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Where the Trail Blazers Go After the CJ McCollum Trade

Portland cleaned up their Superfund roster issues, but what now?

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have traded CJ McCollum, along with forward Larry Nance, Jr. and wing Tony Snell, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, and Didi Louzada. The deal also gives the Blazers a 2022 first-round pick that will convey if it falls between the 5th and 14th spots in the draft, plus two future second-round picks.

Before we analyze the deal and its implications, it’s appropriate to stop for a minute and reflect on McCollum’s career in Portland. Over nine seasons, he’s proven again and again that he’s one of the best scorers the franchise has ever seen. He averaged over 20 points per game in seven straight seasons. He also averaged 40% from the three-point arc with the Blazers, and that wasn’t even the strongest part of his offensive game. McCollum’s mid-range wizardry was incomparable, ranking among the greats in Blazers lore. Others scored more prolifically. Others made bigger shots with bigger impact. But if you wanted one bucket from one player, especially if the range fell between 8-20 feet, CJ would be on a very short list to take that shot.

McCollum was dogged by trade rumors (and frantic suggestions) during his latter years in Portland. That’s understandable. The defensive fit with Damian Lillard was never comfortable. Even though they had exciting moments together, the team didn’t win big with McCollum and Lillard as starters.

That shouldn’t stop Blazers fans from acknowledging that, had McCollum played in another era, or had Lillard’s megawatt presence not occupied the primary spotlight, CJ would have been considered legendary. Only four players have scored more points for this franchise than he. Only one regular starter owns a higher three-point percentage, and coming in second to Kiki Vandeweghe is no shame. He’s in a virtual deadlock with Brandon Roy for point-per-game average, the duo sitting in the 7th-8th spots, with only franchise greats ahead.

Because of his position and Portland’s track record over the last decade, McCollum is destined to be an under-appreciated star, one of the players that makes you go, “Oh yeah, him!” when his name is invoked decades down the road. But anyone who saw his assassin-like pull-up jumper will be able to tell you it was unforgettable. Even if Portland should have traded him—probably should have a while ago, actually—that remains true.

Returning to the deal at hand... the Blazers gave up McCollum, Nance, Jr., and Tony Snell for a few prospects, a chance at a mid-to-low-level lottery pick this year, and cap relief. It wasn’t a big haul. There are no franchise saviors—not a single big name—coming Portland’s way. This trade wasn’t about that. It was about options.

You may remember during the heyday of Neil Olshey’s reign, he used to tout all the possible ways Portland could improve. “We could make a trade, or use our draft picks to trade up, or make conventional selections and get good, young players, or hold pat and use our cap space next year.” Whether the franchise could actually make good on the promises was another matter, but they always had choices.

By last summer, the options had dwindled to zero. When the Blazers traded for Nance, Jr., they spent the last conceivable draft pick, used up the last drops of cap space, and had condensed the functional/useful part of their roster to just seven players, with everybody else on minimum contracts. There was nothing left to do, no assets to facilitate a change in course. Going further beyond boundaries might have been possible theoretically, but the cost would be high and the returns marginal. They had come to their endgame, It was a single path, straight ahead.

As we now know, that path led straight towards a cliff. Half the roster got injured. (Somewhat predictably, given the personnel.) The team never gelled. They began to lose in droves. Going forward down that road would have been insane, but how do you exit a highway with no off-ramps?

This trade—along with their earlier move, dealing Norman Powell and Robert Covington for similar returns—was all about creating some.

The most obvious way to change a team’s fortunes is infusing new talent. The McCollum/Nance deal didn’t exactly do that. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was the 17th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s only 23. Josh Hart is 27, still in his prime. Hart is a starter, Alexander-Walker is not so far. Neither one averages more than 14 points per game. Nobody the Blazers acquired shoots the three well. Portland got more scrappy, maybe better defensively if they can fit together, but they didn’t revolutionize the team in any way. They didn’t open up new hope, even. They got role players with potential.

The draft pick offers slightly brighter hope. It’s disappointing, but understandable, that it’s Top 4 protected. Still, there’s hope for instant improvement. If the Blazers want to realize it fully, they have to hope their own 2022 selection goes to the top as the Pelicans continue to stumble. Ideally Portland would be able recreate their franchise resurrection in 2006, when LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd pick) and Brandon Roy (6th) breathed new life into dry bones. They’d need to get lucky to pull that off, first hitting those spots in the lottery, then making the picks correctly. It’s possible.

The more mundane option, also the most bankable, is the financial savings. The Blazers sent away around $43 million in salary in this deal, and that’s just counting this year. They would have owed McCollum and Nance, Jr. another $43 million next season, then McCollum $35.8 million the season beyond.

Between the new players combined, the Blazers took back $27 million in salary this year. With expiring contracts and non-guaranteed deals, they could trim that down to just $7 million next season, plus any buy-off in Hart’s contract should they choose not to retain him. That would provide cap savings north of $30 million next summer.

With cap room and 1-2 lottery picks, Portland’s options are back. It’s not much, just conceptual. But when you were on the highway to hell and paying through the nose for the privilege, any alternate direction is a positive.

The question remains: what will they do with these new options? As the Olshey Era taught us, just having choices isn’t a cure. You have to capitalize on them. Portland didn’t have any real alternative but to try this kind of franchise fix. Whether they can pull it off remains to be seen.

The lottery avenue is the best hope for immediate success. They’re depending on ping-pong balls and another team’s performance in order to hit big, but even if those don’t pan out, the Blazers will be leaning on their scouting corps more heavily this June than they have in years.

Saving cap dollars opens up room for trades that otherwise were impractical, as they would have sent the team soaring over the luxury tax. The Blazers now have disposable dollars, money that’s going to be spent on someone. If they can engineer another trade for a coveted player, they’re now able to absorb their dream acquisition without worry. That said, who do they have left to trade? Unless Jusuf Nurkic has value, the cupboard is getting bare. Four of their top eight players are already out the door, replaced by counterparts of modest value. Their new draft picks may factor into this equation if they hope to pull off a significant deal.

Portland now has plenty of room to retain Nurkic and Anfernee Simons...a near impossibility before their recent deals. That may be one of the primary uses of their dollars.

Beyond that, they’ll be fishing in the free agent market, hoping to land the Big One. The problem there is that 26 other teams are already lined up at the dock, many with better free agent bait. The Blazers may have money, but the best players are going to get paid no matter where they go. They still haven’t solved the basic conundrum of attracting difference-making free agents to the franchise. There’s no winning arc, no clear forward plan...no reason for anyone to come to Portland right now. Absent another trade, they’re not going to develop one between now and July, either. For these reasons, using cap space for signings should raise an eyebrow. It’s an option, but it may not be a great one.

The elephant on the nightstand is how Damian Lillard will process all of this. Media moguls are already saying that this doesn’t affect Lillard’s decision to stay or go. That’s true as far as it goes, which is to say it’s true mid-season in 2022. Whether it will remain true for a 32-year-old Lillard this summer—a Lillard looking at a roster stocked with rookies, middling youngsters, modest free agents, Anfernee Simons, and his pal Jusuf Nurkic—remains to be seen. Just as the Blazers had little-to-no choice about blowing up the roster once the record started to go south, Lillard might have little-to-no choice about his future if winning is important to him.

But those are concerns for another day. For now, the Blazers now have paths into a different future than the one they were doomed to had they not made these moves. What the years ahead actually hold is murky, but at least there are possibilities. And bad possibilities are better than no possibilities. Ultimately, that’s what this trade deadline clean-up project was all about.