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Is CJ McCollum Overpaid?

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CJ McCollum is an integral part of the Trail Blazers roster, but does he live up to his salary?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

CJ McCollum is very good at basketball. The Portland Trail Blazers are much better with him than without him, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him this season (proof).

But I’m starting to worry that he’s overpaid. That is NOT intended as a criticism of his on-court ability (see the first two sentences), but rather a dispassionate examination of his salary.

Raw Numbers

McCollum is set to make about $25.8 million next season in the second year of a four-year extension signed in July, 2016. As of now, that’s the 18th highest salary in the NBA for the 2018-19 season and the Blazers will be one of only five teams with two players in the top 18 salaries — the Warriors, Thunder (lol Melo), Raptors, and Celtics are the other with the Rockets almost certain to join them when Chris Paul re-signs. That’s the top four teams in the NBA this year, plus the Thunder (lol Melo).

Enough virtual ink has been spilled pearl clutching about Damian Lillard’s and McCollum’s huge contracts, so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice to say, the pair is in the upper echelon of teammate salaries in the NBA but haven’t delivered the same level of regular season success as others.

Comparison to Peers

Consider this list: Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gobert, and Victor Oladipo. Those players are all All-Stars (or DPOY candidates in Gobert) and are all going to be making less money than McCollum next season.

They all also signed their current contracts within one year of McCollum’s, meaning they were negotiating for the same general maximum salaries and under the same CBA rules as McCollum. Throw in the fact that McCollum had a single season track record when he signed his deal, and it’s appropriate to start asking how he managed to negotiate a sweeter deal than nearly one-third of this year’s all-stars.

And that list doesn’t include several other signature NBA players who will be making less than McCollum next year, including Steven Adams, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Dwight Howard (just checking to see how well you’re skimming), and Klay Thompson.

(Note: Don’t blame McCollum’s salary on the NBA deflating the cap estimates. The luxury tax estimate for 2018-19 of $126 million released on April, 2016 is only barely different from the current estimate of $124 million. The Blazers had the same information as every other team in the NBA when they extended him.)

CJ’s Trajectory

McCollum’s salary is set to continue rising until it expires in 2021 at $29.4 million. Crucially, McCollum’s pay will increase more rapidly than the salary cap, meaning that every year he’ll slowly eat up a larger percentage of the Blazers’ cap figure. For example, this year CJ accounted for roughly 24 percent of the cap this year but about 25.5 percent next year.

The slowly rising cap hit might be acceptable if McCollum were continuing to improve, as most fans had hoped. But his on-court performance seems to have plateaued this year:

Admittedly, McCollum did improve significantly as a defender over the last two years, but he still struggles as an offensive playmaker and at drawing fouls, among other skills.

Going Forward

Does it really matter if McCollum is overpaid? To the extent that it pushes up the presumable luxury tax bill and may make the franchise more hesitant to sign fringe players using things like the mid-level exception, then it does matter.

It may also limit McCollum’s trade value. If other teams see a player that has peaked at a non-All-Star level but is, nonetheless, making All-Star money they may balk at CJ-centric packages, preferring to pursue rookie contracts instead.

So far that’s not an issue as the Blazers have reportedly not been inclined to trade McCollum, but they have few other avenues to improve the team so if they do decide to move CJ an unexpectedly cold market could have a huge negative impact on long-term plans.

Poll

CJ McCollum’s salary is:

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Too Low
    (22 votes)
  • 71%
    Too High
    (1096 votes)
  • 26%
    Just Right
    (407 votes)
1525 votes total Vote Now