CJ McCollum is in the middle of his seventh season with the Portland Trail Blazers. An offensive impresario, McCollum is averaging 21.8 points per game, boosted to 32.0 this week as backcourt mate Damian Lillard sits out with a groin injury. He is everything one could wish for in a scoring guard. He’s also a frequent subject of trade talks as the Blazers continue to fall short of optimistic goals.
McCollum trade posts are passé at this point, but we’re letting one more slip through the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag this week because it’s the archetype of the kind of move Portland needs to make.
I resent myself for even proposing this but, just as a thought experiment, what are your thoughts to a CJ/Nurk/+ for Joel Embiid trade? I’m sure the money doesn’t quite work out so presumably Sixers would need to send another $8M+ our way, at least. Jojo has now become a win-now guy given injury history, the Process hasn’t gone to plan, Sixers need a leading man to shoot the ball, and we’d instantly have the best guard/big combo in the NBA. I’d also go into a state of perpetual mourning for losing one of my favorite players to watch in CJ. And I really like Nurk, too.
Yes. And the trade would need to be something like CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic or a reasonably-re-signed Hassan Whiteside (later in the year) for Joel Embiid and Al Horford. Horford’s salary makes him the new Andrew Wiggins, King of the Albatrosses. The Blazers would need to be willing to do something like that to get the Sixers, crumbling in decay as they are, to part with Embiid. But make no mistake, that’s what Portland is going to have to do in order to get into contention. That, or something like it.
Assuming the Blazers get Whiteside back—assuming also that they trust Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., and a recovering Rodney Hood—they’ll have a short, but unprecedented period of redundancy in which to make a big splash. Their presumed starters at shooting guard and center will both be star-level players, but each will have replacements waiting in the wings. Those replacements may not be quite as good, but a spectacular return from a McCollum + Center trade could more than make up any deficit.
Portland will want to look to the Eastern Conference, where McCollum and Nurkic or Whiteside could make a huge difference for a team that’s close to, but not sure to, make a run at the NBA Finals. The Blazers will want to hope that one or more of those teams crumble. Then they’d dangle CJ, a center, and whatever financial or draft incentives would be necessary to pry loose one of the best players in the league.
Embiid would qualify. So would Khris Middleton in Milwaukee. Ideally the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat will run roughshod over both, leaving them looking for answers that Portland can provide. It’s a longshot, but it’s still a shot.
This point of view does not disrespect McCollum, Nurkic, or Whiteside. They’re very good. McCollum absolutely deserves the chance at running his own squad, a chance he’ll never get with Lillard. A two-for-one deal of star-level starters is what it’ll take to get the kind of player who’d push Portland ahead. And the Blazers need that kind of player. This is the fateful summer when their franchise superstar turns 30. Barring injuries, Lillard’s prime will last a couple more years, his utility far beyond that. He won’t last at a superstar level long enough to play through another complete rebuild, though. If they can’t get to the Finals organically (and who thinks they can, at this point?) they’ve got to make a trade like this.
They’ve actually needed to do this for years. As well as McCollum has played in Portland, the Blazers have already missed opportunities that probably would have turned out better for them. They drafted McCollum instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013. The Orlando Magic traded Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Ersan Ilyasova to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft for Serge Ibaka. It’s hard to believe McCollum wouldn’t have drawn notice had he been available instead.
The stubborn insistence that Portland’s current backcourt is the best (or only) permutation possible is PR flack along the same lines as, “The Blazers did great in the Summer of 2016!” They made some defensible moves that summer. That’s it. The decision to retain McCollum is the same way: defensible, but not unassailable.
I’m not sure Embiid will actually be available. If he is, or a player of his caliber is, the Blazers would be insane not to get in those conversations, even if McCollum was part of the cost. You no longer have to be Cassandra of Troy to figure that out; you just need eyes on the court, plus a quick glance at the win totals.
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