I just saw CJ McCollum in Chicago a week ago. He seemed fine – he had 29 to 13-of-23 from the floor and played well – but the team was not itself anymore. It was a Sunday morning and I was in bed when my friend asked, ‘Hey Portland is playing today. Do you want to go?”
Like any good Trail Blazers fan when asked if they’d like to see Rip City when it’s in town, I said, “Hell yeah.” But honestly I didn’t even know they were playing at United Center that day as my usual fervor for the Blazers has been muted this year because Damian Lillard is injured and they aren’t very good. (I always follow them, just not in the normal “When are they coming to town?” style I’m used to this season.)
I thought Portland would be good because they’re usually with Lillard and McCollum in the backcourt, but Murphy’s law has been in effect all season and now it’s over. Not the Lillard era (hopefully), the CJ-Dame era. The Blazers traded McCollum, Tony Snell and Larry Nance to the New Orleans Pelicans for Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickel Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada and a first round. according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski†
An experiment that many already knew the results of, it turns out that having two of the most talented shotmakers I’ve ever rooted for doesn’t matter when they’re both six feet tall. Even if it didn’t yield a title, it was cool.
I can’t remember if it was after McCollum’s breakout playoff series (the defeat at the hands of Memphis when he finally saw playtime because Portland was beat so badly) or after his breakout season (the following year The Revenant-like carnage when Lamarcus Aldridge fled to San Antonio for being so badly beaten) when McCollum responded to a question about the next progression in his game with something along the lines of, “I’ll just keep working on my attack.”
I was so angry at the time because he was already very good offensively. Portland didn’t need more attacks, they needed defense, and how much could he really improve on? It turns out quite a bit. In 3J’s seven seasons as a starter, he has never averaged less than 20 points per game. controls the midtonesconsistently shot in the high 30s/low 40s from 3, really made some of the heaviest shots I’ve ever seen, scored 50 in 29 minutes between many other eruptions, and crossed so many people that he started CJ’s SVUa running piece on social media based on Law & Order where with every ankle breaker he would add Special Victims to the Unit.
Victims include Dirk Nowitzki.
The entire roster of Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the second round of the 2019 playoffs.
McCollum had gotten better every season and it looked like he finally got an All-Star spot last year. He expanded his reach, increasing his scoring average and 3 tries per game, and improved as a playmaker, averaging nearly five assists, but Clint Capella’s fat foot broke McCollum’s foot and he was limited to 47 games, the lowest since his rookie season when he played only 38.
He didn’t look good coming back late in the season or the playoffs, and he hasn’t been locked up this year either. I don’t know if it’s the malaise that comes when your best player and leader gets injured this season, the extra defensive attention you get when you’re the number 1 option now, the trading rumors or whatever, but you’d think a scenario without Lillard it would be ideal for McCollum to get all the shots he wants and get a run in the All-Star Game.
He’s just not that kind of player, and I don’t mean All-Star when I say “that kind.” I mean the type of player who would look for his own stats rather than the player who makes the right play, who deals the ball, who recognizes that Anfernee Simons is in the same kind of situation he was in his early career when he finally got his chance to play after patience on the couch.
I’d like to think about what ifs and injuries were largely the reason these Blazers were never even competitive against Golden State, but small teams are always fleeting in a league that values size. If Jusuf Nurkic’s leg doesn’t break, if McCollum doesn’t break his foot, if Looney doesn’t land on Lillard, and so on, all day long.
I don’t know what will happen to Lillard, or if any of the forgettable pieces they got in exchange for McCollum will contribute to more than a rebuild. If Lillard does indeed stay as he says he wants, then this move is made with his blessing, and the Blazers are going to sign Simons for an extension and try to be active with the assets, trade exception and remaining cap space they have. acquired/released herein and the Norm Powell trade†
If these deals weren’t part of a bigger plan to surround Lillard with a roster more complementary to his size and better suited to competing for a title, they were shit trades. McCollum has been in trading rumors for years, but the only realistic trading partner I would have ever accepted in return would have been Ben Simmons (but not if it took 17 draft picks). The best trump card they got in both deals was either a first round pick or Alexander-Walker.
There are three possible explanations for selling assets as if you were moving to Spain. The first is that Interim General Joe Cronin has no idea what he’s doing. The second is that he’s on good terms with new coach Chauncey Billups and Lillard – which is true if you believe the athletic and Lillard — and his eyes are on targets we can’t see. The third is that he takes a clue of ownership and clears this roster so he can get on his good side and maybe overlook a remodel as the full-time GM.
I hope the owners don’t hit the reset button without the guy holding the sticks as it would have been wise to have the incoming GM supervise the disassembly rather than hand him the bag of stool they have received so far. If this is Cronin’s audition tape, I’ve seen enough to summon the next candidate.
The optimistic part of my galaxy brain says Lillard may have recruited a player during his time on the set of Room Disturbance 2 or at the Summer Olympics. The overwhelmingly negative part of my narrow-minded “All my sports teams suck, and now the Blazers,” the brain says, get ready for another slap on the dick.
The people who said Portland can’t win a title with a Lillard-McCollum backcourt were right. They are officially right. But this team was an underdog from the start, and they outperformed for six seasons, considering how far they went with a backcourt from Lehigh and Weber State (and Neil Olshey as their GM).
Fans always want to see a perfect ending for players they like, to have that last memory of them like so many good ones before. Of course I would have liked to see a final from McCollum, but that’s not how it goes.
When I was at that Bulls-Blazers game, the last time I saw McCollum personally hitting the wheel of Portland, I only made one sequence of the action. He took a handoff, dribbled to the free throw line and then floated his beautiful runner up, I’ve seen him make it a million times. The final shot is perfectly timed, with the ball being caught the moment it leaves his hand and slides over the defender’s outstretched fingers.
The shot was misfired, which is funny because it’s probably the only miss I clearly remember from his time as Trail Blazer. The man was/is/will always be a bucket. Good luck in New Orleans and thanks for the memories, CJ.