C.J. McCollum's improved play has almost certainly drawn attention from GMs around the NBA. McCollum has taken a massive statistical leap this season; he is averaging 20 points and four assists per game, on 41 percent shooting from three, and is an early front runner for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award.
As the NBA trade season unofficially opens, teams that are falling short of preseason expectations may soon begin to look for overhaul options - Milwaukee, Houston, and New Orleans spring to mind. McCollum could provide a valuable shot in the arm as a spark plug scorer off the bench for a number of underachieving wannabe contenders.
But when a team does call Blazers GM Neil Olshey asking about C.J., should Olshey consider "selling high" on McCollum? Or is C.J. more or less untradeable right now? C.J.'s potential is certainly valuable to the Blazers but, as a rebuilding team, draft picks or other blue-chip prospects could be even more valuable.
To answer that question, consider these five situations in which trading high makes sense for an NBA front office:
Scenario 1: A player is performing well and/or developing quickly but his current team has reason to believe that his performance will plateau very soon.
Example: Philadelphia trading Michael Carter-Williams for a future first round pick from the Lakers mid-way through his second season. Carter-Williams won NBA Rookie of the Year the season before.
This scenario is the most common explanation for selling high on a young player and it may apply to McCollum. McCollum has looked exceptional this season, but his game is not without weaknesses. His strongest performances have been as a 1B option when Lillard has been on the floor and drawing the bulk of the defense's attention. It's unclear if McCollum can thrive as a primary threat while drawing full attention from the opposition. McCollum also struggles to draw free throws, a necessity for a primary scoring option, and is still a net negative on defense.
If the Blazers are worried that McCollum's development will stall as he tries to improve upon those weaknesses, and a trade partner offers a 1A level package in return, Olshey may mull a trade.
Of course, this scenario assumes that an opposing team has a higher opinion of McCollum's potential than do the Blazers. That may be unlikely as the Portland front office has seemed very invested in their shooting guard. They drafted him three seasons ago and have since supported him through uneven play and multiple injuries. Olshey and Stotts trusted McCollum enough to offer him the starting spot and backup point guard position to start the season, despite relatively sparse in-game evidence that he was ready to fill both those roles. Rival GMs may find that the Blazers' asking price for McCollum in a trade is very high.
Scenario 2: Key players have significant skill overlaps
Example: Warriors trading Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut to free up offensive possessions for Steph Curry and solidify their defense.
Going into the season there was concern that Lillard and McCollum were too similar to play together for extended periods of time. So far, they have actually looked better while on the court at the same time. Shooting efficiency, especially, falls for both players when the other exits the game. McCollum and Lillard are also the most reliable ballhandlers for the Blazers, so when they are on the court together they stretch the defense more than any other combination of Portland players.
But it is important to remember that skill overlap applies to both strengths AND weaknesses. Lillard and McCollum have struggled to stay in front of opposing guards all season, and it has led to foul trouble for the Blazers' big men and a high number of free throws for Blazer opponents.
An ancillary benefit of alternating Lillard and McCollum's playing time has been that it limits their defensive liability by pairing them with a better defender (e.g. Allen Crabbe) for a significant portion of the game. However, in the long run that strategy may not be viable; if Portland is in a playoff series they will need McCollum and Lillard to each play 40+ minutes to power the offense. That could be a problem if they still cannot stay in front of opposing guards and may motivate a trade.
The corollary to this type of trade is that it works best if a specific need is filled by trading high on the duplicate player. The Blazer roster is still in flux, but it seems that they need to develop or acquire a defensive center and a marquee wing player. If Olshey is offered a center that could anchor the defense for the foreseeable future in exchange for McCollum he may consider it, knowing that Lillard can continue to act as the primary scoring option.
Scenario 3: Contracts about to run amok
Example: Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston rather than be forced to pay three maximum salaries, or watch Harden leave for nothing.
McCollum is on a rookie salary this seaon. Rookie deals offer the best value in the league and have become absurdly economical as the salary cap skyrockets. As a 20 point scorer, McCollum is an absolute steal for his 2015-2016 salary of 2.5 million dollars. In a vacuum, trading a player under those salary circumstances makes little sense.
McCollum's salary situation, however, will be changing soon. After this season he will be eligible to negotiate an extension, and after next season he could enter into restricted free agency. Draymond Green has set the market price for second option forwards under the new salary cap, but the value of 20 point per game shooting guards has not been definitively defined.
If McCollum continues to improve this season, it is conceivable that he will be 80-90 percent as valuable as a fringe All-Star like Toronto's DeMar DeRozan. Incidentally, DeRozan plans to opt out of his contract and pursue a maximum deal this summer. If players like DeRozan do sign max deals it will give McCollum significant negotiating leverage. Olshey may be forced to ask himself if the Blazers can afford to pay their second guard $17 million a year, knowing that Lillard already has a maximum contract. And if they do pay C.J. a near max contract, can they also afford to add a starting center and wing?
The good news is that Olshey still has a full calendar year to let the market set a price for McCollum. He does not need to consider trading high on C.J. for contract purposes this season, but it should be on his radar next season if the Blazers and McCollum fail to negotiate an extension in the offseason.
Scenario 4: Player's personality does not fit, or he is otherwise malcontented.
Example: Pistons trading a disgruntled Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre. The trade removed a locker room distraction, freed up playing time for Dennis Rodman, and ultimately paved the way to a championship
This one is not happening in Portland. All signs point to the Blazers players sharing a high level of camaraderie, and generally having very good chemistry. If the Blazers are involved in a trade it will be to take on a disgruntled prospect from another team.
Scenario 5: Package an overperforming player into a bigger trade for a bona fide All-Star
Examples: Eric Gordon headlining a trade for Chris Paul; Andrew Bynum serving as the key piece in the Lakers' trade for Dwight Howard.
Few, if any, stars are known to be on the trading block right now (unless you count Dwight Howard as a bona fide All-Star). There were rumors during the offseason that Paul George may be hoping for a trade, but those have quieted with Indiana's sold start.
Should an all-star become available, the Blazers could attempt to put together a trade package centering on McCollum and other prospects. However, Portland has already dealt many of its future draft picks so it may be difficult to cobble together a competitive offer even with McCollum.
McCollum is having a great season and other GMs will likely be calling Olshey to inquire about Portland's emerging second option. Underachieving playoff teams, especially, may want to upgrade now and be willing to overpay for a player of McCollum's talent level. However, McCollum's continued improvement, reasonable salary, and ability to gel with Lillard all suggest that the Blazers will be disinclined to sell high unless they are offered a premium asset in return.
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