C.J. McCollum won Most Improved Player by taking pride in struggle

Ball Don't Lie
C.J. McCollum got the chance to fire, so he rose. (Elsa/Getty Images)
C.J. McCollum got the chance to fire, so he rose. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Way back in the long, long ago of September, we did a little Three-Man Weave predictin' on the 2015-16 Most Improved Player Award. Here's what I wrote:

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Ever since the NBA started handing out the Most Improved Player Award 30 years ago, there's been a pretty simple formula for winning it:

• Move from a reserve role to a starting role, or at least starter's minutes;

• Score at least five more points per game than you did last year;

• Contribute to a playoff team, or at least a team in playoff contention.

There have been some divergences from that script, most notably related to the postseason component [...] but for the most part, the recipe's been sound. More minutes plus more points plus more meaningful late-season games has tended to equal Most Improved.

I think C.J. McCollum will get a ton of opportunities to run, shoot, make plays and score for the Portland Trail Blazers. But after hitting the reset button following a free-agency-sparked dismantling of its core, I don't think Portland's going to stay in contention in the crowded Western Conference long enough for the third-year guard to get widespread recognition.

Whoops!

Like many people who watch and write too much about the NBA, I was wrong about the Trail Blazers' prospects this season. They went 44-38, finishing fifth in the Western Conference, stunning seemingly everybody but themselves en route to a third straight postseason berth. As such, McCollum ticked off all the boxes — he leapt from 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes per game last season (62 appearances, three starts) to 20.8 in 34.8 (80 appearances, all starts) this year for a team that made the playoffs — and, as such, it came as no shock at all when the NBA announced Friday that the Blazers shooting guard had won the 2015-16 Most Improved Player Award in a landslide.

McCollum received first-place votes from 105 of the 130 writers and broadcasters who cast ballots for the award, finishing with 559 total "award points" to lead the pack. (Players get five points for a first-place vote, three for a second-place vote and one for third place.) Point guard Kemba Walker, who averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game to lead the Charlotte Hornets back to the postseason thanks in large part to a significant spike in his 3-point accuracy, received seven first-place votes and finished second in balloting with 166 points.

Milwaukee Bucks wunderkind Giannis Antetokounmpo — who took off like a bat out of hell when head coach Jason Kidd threw him the keys to the offense, averaging 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game with five triple-doubles as a 6-foot-11 point guard after the All-Star break — nabbed four first-place votes and 99 total points to finish third. Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, finished fourth (seven first-place votes, 83 total points) after increasing his scoring average by 6.3 points per game, the biggest-ever jump for a sitting MVP, while also improving his field-goal and 3-point shooting percentages, and decreasing his turnover rate despite using a much higher share of the Warriors' offensive possessions. You can check out the full voting breakdown here and here.

It's perhaps uncharitable, though, to cast McCollum's candidacy as solely a function of greater opportunity. After all, it's one thing to be penciled in for more playing time to start the season, and quite another to hang 21 a night, knock down nearly 42 percent of your 3-pointers, continue to evolve as a playmaker, and improve upon your efficiency while playing a significantly larger role in nearly three times as many minutes. Not everybody looks as good when the lights get brighter; McCollum looked even better.

Even so, it's reasonable to question whether McCollum's leap from reserve to starting second banana is as important or impressive as Curry's rise from MVP to historic force, Walker's ascent from at-times millstone to offense-tilting engine, Green's evolution into a full-time point-power-forward world-wrecker, and so on. Those who raise an eyebrow at the idea of McCollum's MIP candidacy aren't alone. Once upon a time, the man himself wasn't too keen on it ... although that was for a different reason.

"I felt like I'd been a good player; it's just circumstances," he said during a Friday press conference in which he received his award. "There's a lot of good players in the NBA who are in a box. Maybe they've got a lot of veterans in front of them, maybe they're hurt, maybe their coach just doesn't like to play young players. For me, it was injuries, it was being a lottery pick drafted to a 50-win team. That doesn't happen.

