Time for a Tuesday Mailbag, and what a doozy of a question! Send your Portland Trail Blazers queries to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to answer them.
I'm disgusted with all the CJ [McCollum] trade talk. The Blazers aren't moving him so why are we even talking about this? It's a total media-created phenomenon and it should be a taboo topic on Blazersedge like I'm sure it is in the front office. Besides, didn't you just see the Warriors win a title with two amazing guards? It's the new trend and you're talking about trading away one of our two? Enough!
Hoary Old Fan
I hear you, H.O.F. I'm 99.99% sure you're correct that the Blazers aren't interested in moving McCollum. I'd be shocked to see him traded this year or anytime in the immediate future. But that doesn't mean we can't--or worse, shouldn't--talk about it.
This franchise traded Maurice Lucas, Clyde Drexler, Rasheed Wallace, Drazen Petrovic, Zach Randolph, Geoff Petrie, and Steve Ever-Lovin' Blake. (3 times!) They let Bill Walton, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey walk away. They also traded Jermaine O'Neal, leaving a subconscious boogeyman lurking in the minds of Blazers fans forevermore when moving young players gets brought up. We all feel it. But with so many franchise-defining icons having been traded or released throughout history, the idea that we can't even discuss CJ McCollum's trade potential seems silly.
While I don't believe the Blazers are in favor of trading McCollum, I'd be shocked and disappointed if nobody in the organization had the thought, if not the discussion. They'd be criminally negligent not to consider it. Hierarchies run into disaster when ideas and opinions are censored based on the prevailing corporate view. Heading any organization--let alone one where the landscape can change in the blink of an eye as professional sports does--I'd insist upon hearing any idea a subordinate believed was worthwhile, even if it seemed improbable or conflicted with my own opinion. I may not act on the suggestion. I may think it's complete bunk. But bad ideas sometimes contain seeds of good reasoning that improve the decision-making process. Besides, if I shut off avenues to express poor ideas, will people feel secure enough present the great ones?
You also have to realize that people--including most Blazers fans--are going to feel differently about the McCollium-Damian Lillard backcourt in two years than they do today. Right now CJ and Dame are young, full of spark, and play with no expectation of team success. Everything they do is a bonus. Every small development is a positive sign. We're free to accentuate the positive and ignore the negative, especially since McCollum is getting paid 5 cents on the dollar. When Portland's dynamic duo starts eating up $46 million in cap space and the team gets stalled in the first or second round of the playoffs, the pitchforks will come out. People won't hate either player, but talk of trading one of them will be more than welcome.
Trade discussions aren't black and white. They fall on a spectrum of desirability and timing. Being ahead of the curve is no worse than being behind it. It might be better in some ways, especially if you're playing Armchair GM as many of us love to do.
And speaking of...I can come up with scenarios in which would make even a Hoary Old Fan advocate moving McCollum. They aren't likely, but if there's a chance they could come to fruition they have to be considered.
One we've mentioned a couple of times already is McCollum for Jahlil Okafor. As Eric Griffith pointed out in this staff roundtable, the exchange would not be about talent alone, but about Okafor playing two extra years on a rookie scale contract while McCollum would be slated for a $20 million extension after next year. But the Blazers might not even have to wait that long to see the benefits of better roster balance. You can construct compelling scenarios just using this summer's free agents.
After a McCollum-for-Okafor swap, the Blazers would project Lillard, Okafor, and Allen Crabbe (a.k.a. "McCollum Lite") as starters. Lillard and Okafor are tabbed as current or future stars with Crabbe a more-than-adequate shooting guard outlet. Power forward and small forward would remain areas of concern, but the move cuts the number of roster holes from its current 3 to 2...a step forward.
What's more, the Blazers would have oodles of cap space available to fill those two spots. And by "oodles" we mean "potentially close to two max-level contracts".
The defense will raise an objection: "Portland couldn't draw a single high-level free agent with all their cap space last summer! How could they hope to get two?"
What were they asking those free agents to do? They were looking for a single player to take the place of LaMarcus Aldridge, trying to get the team past the first round of the playoffs into contention. That's not enticing to potential free agents. Nobody short of LeBron James is so far above Aldridge that they could have transformed the Blazers from a low-level playoff team to a champion. Nor would Portland have retained cap space or draft picks after bringing on a max-level guy. The offer was limp...no better than a couple dozen other teams could have made.
