The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2015-16 season with low expectations after an offseason that saw four starters leave via free agency or through trade outside of two-time All-Star Damian Lillard. However, the team brought back guard C.J. McCollum by exercising the third year of the rookie’s contract. This opened the door for McCollum to step in as the starting shooting guard, as Wesley Matthews signed a four-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks.
Through his first three seasons in the league, McCollum played in a limited role off the bench, playing no more than 15.7 minutes per game. He was limited to just 38 games in his rookie campaign after sitting out the first six weeks of the season due to a fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his left foot. He saw his role slightly increase in his second season, which included three starts, but his playing time remained the same for the most part.
This left plenty of questions about whether or not McCollum could excel as a starter with the responsibility of being one of the key offensive contributors. He answered that question this season as he became one of the major reasons why the Trail Blazers currently hold the seventh spot in the Western Conference. Right now, he’s 16th in the league in scoring (20.9) and fifth among shooting guards in three-point percentage (40.2). McCollum has been a huge source of reliability, notching double-digit points in all but one game this season.
The third-year guard scored at least 15 points in each of the team’s first 17 games this season after recording 15 or more points in no more than two consecutive contests through his first two seasons. McCollum has also scored 20 or more points 30 times, becoming just the fourth player this year to record 25-plus points in four consecutive games. He also notched career highs in points (37) and field goals made (14) against the New Orleans Pelicans.
McCollum became the first player in franchise history since Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler to have least 35 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, and four steals in a single game. On top of that, he has made at least one three-pointer in a career-high 34 straight games, which ties for the fourth-longest streak this season. McCollum also scored more points in his first 22 games (425 points) than he did in his previous career-high for an entire season, which he set last year (424).
McCollum improved play this season has helped form one of the league’s best scoring backcourts alongside Lillard who’s averaging 46.3 points per game through 58 games this season (the third-highest total by any duo in the NBA — trailing only Oklahoma City and Golden State). The duo has helped Portland become one of the league’s hottest over the last month, winning 18 of their last 22 contests with a season-high five games over .500 (33-28). They hold the second-best record since January 23 at 14-2 behind just the Golden State Warriors (14-1).
Lillard and McCollum have also become the second Trail Blazer duo in franchise history to each score at least 30 points in back-to-back games since George Gervin and James Silas did so in 1980. McCollum has had an impressive breakout season that is certainly deserving of the Most Improved award, but he does have stiff competition from a few other players in the league.
Warriors forward Draymond Green is in the midst of his best season, averaging career highs across the board in points (13.8), rebounds (9.7), assists (7.4), field goal percentage (47.8), and three-point percentage (39.6), which have helped him earn his first All-Star game nod. He also leads the league with 11 triple-doubles this season, which sets the Warriors’ single-season franchise record.
As mind boggling as it seems, we could also consider reigning MVP Stephen Curry for this award, given that he’s significantly improved from last season. He currently leads the league in scoring (30.7 points) as well as three-point field goals for the fourth consecutive season (288), becoming the first player in NBA history to hit 200 threes in four straight years. He broke his record for three-pointers made — and still has 20-plus games to go this season. He also ranks first in 30-point games (28), 40-point games (11), and 50-point games (three).
It may be a stretch to think that Curry could earn another league MVP trophy and Most Improved Player award in the same season, but it just goes to show how impressive of a season he’s currently putting together. McCollum may be the frontrunner for the award at the moment, but it’s also clear that there are a few other strong candidates, with Green as the biggest threat. All in all, what McCollum shows in his third season has helped give the Trail Blazers a brighter future, establishing himself as one of the league’s promising young guards.