C.J. McCollum: Most Improved in Production or Minutes?

Published 04/29/2016 by Michael Rosenfeld
  • C.J. McCollum had a very successful season. He stepped into the starting lineup in Portland and helped lead the Blazers to the 5th seed in the Western Conference. To cap it all off, he was awarded the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, but was it a case of improvement in production or minutes?

  • McCollum’s Points per Shot were identical over the past two seasons, recording 1.11 Point per Shot.

  • Opponents shot a better percentage this season (45.01%) when guarded by McCollum than they did last year (40.76%).

  • McCollum’s passing did increase as his Assist+ per 100 Chances jumped from 3.31 in 2014-15 to 7.56 this season.

C.J. McCollum was the runaway winner for this season’s Most Improved Player Award receiving 101 of 130 possible first-place votes. McCollum’s campaign for Most Improved Player was led by his increase in scoring, which rose by 14 points per game this season from 6.8 to 20.8. If you ask McCollum, however, he’s not as sold on the award:

“In my mind I always felt like I was a good player, so when you hear 'most improved' you think, he was sorry, and he got better, but now I understand that it comes from hard work. It's based on perception, not having played, not having the body of work to show for it."

McCollum may be onto something here, while his 14 points per game increase is impressive, it also coincides with a 19 minute per game increase. Not only did McCollum’s minutes increase, his usage, an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he’s on the floor, also increased from 20.5% in 2014-15 to 27.1% this year.

So did McCollum’s play improve, or was his rise in scoring simply due to an increase in minutes?

McCollum’s scoring percentages and efficiencies over the past two years are nearly identical or, in the case of his Points per Shot, literally identical as McCollum finished both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons with a 1.11 Points per Shot. With numbers so similar, it seems McCollum’s rise in scoring was simply due to his increase in minutes and usage.

Despite what Pepsi Max commercials may tell you, there is more to basketball than just getting buckets, like rebounding, defense, and passing. Winning Most Improved Player doesn’t have to be solely a reflection of a player’s scoring, with McCollum’s increase in minutes, surely he experienced an increase in these areas that isn’t correlated to minutes, right?

Well, in the case of McCollum’s rebounding and defense, that would be wrong. As a guard, rebounding isn’t a big part of McCollum’s game, his 3.2 rebounds per game this season aren’t a lot, but they are an increase over his 1.5 rebounds per game last season. When putting both seasons on equal volume, however, we see that McCollum’s rebounding is essentially the same. In 2014-15, McCollum pulled down 4.8 rebounds per 100 possessions, and this season that number actually dropped to 4.7 rebounds per 100 possessions.

McCollum’s drop in rebounding was miniscule at best, but the drop in his shot defense and turnovers forced were a little larger than 1/10th.

McCollum’s move from the bench to the starting lineup meant an increase in the level of talent he was matched up against on the floor. The players McCollum was responsible for guarding shot a better percentage from the floor and scored more efficiently despite McCollum stepping up his Contest+.

McCollum more than doubled his steals on the season, but it was just yet another example of his increase in minutes masquerading as an increase in production. McCollum’s Turnovers Forced per Chance, much like his rebounding and shot defense, dropped on the season from 0.026 in 2014-15 to 0.022 this season.

Not all of McCollum’s increase in production can be tied to his minutes though. He did display significant improvement in his passing this season, raising his True Facilitation—passes to open or guarded shot attempts per 100 offensive chances while player is on court—from 1.26 to 2.61 this season. McCollum’s recording 277 more assists this season than last is no fluke and is not due to his increase in minutes. McCollum more than doubled his Assist+ per 100 Chances from 3.31 last season to 7.56 this year.