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The Hidden Cost of Keeping CJ McCollum with the Trail Blazers

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Portland’s situation has changed this summer. As usual, McCollum is at the heart of it.

Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Six Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are in an uneasy position in the Summer of 2021. Damian Lillard’s relationship with the franchise is shakier than it’s ever been. They weren’t able to do much in the draft, and so far free agency has consisted of value moves around the edges.

Shooting guard CJ McCollum has long been seen as the key to Portland’s improvement, first as a viable second star beside Lillard, and then as leverage to get same via trade. But this summer, there’s an even bigger reason to consider moving McCollum, the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I’m so sick of CJ trade talk. He’s a great player, one of the best. I worry that we’re wasting the career of one of the best players we’ve ever had thinking about what could be instead of appreciating what we have right here. Can we cool it on the CJ trade talk now?

Michael B

Make no mistake, CJ McCollum is a wonderful player. His offensive repertoire rivals the best scorers in franchise history. The Blazers have fielded more athletic guards, but his skill set may be unmatched. McCollum’s individual ability would recommend him to any team, in any era.

Players aren’t judged in isolation, though. Timing and purpose matter.

Up until this point, the big question surrounding CJ has been, “Can he and Lillard win a championship together?” Debates revolved around defense and similarity in style between the two guards.

Few people are debating that question in the Summer of 2021. Even Lillard appears to have answered it somewhat. Portland’s loss to Denver in the 2021 NBA Playoffs cast doubt on their ability to advance to the second round, let alone a title. Potential trade demands have replaced potential trophies in the headlines.

In light of this shift, the operative question is no longer, “Can CJ win a championship with Dame?” It’s, “Can he win one without him?”

If we’re prepared to answer yes to that question, we can discuss McCollum’s utility and how to build around him. Assuming the answer is no—as it will be for most—there’s no discussion to be had.

At the point Lillard leaves, the Trail Blazers will be faced with a stark reality. They’ll be carrying a 30-year-old shooting guard scheduled to make between $30-35 million over the next three years. If you don’t think McCollum can take them to a championship, his contract will become the next thing to dead money on their ledger. They’ll have no reason to re-sign him at the end of it, nor would he have reason to stay.

The next three years between McCollum and the Blazers would be like sitting in a room with your ex-partner’s parents after she’s broken up with you. Sure, you’ll be polite, but everybody in the joint is wondering what the point is of being there in the first place, and how they can get out.

If the Blazers thought McCollum’s trade value would increase over that span, there might be reason to keep him. Again, he’s 30. His defense is not likely to get better. His scoring is not likely to rise appreciably, give or take a bump of 2-3 points from Dame being gone. His value will decrease over the next few years, not increase.

Right now, scoring big on a winning team, McCollum’s market value is hotly debated. What happens when he’s 31 or 32 and the team isn’t winning anymore? His contract cost is going up, but his attractiveness won’t. You never say never in a league where Andrew Wiggins gets traded, but it’s possible for McCollum’s contract to become an albatross. The Blazers would still be able to move him, but they may have to pay to do it rather than benefitting from it. The longer they wait, the more likely that eventuality is.

If McCollum does have value, the Blazers need to extract it now. It’s not just a matter of another player bringing new life to the franchise in a desperate attempt to keep Lillard. (They do need to do that if they can.) It’s keeping the windows open for a potential rebuild that could go stale quickly if the Blazers aren’t careful.

If you don’t think CJ wins rings with Dame and you don’t think he can do it without Dame either, then it’s high time to try something else before the team gets into a position from which it can’t extract itself, short of investing more assets or letting McCollum’s contract dwindle to the last dregs, letting him walk for little or nothing.