Does C.J. McCollum Fit Into the Future of Portland?

The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off of a first-round playoff series loss for the 4th time in the last five years.

Though Portland has the longest active streak of making the playoffs, there is nothing to show for it. The closest team that ever got to contending was in 2018-19 when they made the Western Conference Finals, but even that resulted in getting swept off the court by a superior Warriors team. Damian Lillard is one of the greatest players in franchise history and is in his prime right now. Since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio before the 2015-2016 season, the best player put next to Lillard has been shooting guard C.J. McCollum. After two years of small workload, McCollum burst onto the scene in 2015-16, upping his scoring average from 6.8 to 20.8 PPG. Joining Lillard in a dangerous offensive backcourt, the two have been the faces of the franchise since then. However, though both great players, the partnership hasn’t resulted in any true success. Now, the speculation of trade has started. Is it warranted? Let’s see:

Defense and Size:

Anyone who has watched the Blazers play over the last few years knows that Portland’s problem is on the defensive side of the ball. An offense led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has been explosive and effective for years. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to stop the other team in order to win games — Portland has struggled mightily in that regard. A significant reason for that is that the two best players on the team are both small guards. Lillard stands around 6’2 and McCollum at 6’3. Compared to the average person that may not seem short, but the conversation changes when playing a team like Philadelphia who trots out 6’10 Ben Simmons and 6’6 Danny Green in their backcourt. Two small guards who are below average defenders takes up a huge chunk of the salary cap, and that severely limits the ability to build a strong defensive team. Even with some solid defenders on the roster like Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, a strong team takes more than two players to anchor a competent defense. In this aspect, trading McCollum for a bigger player who can also defend makes a lot of sense. The defense will never be good enough for true contention with both Lillard and McCollum on the roster.

Skillset:

Apart from the defense and size arguments, there is also an issue in the redundancy of skillsets. Lillard and McCollum both boast an array of offensive moves and an elite ability to score the ball from the outside. Both players also have struggled consistently finishing at the rim and defending the other team, not to mention the newest Blazer Norman Powell, who is yet another player with a similar skillset. Pairing Damian Lillard with a better-sized wing with slashing tendencies and capabilities would even further-unleash the potential of Lillard. It is well-known that Lillard has elite range and shooting overall, but he also is an underrated creator for others, especially spot-up shooters. With guys like Anfernee Simons and Carmelo Anthony on the roster capitalizing off of Lillard’s playmaking, sacrificing some perimeter shooting in the form of McCollum is absolutely doable. Even with McCollum scoring over 20 PPG for the last six years straight, the offense wouldn’t falter nearly enough to justify keeping the current core together.

Situation:

As mentioned before, franchise superstar Damian Lillard is in his prime right now. A win-now trade to contend before Lillard’s decline makes sense. Lillard has many times stated his undying loyalty to the team and the city of Portland. With all he has done for the franchise, he deserves an all-in shot at winning a ring before he retires or moves on from Portland. The firing of Terry Stotts was a good first step, but there is more to be done, and a big trade like this could be just the thing.

Potential targets:

It is truly impossible to know how certain teams value players and picks. That being said, there are stars out there that fit the target description and there is potential for offers to be made.

  • Paul George

PG13 is incredibly talented. His struggles in the playoffs have come to define him in the eyes of some, but he is still an All-NBA caliber player: Elite in all facets of the game offensively, and also a great defender. Paul George should be a top target in a CJ McCollum trade.

  • Ben Simmons

The Ben Simmons trade rumors have been going on for a long time now. Though he and Lillard are both ball-dominant, this pairing would be dangerous. Simmons is among the league’s best defenders and is incredible at playmaking and finishing inside. Spacing wouldn’t be an issue with all of the shooting on Portland’s roster. The Blazers’ shooters would open up the lane and allow Simmons to feast. He would be expensive to trade for, but worth whatever it would cost.

  • Dillon Brooks

This is a more realistic option than the first two, but still would be incredibly effective. A straight up swap of McCollum for Brooks likely wouldn’t be what happens, but other assets would be included. Either way, Dillon Brooks is a 6’7 agitator on defense. He can lock down people of any offensive skillset. He excels on the other side of the ball too. He put up a career best 17.2 PPG this season and boasts an underrated offensive game that includes good perimeter shooting.

  • Tobias Harris

If CJ is going to get traded, this seems like the most likely return. Philly likely wants to keep Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together for the long haul. The problem with that is spacing. Tobias Harris is a very good shooter, but not a floor stretcher on the level of McCollum. McCollum gives Philly the spacing they need to continue with their current core. Harris brings a new offensive skillset and a huge upgrade in defense to Portland. Of the four targets listed, this makes the most sense for both sides.

Summary:

McCollum is an excellent player who is a Portland fan-favorite and a great person. But his future as a Blazer just doesn’t make sense. A trade for one of the mentioned targets, or even some other players, gives CJ a fresh start and Portland a new opportunity to contend. Call it a mutual breakup. In the end, it would probably end up benefitting both parties. After the firing of Terry Stotts, moves are on the horizon. Don’t be surprised if this is one of the first.