"I felt like I was a good player. I've gotten a lot better — I've gotten stronger, I understand the game better — but in my mind, I always thought I was a good player, so when you hear 'most improved,' you think, like, 'He was sorry and he got better.' That's kind of how I was looking at it. But now I understand that, you know, it comes from hard work. It's based on perception — not having played, not having the body of work to show for it."

McCollum got the opportunity to expand that body of work this season. After spending the first two seasons of his pro career battling injuries and fighting for playing time on a vet-laden Blazers squad with title aspirations that already had Lillard and Wesley Matthews entrenched in the starting backcourt, McCollum entered this season with a clear shot at a starting spot and ample opportunity to put his talents as a pick-and-roll playmaker, spot-up shooter and all-around scoring threat to good use.

"I put an inordinate amount of pressure on Dame and C.J. this offseason," Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said Friday. "We decided to go in another direction. We decided to get guys in the same career arc as Dame and C.J. As much pressure as we put on Dame, we put even more at times on C.J., because we knew for us to be successful this season, it was imperative that C.J. make the jump we knew he was capable of. [...] Nobody in this room is more deserving, or has put more work in to reach this point in his career, and I can tell you: watching this guy in the gym, watching how he relates to the coaches, handles himself on the floor, this isn't the last award he's going to get from the NBA in his long career."

McCollum took advantage of that opportunity, scoring a career-high 37 points on 14-for-22 shooting in an opening-night win over the New Orleans Pelicans to announce his arrival with authority and style. He scored 18 or more 20 times in his first 30 games, and hit double figures in 79 of his 80 appearances this season.

"You may have scored in double figures in 80 games if I hadn't screwed up on the roster thing," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Friday. "So, sorry about that."

McCollum also reached the 30-point plateau eight times, tying Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Reggie Jackson and Kyle Lowry for the 15th-most such games this season. He had plenty of help in reaching those higher goals, and he thanked his teammates — most of whom looked on as McCollum accepted his award on Friday — for their role in propelling him to a new level of success:

"I really want to thank the big fellas for setting all those screens this season," he said. "For all the dribble handoffs, the pindowns, the flares, and the sacrifices you guys make on a day-to-day basis."

McCollum went on to express his gratitude and appreciation for the contributions made by his family, friends and all the coaches and development staffers. He also reserved a special shoutout for his partner in crime.

"I can't forget my backcourt mate, Mr. Lillard," he said. "I appreciate you, bruh, being a real one. Man, we've been through a lot together, going through small schools and struggling, and for us to succeed together means a lot to me, because I can understand you and you can understand me. We both sacrifice. When I get rolling, you let me go, and that's rare for a star player, to let somebody else get going, let them take shots that you can normally make, especially down the stretch in the game. Thank you for being a real one. [...] Man, we're going to do a lot of special things together. We're going to break a lot of barriers."

Right now, the biggest barrier Lillard, McCollum and the Trail Blazers face is a Los Angeles Clippers team that has looked to be a clear cut above Portland in terms of overall talent and organization, routing the Blazers twice to take a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series. With the scene shifting to Portland for Saturday's Game 3, the Blazers have their work cut out for them and a long line of doubters wondering if they can make this a series; fortunately, that's a scenario with which McCollum's all too familiar.

"It means a lot to struggle. I take pride in struggling, and overcoming that," he said Friday. "Going to a small school, being 5-foot-2 and 108 pounds and all the girls being taller than you in high school, you kind of have an appreciation for good things when they come your way, understanding that you've got to work to get success. You've got to judge a man not by how — don't judge me after 37 against New Orleans, judge me after a 3-for-11 in L.A. or a 6-for-17 in L.A. Like, judge me on how I respond to adversity, because everybody good when things is sweet and things is coming your way.

"I pride myself on being able to bounce back from things and I look forward to continuing to not only just prove people wrong, but to solidify what I already know: that I can play at this level, that I can sustain a high level of excellence."

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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