The Portland Trail Blazers were projected to be an abomination to the senses this season. They lost one of their key players to the San Antonio Spurs, folks had questions as to how legit Damian Lillard is or will be now that he is “the guy,” and the rest of the roster is as young as the actors in The Descendants:
(I have two daughters. You shall suffer with me.)
Their 4-2 start is eye opening, albeit the time to react as if this is who they’ll be the rest of the season is premature. That said, there are reasons to celebrate, be optimistic and be a proud member of Rip City if that’s who you so choose to root for.
Lillard has been outstanding so far. What makes it all the better is that his career-arc has been rather interesting. Especially considering how short his NBA career has been. Coming out of college, he was either the most NBA-ready prospect or a guy who put up crazy stats at a lower-level college, depending on which scout you prefer to listen to. Then, because he’s good, his rookie season happened and the world decided to love Lillard.
With good reason, too. Lillard averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists during his rookie campaign. Over the years he and LaMarcus Aldridge turned what was once projected to be a tweener franchise before and even right in the beginning of Lillard’s arrival, into legit players in a stupidly competitive Western Conference.
Alas, Lillard became the victim of the “appreciation of the great players is overrated” group. Nitpickers started to find flaws in his game, such as his infatuation with shooting difficult shots — which does happen to be a real flaw in his game. Still, things such as that and the perception of him being a ho-hum defensive player made the free-world simply assume the Blazers were toast during the post-Aldridge era:
Through the tiny sample size of six games this season, though, Lillard might as well be the king of Portland…or at least a senator in some sort of honorary role. In the six games everything is up. Every gosh slam thing. 27.3 points per game when compared to 21 last year (not all that shocking given he no longer has Aldridge); a career 43 percent shooter from the floor to 47 this year; his eFG% has jumped from 50.6 to 55.9 percent; and we’ve yet to mention he’s shooting a rather unbelievable 42.6 percent from three, despite still taking crazy shots and never shooting over 40 percent from three during any point in his NBA career.
So, yeah…ugh — Dame is a boss. If Portland continues to shock and awe, as well as — you know — win games, the people who abandoned the Lillard bandwagon are going to look to hop back on as if there were designer drugs, the finest booze and models inside. Let’s not let them.
Lillard isn’t the sole reason for Portland’s early-season success. He’s certainly the most obvious one, and likely the one who deserves the majority of the credit, yet the Blazers — whose success may backfire long term (another column for another time) — wouldn’t be 4-2 if it weren’t for another, albeit a slightly less dynamic, guard — C.J. McCollum.
Oddly enough, McCollum’s pre-NBA career is a tad bit similar to Lillard’s. Also coming out of a smaller program, although not as “small” (Lehigh), there were similar questions about McCollum being able to adjust to big-boy basketball just as there were for Lillard. Unlike Dame, however, McCollumn didn’t burst on the scene as if he were Superman. It was more like the debut of The Shockmaster:
To be fair, McCollum’s rough start is attributed to injuries and not a lack of ability. Then again, people tend to prefer as little context as possible when viewing the successes — or lack thereof — of lottery picks.
His second season was better than his debut campaign. Really, though, there was only going up. No matter. There were points during the end of the 2014-15 season when McCollum showed some flashes of being a player of consequence. Specifically from April 1-11 when he scored double-digits in each game while shooting well over 50 percent from the floor over seven games.
Using hindsight, some could’ve used the end of last season to say it was foreshadowing an even better start to this year. The issue being, there was a much larger sample size that said McCollum might merely be just another dude in the NBA. Except, well, this season’s small sample size says he’s closer to living up to being a lottery pick than it does anything else.
McCollum’s box score looks nutty. 22.2 points on 47 percent shooting from the floor a night. He’s also been a relatively deadly long-ball shooter, as he’s making three out of every 6.5 three-pointers he’s attempted (46 percent). He also does a better job than expected finishing a at the rim:
As a team Portland has scored 103.8 points an outing, which is good for 10th-best in the entire league. Doing a little math here would tell us that McCollum’s 22.2 and Lillard’s 27.7 averages nearly make up for half — HALF — of all the points Portland has scored.
That is tremendous…and a wee-bit scary, as one could imagine opposing teams finding it easier to simply try to shutdown Portland’s dynamic duo. Not as scary as finding Lillard and McCollum a good nickname, though.
Still, all the credit in the world should be given to them both. Two guys, from less heralded college programs, carrying what was supposed to be one of the worst three teams in all the NBA this year to a 4-2 start. It’s like a Disney (not boy band) movie. However, if either guy wants Anthony Mackie (GOAT character actor) to play them in Rip City: The Movie, continuing their incredible start through six games for another 76 would probably be ideal.