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What Extending CJ McCollum Brought to the Trail Blazers

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Portland locked up their second guard long-term yesterday. Dave Deckard and Dan Marang react to the contract extension.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday the Portland Trail Blazers gave shooting guard CJ McCollum a three-year extension on his current contract, signing him through the summer of 2024 for an extra $100 million on top of his current deal. If he stays with the club for the duration, the Blazers will have shelled out over $217 million in the first 11 years of his career.

The extension came with little warning, and elicited a mix of reactions. Here to discuss it are Blazer’s Edge gurus Dan Marang and Dave Deckard.

Dave: Well, Dan... we expected a Damian Lillard contract extension this summer because supermax rules and Damian freakin’ Lillard. The McCollum extension comes as a little more of a surprise. What’s your initial, top reaction to the extension in a sentence or two?

Dan: I shouldn’t be surprised by the deal - but I still was. Mainly there are two conflicting thoughts, one is that the Blazers value continuity but also flexibility. This hits the first certainly, but the second? I guess in the long run it SHOULDN’T be surprising since Portland has got an early deal done for the star guards at every turn but that flexibility appears to have taken a hit.

Dave: It seems like the Blazers have been in the habit of bidding early, often against themselves, during the latter part of Neil Olshey’s tenure. You have the 2016 signings of Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless, none of whom were lighting up the free agent market, all of whom ultimately proved expensive. This summer Olshey himself was extended while still comfortably under contract. Terry Stotts was extended, though he was entering the dreaded “lame duck” coaching season, so that has precedent. Then Lillard, which was foreseen, now McCollum. Are they taking the LaMarcus Aldridge lesson from 2015 to an extreme? Do they feel like this is what they need to do in order to maintain as a small-market franchise? Or are they just all about passing out Benjamins before they’re strictly called for?

Dan: One of my favorite quotes in NBA history,Scared money don’t make no money” -Sam Presti (also, ya know, A Tribe Called Quest) and I have to question if perhaps there’s a more than a hint of fear at play. Honestly it’s probably a combination of fear, lessons learned and SME (small market energy) that feed into deals that don’t involve Damian Lillard. When it comes to Dame’s deals you just smile, nod and hand him the pen. Everything else? Well that requires some maneuvering. While 2016 certainly lingers for a lot of us, it feels like maybe they’ve gone a bit too far in the conservative direction. I don’t think it’s quite a reaction to McCollum’s postseason performance, but it’s not NOT that either.

The next big question I have though is, what about Anfernee Simons? Didn’t we just get the full court press on his projections as the likely successor to Dame/CJ? If you’ve got a young promising player on a rookie scale deal, isn’t the idea usually to clear the runway for his growth- not lock in the competition for minutes in for 5 years?

Dave: One could argue that Simons is going to become a reserve point guard, which shouldn’t interfere with CJ on paper. BUT...McCollum seems most comfortable when he’s handling the ball and calling his shots. That happened more with the second unit in 2017-18 than it did last season. I’ll confess I had envisioned McCollum playing alongside Bazemore and Hood rather than just being replaced by them. If Simons is going to run the show in reserve, that edges out CJ again.

I think the Blazers could run a hybrid backcourt and still get McCollum minutes and touches. They may take the approach that either CJ or Simons can set up the other.

Long-term, though, that brings up another issue. Is McCollum more or less trade-able after this extension? Before he had the advantage of a short-term financial commitment, which is attractive to trade partners if you’re not a clear superstar and they don’t rely on you committing forever after a trade. It gives the recipient flexibility. The extension means any trade partner would be able to retain McCollum, but they’d also be bound to pay him. Usually you want that obligation with clear star players, less so with middle-range guys.

Once again McCollum is proving a Rorschach inkblot. How do you gauge his trade-worthiness with the extra years and money attached? If Simons IS all that, can the Blazers still trade CJ?

Dan: We just saw Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook traded, so the bar for tradeable is easy enough that even I could walk under it. Maybe not for John Wall, but at this point- if there’s a will there’s a way. The problem, and I think we’ll agree here, is that the return value is now limited if Portland does opt to anoint Simons as McCollum’s successor. Unless McCollum is Benjamin Button, I just don’t see how Portland gets fair return for a 30-32 year old combo guard making 33+ million a year. The commitment to this backcourt is adamant - both in the now and the future.

The flip side of all of this trade talk is the continuity aspect. Lillard has his running-mate secure, and if there’s something we’ve seen with Lillard it’s that he values HIS guys above all else. This may have been as much about making Lillard happy as it was about McCollum. For all of the issues around the league with star and near stars wanting new contracts or to be moved onto sunnier destinations, Portland has avoided that since the LaMarcus Aldridge departure by locking guys up early and often. Sometimes to their own detriment.

The big question for me now is, what does success look like for this backcourt, this team, now that these two guys are at least locked into spending all of their prime years together?

Dave: I think we’ve seen the answer to that already. What they’ve experienced so far is their definition of success. And hey, Neil Olshey is going to get the chance to oversee an entire generational run with two players he picked. That’s pretty rare unless you win a championship. The players are reaping rewards of success. The President of Basketball Operations is too. Judging by purely business metrics (not basketball, not fan opinion, but professional goals and compensation) they might as well have won their title. Whether they can actually replicate that on the court remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet than the public figures inside the organization are feeling pretty happy right now.

Here’s what I want to know. Was this signing justifiable and/or good in your opinion? Give us the entire Danny Marang treatment, all the angles and all the angst. I’ve been waiting for this since the moment the news broke! Grade it, massage it, and tell us how it made you feel.

Dan: I’ve sat here trying to run through a lot of different scenarios and no matter what I do it just doesn’t add up. I get the “why” behind signing McCollum now. Free agents don’t come here, it’s different than most other markets, there are things you just can’t change... but the thing is I want someone who CAN change those things. I want the organization to be bold, and risky even.

There isn’t a title team in the last decade that didn’t get incredibly risky in their pursuits. In the last year alone, the Raptors dealt the face of their franchise for a shot at a title with Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers sent all but one of their prospects off without blinking for Anthony Davis, the Clippers mortgaged the entirety of their next generation to pair Kawhi with Paul George. That’s the last year. You get the point. When I saw that Portland had signed McCollum already, it felt too safe. Cozy even. Again, I get the why but there’s a part of me that wanted to see things play out a bit more.

As you said before- when it comes to trades now, things get a bit trickier. The path narrower. Options more limited. Locking up McCollum doesn’t really gain anything tangible for the Blazers- for CJ it means security, for Neil it’s another one of his guys taken care of, for the franchise they did right by a home grown guy - and again I get all of it. But what was the cost?

The thing is, we won’t ever know how that limits them or even if it does, but there’s jut something pulling at me that wanted to see Portland be more patient. Bidding against yourself, when the deck is as stacked against you as we’ve heard it is so many times here just feels... safe. I guess I just don’t want safe right now.

Dave: Well, folks, you have the classic Marang take. I’m also on the fence about how paying McCollum when he’s past 30 helps the team now in any tangible way, but I’m all for players being appropriately compensated, so I’m shrugging my shoulders at the news. It seems like more of a “keep the entrenched leaders happy” move than a big push, but that’s the way the Blazers operate.

Final Word: Any time you invest over 70% of your salary cap in two players, those players better be INCREDIBLE and lead the team to unparalleled success. Do Lillard and McCollum qualify?

Weigh in below.