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Lillard and McCollum: Deepest “NBA Marriage” of the Modern Era

The Ringer’s Michael Weinreb takes a look at the Trail Blazers’ iconic backcourt duo.

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have been teammates for seven years now, both having spent the entirety of their careers thus far playing in Portland. But can chemistry and longevity lead to a title in the modern NBA? The Trail Blazers guards talked to Michael Weinreb of the Ringer about the keys to their partnership, as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

And while getting along off the court isn’t required to win basketball games (See Shaq and Kobe), that kind of chemistry helps keep potential issues at bay. Lillard and CJ have cultivated a true friendship during their time in Portland, perhaps among the deepest in the NBA:

Lillard and McCollum decided to stick together mostly because they enjoy playing with each other. And a year after they signed those contract extensions, with the league, the city of Portland, and the country facing unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty, Lillard and McCollum’s friendship still hasn’t wavered. It feels increasingly like the most enduring partnership in the NBA. That’s never been clearer than it was on July 15, when Lillard prepared for a quiet acknowledgement of his 30th birthday in the league’s Orlando bubble—and McCollum refused to let it pass without a celebration.

McCollum decorated the door of Lillard’s hotel room; he reserved a private room where the entire Blazers team could safely gather. He reached out to Lillard’s fiancée to ask about his favorite foods, and put together a menu of lemon pepper wings, short ribs, lemon cake, and more. He created a special drink for the occasion, and ordered wine and champagne. None of it was necessary, of course, but for McCollum, it mattered.

Lillard and McCollum have taken care to align their timelines in contract talks (Lillard has a player option after 2024, when McCollum’s contract ends). “We’ve just always tried to match our years up,” Lillard said. “So that we’ll both be free at the same time. If there’s ever a change of heart, then we can make that decision together.”

But the real question on everyone’s mind - Can that kind of relationship translate into winning? The duo shared a relevant story:

During Game 3 of the Blazers’ first-round playoff series against Oklahoma City last season, Lillard was struggling with his shot and begging the referees for foul calls in a hostile road arena. During a timeout, he started to complain, and then he locked eyes with McCollum, who told him to stop focusing on the officials, to stop being distracted.

“Remember who the [expletive] you are,” McCollum said to him.

They lost that game, but then won Game 4 by 13 points, and clinched the series in Game 5. If it had been anyone else talking to him that way, Lillard said, it might have escalated; it might have led to a confrontation, to a moment freighted with tension and ripe for social-media gossip. “If we didn’t have the relationship we do, it might have gotten ugly,” Lillard says. “It was exactly how my brother might talk to me. But when he said it, I didn’t respond. I was just like, ‘I got you.’”

“If I can trust you on the court and off the court, it’s a breeze in the fourth quarter,” McCollum said. “There’s no animosity at all. I want him to have as much success as humanly possible, I want him to make as much money as humanly possible, and I want him to win. And I know he feels the same way about me.”

Of course, no two players alone can win an NBA title. Lillard and McCollum are solidly entrenched in their positions; as leaders who get a large chunk of the team’s shots. But what else needs to come for the Trail Blazers to take that next step?

That’s been the challenge for the Blazers, and for general manager Neil Olshey, now in his eighth season: How do you preserve the fit between Lillard and McCollum, and preserve the respectful “culture” that Olshey repeatedly touts (and that Lillard and McCollum reinforce), by bringing in the right people around them? Olshey spoke before the season, after the Blazers turned over much of their supporting cast, about bringing in “guys who buy in to how we do things in Portland”; but as of now, that approach hasn’t created a core that Olshey’s felt comfortable keeping in place around Lillard and McCollum. Part of that may be due to injuries; before Nurkic and Collins, there was the torn Achilles that end Wesley Matthews’ season and the Blazers’ title hopes. Part of it may be the failed free agent splurge of 2016, when the front office may have overcompensated for the franchise’s inability to lure major free agents. And part of it may be the Catch-22 of building around two players with big contracts who haven’t yet proved that they can lead the Blazers to a title on their own.

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