When the Portland Trail Blazers surged to the third best record in the Western Conference, persistent questions about the future of the star back court of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum got quieter. Blazers fans glowed with their dual-star backcourt. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey referred to questions about trading either as a “false narrative”.
Now with the Blazers trailing 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs against a New Orleans Pelicans squad without DeMarcus Cousins, those questions are coming back to the forefront.
Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer suggested five trades the Blazers could make to send away CJ McCollum and either make lateral moves to appeal to Lillard, or begin a rebuild.
O’Connor outlined the reason for the move with how New Orleans has countered the star duo.
Holiday, Anthony Davis, and any number of New Orleans defenders are aggressively trapping pick-and-rolls involving Lillard and McCollum, with the intention of forcing the ball out of their hands. Lillard explained after Game 3 that when defenses trap or “blitz” pick-and-rolls, the big man usually falls back eventually. But the Pelicans are applying waves of pressure throughout the entire action, which is something Lillard said he doesn’t recall seeing before.
Defense was also a key factor, with O’Connor insisting that two below-average defenders will not be enough to compete in the NBA today. Lillard’s defensive numbers improved this season, with his Defensive Win Shares almost doubling his previous career high (1.5 to 2.7). However, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus, a better indicator of indiviudal defensive play, remained negative at -1.0. McCollum also scored a -1.0 in DBPM.
With these factors, O’Connor advocated for moving McCollum, as Lillard is too much of the face of the franchise to move him.
Among the five deals, a move with the New York Knicks appears among the most promising, with McCollum going to New York, and the Blazers getting the Knicks’ first-round pick and guard Frank Ntilikina. This would pair Lillard with an above-average defensive guard, plus the ability to get more help through a top-ten pick.
The Knicks’ first is in range to grab a number of versatile wings like Mikal Bridges, Zhaire Smith, and Miles Bridges. As for New York, I’d view this deal as an opportunity to accelerate the rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis and increase the team’s appeal to free agents, rather than waiting for Ntilikina to develop.
If the Blazers go towards salary relief, sending McCollum and Meyers Leonard to Dallas for Harrison Barnes would provide that buffer while upgrading the Blazers at the wing position.
Portland will try and stay alive in the postseason Saturday in New Orleans.