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Can Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum Make the Blazers Elite?

A Blazer's Edge reader asks how good is good enough. We debate.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag question holds up the core of the Portland Trail Blazers roster: guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Dear Dave,

I'm a bit concerned. I guess lots of Blazers fans are concerned (I suspect most NBA fans outside of the bay area are concerned right now) but my late night Blazer fears are a little different.

Unlike most fans, I'm not to particularly concerned about the logjam in the front court, or the contract structure in the back court; those things will work themselves out one way or another.

I'm concerned that the core of this team- Damian and CJ, straight up, simply aren't good enough.

"wow, wow, wow!" some will reply "Damian and CJ not good enough? Have you ever watched basketball?"

But here's the thing- yeah, Dame and CJ are great, but so were Uncle Cliffy and Rod Strickland. Those guys were both in the top 5 at there positions but they weren't good enough to lead their team past the 1st round.

So while everyone on BE seems to be tripping out about whether Ed Davis plays 10 mpg or 15mpg, or does Vonleh turn into a legit NBA role player or end up in China, I'm over here fearing that the team has committed the next several years to a two-man core that's good, but ultimately not good enough.

Help me out Dave! Tell me CJ and Dame could smoke Cliffy and Strickland. Compared to the elite core on other teams, do Dame and CJ have the potential to rise to the top?

--- - - --- - Cloudless Chris

Arrrgh...what a beautiful, frustrating question.

Figuring out whether Lillard and McCollum are "good enough" will be easier if we split the phrase into its constituent parts.

Are Portland's guards "good"? Heck yeah they are. They say hundreds of players could make the NBA given the right circumstances. 450 actually do make rosters. Of all those candidates, real and potential, only a small percentage average 20 ppg for a season. And it's not for lack of trying.

Depending on how you round, 20-23 NBA players managed that feat last year. 10% of them were Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Argue all you want about being the center of the offense, about unlimited green lights that other players don't get, about not being under pressure to win big yet. The same was true for the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76'ers, Phoenix Suns, and Brooklyn Nets last season. How many of their players scored 20 per game?

(Answer: 2. Brook Lopez did it for the Nets and Eric Bledsoe for the Suns, though Bledsoe played only 31 games and should probably be left off the list.)

Production alone doesn't encompass what Lillard and McCollum bring. They're players that franchises dream of: charismatic, intelligent, capable of playing a team game and willing to do so. They can get their own shots but  they're also willing to pass. They have pride without crossing over the line into egomania. They play for the name on the front of the uniform as well as the name on the back.

Those are the reasons these guys will be pushing $50 million in combined salary over the next few years. In today's NBA, with its emphasis on guards who do exactly what CJ and Damian do, they're worth it.

Whether McCollum and Lillard are "good enough" depends on your definition of "enough". They're certainly good enough to hold spots at the center of the franchise until they retire, should they choose to do so. They'll be numbered among the top 20-25 players in Blazers history when all is said and done. They're good enough for annual All-Star consideration. They're good enough that trading either would require a phenomenal return.

If those things, plus pretty offense and pleasing public personas, are good enough for you, you're set for the foreseeable future. But if you mean "good enough to win an NBA title", the requirements get steeper.

While Lillard and McCollum are clearly good, whether they're good enough together to raise their team to elite status remains an open question. Their oft-cited lack of defense appears to be the biggest obstacle in their way. The Golden State Warriors, mentioned in the question above, are another.

Portland fans like to cite Lillard and McCollum as "the second-best backcourt in the league". The impact of the statement bears examination.

1. It may not be strictly true.

2. Even if it is true, the distance between #2 and #1 is immeasurably greater than the distance between #2 and the pack of guard tandems just behind Dame and CJ.

3. Great guard tandems don't bring titles, great overall teams do. Lillard and McCollum have no problem demonstrating their skills. Can they lift an entire team into contention, keeping in mind they must play on both ends of the floor?

Your comparison to Rod Strickland and Cliff Robinson is interesting...not because they are the best analogy for Portland's current guard duo but because of what they represented to the franchise. Strickland never scored 20 for the Blazers but he posted 19 with 9 assists in 1994-95 and 19 with 10 assists the year following. He was a heck of a point guard...maybe the best pure point guard to wear Portland's uniform. Cliff Robinson was known more for his longevity and versatility league-wide but he scored 20 per game for three straight seasons in the Rose City and he was a good defender on top of it. Yet neither player got the Blazers close to a ring and both have been largely forgotten when the roll of franchise legends is debated. Robinson and Strickland show that it's possible to be very good individually without getting close to that ultimate team plateau.

Neither Lillard nor McCollum are as point-guard-ish as Strickland was, nor is either an all-around savant like Robinson. Both are better offensive players. Both are more grounded than Strickland and Robinson were during their Portland tenures. Damian and CJ will end up having longer careers in Portland and they'll outshine that mid-90's duo. Even so, they still haven't achieved escape velocity from the "great, but not Championship-great" orbit that held Strickland and Robinson in place.

Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter provide a scarier example. These guys were bona fide legends, ripping apart the league. Terry was stocky, strong, and smart. Clyde was so physically dominant that nobody could deal with him. They were the definition of unstoppable. They were also surrounded by three starters with the capability of scoring 20 on any given night, at least two of whom were masterful defenders. With all those advantages, Porter and Drexler never got their rings in Portland...largely because their chief rival fielded a couple of even better players. That cautionary tale still resounds today.

Are two good guards good enough in an NBA world that includes Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the West Coast, LeBron James lurking in the East? Yikes.

The answer to that question will be provided by the two guards in question. If Lillard and McCollum want to reach that championship level, they're going to have to unveil talent and commitment greater than the already-excellent examples they've provided so far. They'll also need to carry plenty of teammates on their back as the roster is set up now. That's a big ask.

Still, I wouldn't bet against them. Lillard and McCollum proclaim high aspirations and they won't be satisfied finishing their careers without a title to their names. At the same time, betting on any guard tandem in this situation is a longshot. In that sense your fears are valid. They're already good. They may turn out great. Neither adjective may be good enough in a league that trades on transcendent and phenomenal.

Thanks for the question! Keep them coming to!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge