Sports

If Lillard and McCollum didn’t work, then why was it so much fun?


Dame Lillard (l.) and CJ McCollum

Dame Lillard (l.) and CJ McCollum
Illustration: Getty Images

I just saw CJ McCollum in Chicago like a week ago. He seemed fine — he had 29 on 13-of-23 from the floor and played well — but the team wasn’t itself anymore. It was a Sunday morning, and I was in bed when my girlfriend asked, “Hey Portland’s playing today. Want to go?”

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Like any good Trail Blazers fan when asked if they want to see Rip City when it’s in town visiting, I said, “Hell yeah.” Honestly, though, I didn’t even know they were playing at the United Center that day, as my usual fervor for the Blazers has been muted this year because Damian Lillard is hurt and they’re not very good. (I always follow them, just not in the normal “When are they coming to town?” style that I’m accustomed to this season.)

I thought Portland would be good because they usually are with Lillard and McCollum heading up the backcourt, but Murphy’s Law has been in effect all season, and now it’s over. Not the Lillard era (hopefully), the CJ-Dame era. The Blazers traded McCollum, Tony Snell, and Larry Nance to the New Orleans Pelicans for Josh Hart, Tomas Satoransky, Nickel Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada, and a first-round pick, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

An experiment that many already knew the results of, it turns out having two of the most talented shotmakers I’ve ever rooted for doesn’t matter when they’re both 6-foot-3. Even if it didn’t produce a title, it was cool, though.

I can’t remember if it was after McCollum’s breakout playoff series (the beatdown at the hands of Memphis when he finally saw playing time because Portland was beaten so badly) or after his breakout season (the year following The Revenant-esque massacre when Lamarcus Aldridge bolted for San Antonio because he was mauled so badly) when McCollum responded to a question about the next progression in his game with something along the lines of, “I’m just going to keep working on my offense.”

I was so mad at the time because he was already really good offensively. Portland didn’t need more offense, they needed defense, and how much could he actually improve? It turns out, quite a bit. In 3J’s seven seasons as a starter, he’s never averaged less than 20 points per game, mastered the mid-range, consistently shot in the high 30s/low 40s from 3, genuinely made some of the toughest shots I’ve ever seen, scored 50 in 29 minutes among many other outbursts, and crossed over so many people he started CJ’s SVU, a running social media bit based off of Law & Order where he’d add Special Victims to the Unit with each ankle breaker.

Victims include Dirk Nowitzki.

Steph Curry.

The entire Denver Nuggets roster in Game 7 of the second round of the 2019 playoffs.

McCollum had improved every season, and it looked like he may have finally gotten an All-Star spot last year. He extended his range, upping his scoring average and 3 attempts per game, and improved as a playmaker, averaging close to five assists, but Clint Capella’s fat foot broke McCollum’s foot, and he was limited to 47 games, the lowest since his rookie season when he played just 38.

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He didn’t look right when he came back late in the season, or the playoffs, and he hasn’t been locked in this year either. I don’t know if it’s the malaise that sets in once your best player and leader gets injured for the season, the extra defensive attention that comes with now being the No. 1 option, the trade rumors or what, but you’d think a Lillard-less scenario would be prime for McCollum to hoist up all the shots he wants and make a run at the All-Star Game.

He’s simply not that kind of player, and I don’t mean All-Star when I say “that kind.” I mean the type of player who would look for his own stats instead of the player who makes the right play, who shares the ball, who recognizes that Anfernee Simons is in the same type of situation he was in early in his career when he finally got his chance to play after being patient on the bench.

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I’d like to think what ifs and injuries were largely the reason this Blazers were never even competitive against Golden State, but small teams are always volatile in a league that values size. If Jusuf Nurkic’s leg doesn’t snap, if McCollum doesn’t break his foot, if Looney doesn’t land on Lillard, and on and if-ing on all if-ing day long.

I don’t know what will happen to Lillard, or if any of the forgettable pieces they got in return for McCollum will contribute to anything more than a rebuild. If Lillard is indeed staying like he says he wants to, then this move was made with his blessing, and the Blazers are going to sign Simons to an extension, and look to be active with the assets, trade exception, and remaining cap space they acquired/freed up in this and the Norm Powell trade.

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If these deals weren’t part of a larger plan to surround Lillard with a roster more complimentary to his size and better suited to compete for a title, then they were shit trades. McCollum has been in trade rumors for years, but the only realistic trade partner I ever would’ve accepted in return would’ve been Ben Simmons (but not if it took 17 draft picks to do it). The best asset they got in both deals was either a first-round pick or Alexander-Walker.

There are three possible explanations for selling off assets like you’re moving to Spain. The first is interim general manger Joe Cronin has no fucking clue what he’s doing. The second is he’s got in good with new coach Chauncey Billups and Lillard — which is true if you believe The Athletic and Lillard — and his eyes are set on targets we can’t see. The third is he’s taking a cue from ownership and gutting this roster so he can get on its good side and maybe overlook a rebuild as the full-time GM.

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I hope the owners aren’t hitting the reset button without the guy who’s going to be holding the sticks because it would’ve been prudent to let the incoming GM oversee the teardown as opposed to handing him the bag of fecal matter they’ve received thus far. If this is Cronin’s audition tape, I’ve seen enough to call in the next candidate.

The optimistic part of my galaxy brain says maybe Lillard recruited a player during his time on the set of Space Jam 2 or at the Olympics over the summer. The overwhelmingly negative part of my narrow-minded “All my sports teams suck, and now the Blazers do, too” brain says get ready for another punch to the dick.

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The people who said Portland can’t win a title with a Lillard-McCollum backcourt were right. They’re officially right. But this team was an underdog from the start, and they largely overachieved for six seasons considering how far they went with a backcourt from Lehigh and Weber State (and Neil Olshey as their GM).

Fans always want to see a perfect ending for players they like, to have that final memory of them be like so many good ones before it. Sure, I would’ve liked to see at least a Finals appearance for McCollum, but that’s not how it goes.

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When I was at that Bulls-Blazers game, my final time seeing McCollum adorning Portland’s pinwheel in person, I only snapped one sequence of the action. He took a handoff, dribbled to the free-throw line, and then floated up his pretty runner I’ve seen him make a million times. The final picture is perfectly timed, catching the ball just as it leaves his hand and glides over the outstretched fingers of the defender.

The shot was errant, which is funny because it’s probably the only miss I distinctly remember from his time as a Trail Blazer. The guy was/is/always will be a bucket. Good luck in New Orleans and thanks for the memories, CJ.

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