Say what you will about the massive spending spree that Neil Olshey and the Trail Blazers have undertaken this July, but you can't deny one thing - this has been a summer of crystallization. It's been a summer of clarity. The Blazers went into this free agency period with a whole lot of salary cap space and a whole lot of question marks. They now have neither. Their money has been spent and their questions have been answered. Again: This is your team now.
Perhaps no action the Blazers took this month was more crystallizing than the big-money move they made just this week - the re-signing of CJ McCollum to a max extension that will guarantee him four years and $106 million. The Blazers had already made plenty of little splashes in free agency already, dispersing $225 million in new money to Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Festus Ezeli and draftee Jake Layman, but this is the big cannonball. McCollum is a cornerstone player. He will become the second-highest paid Trail Blazer the moment this deal kicks in, and he'll remain under contract until 2021. With all due respect to everyone else, this is the headline move of the summer for Portland.
In the coming days/weeks/months/years, there will surely be debates over whether CJ is truly worth the $106 million. I can already hear them starting now. For those who fancy themselves CJ detractors, there are easy talking points for them to latch onto. People will criticize his game, pointing to the gaps in his defensive ability as a sign that he's not the kind of all-around player who should command nine figures. They'll bring up durability, citing the foot injuries that derailed his career at Lehigh as evidence that he might not hold up until 2021. They might even question his on-court results - after all, how confident can you be shelling out max money for a player who's really only proven himself for one year?
All of those questions are valid to an extent, but they're also pointless. There's no more time to debate McCollum's fit with the Blazers of the future now. The debate is over; McCollum won. He's now locked in for the next half-decade. He's going nowhere. There may have been faint whispers about trading the young shooting guard previously; that conversation is now totally and completely over, as no team can handle the salary cap blow of trading for a guy with an $18 million raise kicking in next season. McCollum is here. There's no sense in fighting it.
What this means, of course, is that McCollum and Damian Lillard are now locked in as the Blazers' starting backcourt for the next five years - and they'll earn a combined $250 million in the process during that time. There have been questions surrounding this pairing for the last year, as people have speculated about the redundancy of their skills offensively and the, well, lack of skills defensively, but there's no time left for questioning. This is no longer about whether Dame and CJ can work together. We now know that they will work together. The only question is how.
It's easy to play armchair point guard and criticize the Lillard/McCollum pairing for its imperfections. Some have done so more artfully than others. The Ringer's Danny Chau wrote this week that "Lillard and McCollum are the Lillard and McCollum of bad defensive backcourts," which I have to admit is a pretty good burn. But for the most part, I think most of the overcritical rhetoric being directed at the Blazers' two guards is unfair. They're 26- and 24-year-old NBA guards, with four and three seasons of NBA experience under their belts respectively. It's unrealistic to expect either of them to be game-changing defensive guards, given the loads they're already carrying offensively; at their age, it would be nigh unprecedented. And besides, the guard spots in the modern NBA are more of offensive roles anyway. There's only so much a perimeter guy can do once the screen comes; generally speaking, it's the big man's job to do the dirty work of defending in space.
Rather than bash Lillard and McCollum for what they can't do, I'd prefer to go the optimistic route and marvel at what they can. Outside of Northern California, they're the best pair of perimeter shooters and playmakers you can find. Besides Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, is there any backcourt duo in the NBA you'd rather have manning your team right now? Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, maybe. I'm not a Bradley Beal guy, much as I love John Wall. The Clippers' guards are solid - they've got a shot. Chicago called - they're trying to find their time machine.
The Blazers had two of the league's top 10 players last season in total 3-pointers produced - made and assisted combined. No one else in the NBA can say that - not even the Warriors. In this league, with the 3-point shot and the spacing it provides becoming so, so important, it's hard to find a better foundation for a winning team than two players like Lillard and McCollum.
Of course, the question now is one of precisely what pieces the Blazers should use to build around those two guys. It's a tough one, and we don't have any definitive answers yet. Conventional wisdom says that if you want to build around two offensive guards, the first thing you need is a rim-protecting center to shore up their weaknesses. This makes intuitive sense, but it might not be true. Consider this: According to NBA.com lineup data, there were eight other Blazers who played at least 250 minutes last season with both Lillard and McCollum next to them. Of those eight players, the one with the best net rating during those minutes was not Ed Davis or Mason Plumlee, even though they were considered the defensive anchors in the paint. The best Blazer alongside McLillard was actually Maurice Harkless, and it wasn't even close. The Blazers with Dame/CJ/Moe outscored opponents by putting up 114.8 points per 100 possessions to their 104.6; that differential of 10.2 was far greater than Al-Farouq Aminu's (3.8), Davis' (3.6) or Plumlee's (2.5).
What does this mean? It could be a lot of things, but I'd argue that first and foremost it's a vote of confidence for versatility. Harkless isn't a rim protector, but he's a jack-of-all-trades forward who can guard anyone at the three or four, and he contributes solid cutting, ball movement and offensive rebounding on the other end. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that the Blazers went out and spent $40 million on retaining Harkless immediately after locking down McCollum. It all makes sense now. When you have Lillard and McCollum in your corner already, scoring is largely taken care of, and you need players who are willing to do a little bit of everything else. That's Moe in a nutshell. He's the "everything else" guy.
This is the Blazers' reality now. Building around the Lillard/McCollum backcourt is no longer a topic for debate; it's an imperative. The coming years will be all about finding Harkless-like "everything else" guys who can play supporting roles. Terry Stotts has plenty of options to choose from this fall, including almost everyone from last year's team plus the additions - Ezeli, Turner, Layman. The Blazers don't need everyone on the roster to shine this season, but they need to find a solid 6-8 other guys they can trust beyond their big two. That's the objective.
The other major members of the Blazer rotation can potentially be good enough to lift the Lillard/McCollum pairing to greatness, but they all have question marks. Can Aminu prove that his strong shooting was more than a one-year blip? Can Davis be more versatile? Can Plumlee improve as a scorer and defender? What can Turner or Crabbe do defensively? We'll have all next season to answer these questions. If the Blazers find good news in one or two of these areas, they could really have something special next season.
Just a few years ago, it would have been weird that the Blazers were making their push for greatness with this core leading the way. Two undersized guards who shoot a lot, and that's your nucleus? We grew up watching teams built around dominant big men who led their teams to championships - Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and the list goes on. The mainstream media, led by talking heads like Charles Barkley, perpetuated the idea that you can't win a title with a "jump-shooting team." Many listened.
Then the conventional wisdom began to change. Teams like Golden State, with the aforementioned Curry and Thompson carrying them, started to demonstrate that champions could be built around guards who could shoot. They didn't prove that winning that way was easy - not by a long shot - but they showed it could be done. First you need coaching, chemistry and a supporting cast of players who fit. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala lifted Golden State from good to great, and they haven't moved since.
The Blazers are not the Warriors yet. They're not even the pre-Kevin Durant Dubs; they've still got a long, long, long way to go. But now that they have their cornerstone duo in place for good, they can start to fill in the cracks with the other pieces that fit best. In other words, they can look for their Green and Iguodala.
Portland's signings this summer, especially CJ McCollum, represented a crystallization in a lot of ways. We now have definitive answers about the team's payroll, roster construction and future outlook. One thing that still remains uncertain, however, is a scheme for who fits where at the three, four and five positions. Terry Stotts will have a lot of time this fall to experiment and figure all that out.