Longstanding questions about the championship viability of the Trail Blazers’ star backcourt aren’t about Damian Lillard or even C.J. McCollum as individual players. In a vacuum, both stars clearly have what it takes to play a significant role on a title team.
Just as true, though, is that a partnership of two ball-dominant, shoot-first guards who lack positional versatility on defense and the size to be impactful help defenders hasn’t lifted Portland to a new plane of contention. And with Lillard and McCollum signed to mega contracts accounting for approximately 70 percent of the salary cap through 2023-24, any discussion of a major roster shakeup is bound to begin on the Blazers’ perimeter.
Lillard is the best player in franchise history, and continues to maintain his unflinching loyalty to Portland as his team reaches a new crossroads. Where does that put McCollum? As the most frequent centerpiece of theoretical trade proposals that league analysts and Blazers fans alike dream up in hopes of maximizing Lillard’s championship window, of course.
Some marquee players, understandably, blanch at the notion of being the subject of such trade fodder. Not McCollum, as he reiterated on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.
It’s actually a testament to McCollum’s career that he’s mentioned in so many trade scenarios while simultaneously being so difficult to move.
McCollum inked a three-year, $100 million extension with the Blazers in late July 2019. Securing the long-term future of a player capable of dropping 37 points in a road Game 7, obviously, is an option at which most every team in the league jump, and Portland did just that after McCollum sent Portland to the 2019 Western Conference Finals by decimating the Denver Nuggets.
The problem? Lillard signed an even more lucrative extension that summer, locking the Blazers into a salary-cap situation that leaves them lacking the flexibility needed to fortify weaknesses presented by guards who will forever be limited by their redundant offense styles and lacking physical profiles – especially as they age.
The trade-deadline arrival of Norman Powell only further cements that depressing reality. Neil Olshey can say all he wants about Portland’s roster being good enough to win at the highest level, but the Blazers’ annual postseason labors and league-wide historical precedent suggests his team will always be at an inherent disadvantage by allotting so much financial capital to like-sized guards.
Might that be different if Portland was able to surround Lillard and McCollum with top-tier defenders? Of course, but the likes of Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert are outliers for a reason, and very expensive in their own right.
Team-building toward a title is different than retaining as much talent as possible, cost be damned. That’s the rub of McCollum’s name swirling in trade rumors, and he seems to know it.