With Wesley Matthews' departure came C.J. McCollum's arrival

Wesley Matthews and C.J. McCollum spent two years together as teammates in Portland. Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Wesley Matthews didn't mean for the words to come across as bitter.

Yes, Matthews said he was "pissed off" and felt "disrespected" this summer when The Oregonian asked him about his not getting so much as a phone call from his former team when he entered free agency after five productive seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers.

But Matthews wasn't angry about how his situation played out. He landed on a mattress of cash with a franchise that expects to make the playoffs on an annual basis when he signed a four-year, $70 million maximum contract with the Dallas Mavericks just months after rupturing his left Achilles tendon in what ended up being his final appearance in a Blazers uniform.

Matthews, a huge part of the Blazers' heart and soul during his tenure with the team, figured he had earned at least a courtesy phone call from Portland general manager Neil Olshey to express appreciation for Matthews' contributions to the Blazers and officially inform him that the franchise was moving in a different direction. But Matthews wasn't shocked by the direction the franchise chose -- not after Olshey traded small forward Nicolas Batum as the Blazers braced for All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to leave in free agency.

Purely from a basketball business perspective, Matthews knew it didn't make sense for Portland to pay him. It was the right move for the rebuilding Blazers to give Matthews' starting job at shooting guard to C.J. McCollum, thus providing a young lottery pick with two years left on his rookie deal a chance to prove he could be a high-scoring sidekick for star point guard Damian Lillard.

"I don't blame them for doing what they did, by any means," Matthews told ESPN.com on Sunday after Dallas' home win over the Blazers, who host a rematch with the Mavs on Wednesday. "That's the hand they wanted to play. That's fine. I'm not bitter, and I didn't mean for anything to come out like I was bitter. Just would have liked a phone call. Hey, he could have texted me. But they've got a nice thing going there with Dame and C.J."

Portland's summer decision prioritized the long term. The Blazers surrounded their 25-year-old superstar with inexpensive upside and positioned themselves to pursue future free agents as aggressively as they see fit.

But the Blazers also benefited immediately by betting on McCollum, who averaged less than 15 minutes per game through two injury-interrupted NBA seasons after being selected out of Lehigh with the 10th overall pick. His scoring average has more than tripled this season, from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 20.9.

"Some players aren't ready for the drastic change," McCollum told ESPN.com. "I was ready. The opportunity increased, and my game rose with the increase. I knew what I was capable of. I just needed the opportunity to play."

The 36-35 Blazers, who sit in sixth place in the Western Conference, are widely considered one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA, in large part because of a baby-faced pair who have proven to be one of the league's best backcourts. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle called the Lillard-McCollum duo, which ranks third among the NBA's top-scoring tandems this season, "a younger version of those Golden State guys."

But the Blazers insist they aren't surprised by their modest success in the first season of a rebuilding project. They certainly weren't stunned to see McCollum, 24, emerge as a legitimate costar in his first season as a starter.

"If C.J. doesn't get hurt in his rookie year, and by the time he comes back we were 22-4, we'd probably be talking about a three-year starter now," Olshey said recently on SiriusXM NBA Radio. "This wouldn't be year one of a Lillard-McCollum backcourt. We always believed in C.J."

The Blazers' championship hopes were crushed by Matthews' injury -- Portland was 41-19 when he went down and went 10-12 the rest of the regular season before a five-game, first-round exit -- but McCollum showed flashes of what he could do with an increased role. McCollum averaged 15.6 points while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent from 3-point range in his last eight games of the regular season. He had 26, 18 and 33 points in Portland's final three playoff games.

A glimpse of the future? Sure. A factor in the front office's summer decision? Apparently not.

"I don't think that was by any means the motivating factor or deciding factor in what we did," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "We knew. Neil drafted him. We were very confident in what he could do."

"We knew he had that kind of potential and capability. He just needed the opportunity, and me leaving and everybody else leaving gave him the opportunity."
Wesley Matthews, on C.J. McCollum

It wasn't only the general manager and coaches who considered McCollum a potential franchise cornerstone, even when his primary role was to play on scout team during practices. Matthews believed McCollum, who needs the ball in his hands a lot to be at his best, would be better-suited as a foundation piece than a role player.

"We knew he had that kind of potential and capability," Matthews said. "He just needed the opportunity, and me leaving and everybody else leaving gave him the opportunity."

Not much needed to be said to McCollum after Matthews' departure for Dallas. Stotts doesn't recall any extended conversations with the guard about an expanded role. Olshey simply told McCollum he would have ample opportunities.

"I understood the situation that was in front of me," McCollum said. "I don't back down from challenges. You get these opportunities as a lottery pick. That third year is kind of when you're in or you're out. We're either going to keep him, or we're not. He's going to be a good player, or he's going to be a bust. You get a label, and that label sticks with you forever, so I'm going to solidify my label now."

It has been a difficult first season in Dallas for Matthews, whose production has plummeted coming off the ruptured Achilles tendon, an injury that has ruined many careers. He is in the midst of the worst shooting season of his career (38.4 percent from the floor, 34.6 percent from 3-point range), though he still leads the Mavs in net rating (plus-3.7 points per 100 possessions). That shows the defensive tenacity and intangibles that made him a Blazers fan favorite for five years.

Mavs owner Mark Cuban pointed out that the Mavs signed Matthews for four years -- not one -- and were well aware of the challenges he would face in returning from such a serious injury.

Meanwhile, McCollum is putting himself in position to get a massive raise after his rookie deal expires in the summer of 2017. He ranks behind only Houston's James Harden and Golden State's Klay Thompson in scoring among the West's shooting guards and has proven he can play well as the backup point guard too.

McCollum is the clear Most Improved Player front-runner, though some in Portland wonder if that award is appropriate. Has McCollum really improved that much? Or is he just seizing the opportunity after becoming a focal point in Portland?

"Putting a label on what C.J. has done probably does a disservice, but he has improved," Stotts said. "There's no question he has improved. He's gotten stronger. He knows the league better. His ballhandling has improved. But the biggest improvement was that the opportunity was there for him to play."

That meant moving on without Matthews. Perhaps a courtesy phone call would have been a nice, personal touch, but it was a wise business move by the Blazers.