The Portland Trail Blazers field one of the brightest starting backcourts in the entire NBA, embarrassed by the riches of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and their 50 points per game. But what does it mean, ultimately? How good is good enough? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
You have mentioned the Dame & CJ backcourt a few times this summer. Sometimes you seem enthusiastic & other times more cautious. Can you clarify? Do you think they are they good enough or will we have to look for a trade soon?
There’s almost zero chance of any trade involving either of Portland’s star guards any time soon. The Blazers would have a hard time getting more value trading Lillard or McCollum than they’re getting from playing them. (See yesterday’s Mailbag for a caution against lateral moves.) Once upon a time they might have gotten a young, semi-decent center for one or the other. They have a center they like now. They’re not going to move them.
As far as whether they’re good enough...the question is, “For what?”
McCollum and Lillard are providing better point production than any guard tandem in the history of the franchise. Granted, they’re playing in an era that favors guards just like them, but they’re still amazing...a pairing that will one day be considered substantial and classic. They remind me of the dual themes of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”. Lillard is that unforgettable, driving guitar riff that dominates the first half of the song. Just when you think it’s finished, McCollum comes in with hands all up and down the piano keyboard, gracefully pouring out notes in a different, but still incredible, way. You wouldn’t think the two themes belong in the same song; they could have easily been different tracks, both hits. Yet they work together somehow. When you hear one, you expect the other. When the song winds to a close, you’re more than satisfied; you’re replete.
Breaking up the two seems like going to Clapton and saying, “Eric, buddy...you wasted half of your piece.” You’re talking about one of the most recognizable songs ever. Don’t mess with genius. Get off the stage and enjoy the song.
At the same time, the NBA isn’t about one-hit wonders. The Blazers not only need to cut an entire album, they need to produce one every year that will blow away the competition. Lillard and McCollum’s deficiencies on defense are well-known. Their salaries are enormous. Though they score differently, they do duplicate each other to some degree. One could argue that the energy poured into this single, albeit magnificent, track leaves all the supporting songs impoverished.
Despite abundant evidence that defense needs improving, despite vows to work on same, despite fielding a frontcourt designed to do nothing but defend for most of last season, we’ve seen little or no uptick from the tandem or the team. On good nights they’re passable. On bad nights, look out. The Blazers are not going to win a title that way. If that’s the ultimate goal—knowing that it needs to be done in the next 6-7 years before the duo starts to decline—the viability of the backcourt comes into question.
Personally, I am torn. The Blazers won’t get better by trading away a scoring star for a player of equal or lesser value. But the Blazers might not get better by playing both their stars together for their entire careers either. Right now I don’t think there’s any doubt about their direction. They’ll try like made to draft, develop, sign, or trade for forwards who will cover for the guards and provide better all-around play than their current crew. If and when the time comes to give up on the experiment, they’ll need to hope they can squeeze out a deal like the Cavaliers have (or, errr... had) with the Celtics, getting a Monty Haul and rebuilding. Until that time comes, watching Lillard and McCollum will certainly be fun. Will it be productive? That’s the question.
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