen here. He finds teammate Damian Lillard cutting to the basket, and delivers a bullet on time and on target, again turning another possession into two points.
It’s clear now that Portland made the right decision. McCollum is on his way to stardom, while Matthews looks like a shell of himself this season in Dallas. From the ashes of the “old Trail Blazers,” a new star has emerged: C.J. McCollum.
Statistics provided by: NBA.com, ESPN.com, and basketball-reference.com
Images form: Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Locker Dome