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Bontemps: Breaking up Lillard-McCollum May Be Right Move

Despite a lights out backcourt, the Portland Trail Blazers appear to be going nowhere fast. A change may be necessary to solve major problems.

Los Angeles Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Six Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Sold as a formidable playoff contender last summer, the Portland Trail Blazers are looking at a likely 8-seed ceiling and lottery floor in the current Western Conference landscape. Barring some sort of massive resurgence or a major injury to an important player on another team, that’s a mathematical probability. The Trail Blazers (16-23) need to close out the season 28-15 (.651) in order to even match their 2015-16 record, which they will need to do in order to climb out of eighth if the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder (tied for seventh at 23-16) manage to win just half of their remaining games. It is not looking good.

The thing is, it is not just “not looking good” right now; it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future. As Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post points out in a podcast with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Tim MacMahon, and Michael Wright, the Trail Blazers may be about to dig deep into luxury tax territory with nowhere to go. Is separating the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the way to get the franchise back on track? The efficacy of the current team setup is fair to question.

I do think that Portland has a problem in that they, unlike the Spurs, can’t play any defense and it’s nice to have two guards that can score 24 a game, but if all you have is two guards who score 24 a game and then a roster of misfit pieces that don’t make a lot of sense because of—like the Knicks—another very odd summer in Portland, it’s kind of hard to see where that team is going.

I think because of the way their summer went, they’re pretty much locked into this team. They’ve already got $130 million committed to 11 guys next year; that’s before they’re going to have to re-sign Mason Plumlee because they literally don’t have a starting center on their team. So now you’re looking at a payroll somewhere close to $150 million probably—if not over—and that’s going to be, like, $50 million in luxury tax payments on top of it.

So now you’re going to have a really expensive team and, if you look at them, it’s just hard to see where that team is going. That was why to me, like, you might have to trade one of those guys just to mix up that team, because otherwise you could be paying a crap-ton of money for a team, at this point, we think is what? Going to be sixth or seventh or eighth in the West maybe for the next couple years? Like, where are they going? I just don’t see the upside there.

The point is well-taken and it stemmed from his previous observation last week that the Trail Blazers’ situation is not entirely unlike that of the 2012 Golden State Warriors, who traded Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut in order to free up Stephen Curry and patch defensive holes.

Because of where the Blazers played Wednesday night, it’s not hard to see the similarities in a problem the Warriors once faced when choosing between Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis in 2012. Now, let’s be clear about something: both Lillard and McCollum are significantly better players now than Ellis was, a diminutive gunner who is a career 31 percent three-point shooter. And there are no chemistry issues to speak of, either, which also is an important thing to consider.

But there is one important — and relevant — similarity: playing both Curry and Ellis together simply left Golden State with too many defensive issues to be a successful team. And swapping out Ellis for Andrew Bogut, a defensive anchor at center, was the first step the Warriors took toward building the foundation at both ends of the floor that has turned the Warriors into a juggernaut.

The backcourt duo of Lillard and McCollum has been criticized for its defensive inadequacy since its inception, and for good reason. As long as the guards play leaky defense, any rim protector is going to have an incredibly difficult job. So assuming the Trail Blazers were willing to pull the pin on this core for a new assembly, the next question becomes “For whom do they trade?”

Look around the league. There is not exactly a plethora of star caliber rim protectors on the table. The best anchors are anchored down, and a rusty one is not enough to pull Lillard or McCollum, or even fix Portland’s problems in the first place. Sure, there is chatter about bringing in Tyson Chandler or the oft-injured Bogut in a separate trade, but at a point, the backcourt defense must be addressed as well as the front if this team has championship aspirations.

Is Bontemps correct in his assessment? Do the Trail Blazers need to consider ripping the bandage off, or will time and maybe a salve of minor adjustments heal this core’s wounds?

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