The Portland Trail Blazers are at a crossroads. They’ve now lost in the first round in four of the past five seasons. Damian Lillard is 31 and CJ McCollum will turn 30 this offseason. If they can’t put a championship-caliber roster around that duo, it might be time for them to consider breaking it up before Father Time makes that decision for them.
For the time being, Lillard has given no indication that he would like to be traded. McCollum hasn’t either, but as Portland’s second-best player, he is theoretically the trade chip the Blazers can most easily use to reshape the roster around Lillard. The problem, according to The Athletic’s John Hollinger, is money. Most of the league reportedly views McCollum’s contract, which has three years and $100 million remaining, as having “slightly negative value.”
McCollum may be turning 30 this offseason, but he has been among the more durable players in basketball in recent years. A broken foot held him out of 25 games this season, but before that, he had missed only 25 games in the previous five seasons. His 3-point shooting suggests that he is likely to age well, and prior to getting hurt, he was well on his way to his first All-Star selection by averaging 26.7 points in his first 13 games.
The fact that he has never made an All-Star team might have something to do with this assessment. McCollum is getting paid like a superstar, and as good as he’s been for Portland, he just hasn’t produced like one. That might be a symptom of sharing the floor with another ball-dominant guard in Lillard. It might not be. But that perception likely affects his value around the league.
Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to trade talks. There might be teams that view McCollum’s contract as too cumbersome to absorb, but it only takes one team overlooking the money in favor of his talent to make a trade possible. Portland could certainly find several interested parties for a scorer like McCollum. The better question is whether or not they actually plan to deal him.
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At present, it appears unlikely. Blazers GM Neil Olshey said after exit interviews that 80 percent of his starting lineup was already in place, with the implication being that re-signing Norman Powell to fill that last spot was the plan. He also said that his next coach would have to be able to build a defense without drastic roster changes. But when Sean Highkin asked directly about McCollum possibly being dealt, Olshey offered a cryptic answer rather than an outright deal.
“Has anything we’ve ever done gotten out in public before it’s happened in regards to trades or free agency?” Olshey asked. “We don’t discuss our players in a public forum, it’s not fair to them. It’s not what we do here… but we also understand this is a business.”
The Powell trade worked wonders for Portland. Lineups featuring him, Lillard and McCollum outscored opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and found similar success against Denver. But the Nuggets won the series anyway, and it’s worth asking how much postseason upside a roster featuring three small guards really has. The Powell trade offered Portland an alternative if they choose to seek it out. He and Lillard could form the new Blazers backcourt with McCollum being dealt for help in other areas.
That doesn’t make a move likely. Portland has given no indication of what it plans to do this offseason, and its coaching hire will likely be the first signal of what direction it plans to move in. For now, McCollum is a Blazer. That might change and it might not, but if it does, Hollinger’s report is distressing. Portland would need to get a substantial return on McCollum if it plans to use him as a launching pad into contention next season.