With the cap space and talent on board in the McCollum-for-Okafor scenario the Blazers could pitch that they're building the next great super team. Super Teams are all the rage now and they're created by drawing not one, not two, not three...oops! Got carried away. They're created by drawing two stars to join your incumbent talent.
In our fantasy world the Blazers would have Lillard and Okafor on board as incumbent stars. With a little creative salary dumping and maybe a million or two of wiggle room in contract negotiations, they could whisper in the ear of Kevin Durant AND Al Horford, pitching them on the idea of becoming Miami West and then some.
How does a starting lineup of Lillard, Crabbe, Durant, Horford, and Okafor sound? Portland might be able to retain Mason Plumlee or Al-Farouq Aminu off the bench with Noah Vonleh too...this year's starters becoming next year's bench. They'd only need a back-up guard to make the rotation complete. And oh, if they don't make the playoffs this year they'll have a lottery pick to fill that need.
These are major-league moves, the kind that define championship eras. Are they likely? Heck no. But if that possibility were out there, would ANYBODY make the argument that the Blazers should not consider going for it because they were categorically unwilling to entertain the idea of trading McCollum? I love CJ. His dribble moves are incomparable, his scoring sublime. But CJ himself would look at that scenario--or anything even close to it--and say, "Dude. Trade me."
You don't have to get that outlandish to justify the McCollum discussion though. Ever since this topic got legs, I have argued that the comparison that Blazers fans should consider is not between McCollum and Lillard, but between McCollum and Crabbe. If Crabbe is good enough that the difference between him and CJ is marginal, not astronomical, the immediate question becomes whether the Blazers can trade McCollum for enough talent and/or cap space to exceed that gap. Watching both of them play, I'm becoming more convinced that the answer is yes. Crabbe may not have the potential to become the star that CJ might, but he has the potential to be just as serviceable as a shooting guard if the rest of the lineup aligns properly. If Portland is committed to having two stars at guard, McCollum is the better choice. But if the Blazers can build up other positions, Crabbe's ability to work without the ball (and perhaps even defend) will serve just as well as CJ's wizardry.
Over time, a unbreakable commitment to featuring two high-scoring guards may cost Portland the chance to upgrade frontcourt positions. The Super Team scenario would be much less likely with Lillard and McCollum on board than with a more balanced lineup. If I'm Kevin Durant or any other All-Star level forward pitched on the idea of pushing the Blazers over the top, I look at the Lillard-McCollum backcourt and ask where my shots are going to come from. Damian and CJ are great because they shoot and score. Taking touches away from them would make them less great. Neither one has the defensive chops to make up for that loss. The Blazers could use Allen Crabbe as a 3rd option or even a 5th option outlet and he'd still be Allen Crabbe. If they tried to use McCollum the same way he wouldn't be CJ anymore. The closer the offense gets to a zero-sum game, the less the Blazers gain by bringing in a major star and the more problematic that pitch becomes.
As for the final part of your question--that the Warriors winning a title with a pair of dominant guards makes McCollum sacrosanct--I'd actually consider that a reason for the Blazers to go a different direction. One could argue that the Aldridge-led incarnation of the Blazers was a poor man's version of the San Antonio Spurs. Now they appear to be morphing into the country cousins of Golden State. Finding a pattern for success is great as long as you're the apex example of that pattern. Leaders win. The next best team in that mold gets nothing but overshadowed.
I don't care how amazing Lillard and McCollum are. Barring injury, they're never going to be a better example of Golden State's championship style than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are. No matter how much you love Aminu and Vonleh, both of them together don't equal Draymond Green. Learning from the Warriors is smart. Trying to emulate them would be foolish.
Portland can't just cruise in Golden State's wake. The Blazers have to exceed them. They must become the first example of their own championship pattern instead of the second example of the one that's already happening.
Trading CJ McCollum right now may not be the next step in evolving that pattern, but the Blazers are going to have to dream big and be willing to make bold and creative moves to distinguish themselves from 29 other NBA teams, including and especially the one that appears to have a stranglehold on the conference and the league. They may not succeed but they have to try, at least. They owe that to themselves as an organization, to their fans, and to every player they bring into that locker room.
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