Calls for the Trail Blazers to break up their Damian Lillard–C.J. McCollum backcourt reached a fever pitch last summer. Portland had gotten swept in the previous two first rounds. The latest loss came as the No. 3 seed – the highest seed ever to get swept in a four-game first-round series.
But Trail Blazers president Neil Olshey held firm on keeping Lillard and McCollum together.
Those guards rewarded Olshey’s faith. Lillard hit an incredible series-winning 3-pointer against the Thunder in the first round. McCollum made several big shots against the Nuggets in the second round. Portland reached its first Western Conference finals in nearly two decades.
If keeping Lillard and McCollum, why other than for a season like that?
So, the Trail Blazers are doubling down. They extended Lillard (four years, projected $196 million) and McCollum (three years, $100 million) this summer.
Lillard’s super-max extension offer was nearly fait accompli once he qualified. It would’ve just been untenable to tell the franchise player he’s not worth that investment. Lillard is everything Portland could ask for – an elite player who works tirelessly to lift everyone around him. When designated-veteran-player extensions were designed, players like Lillard came to mind.
But I can’t shake the feeling not even he will live up to this deal. The salaries are so high and run from his age 31-34 seasons. And they don’t even kick for another two years. It’s so difficult to predict how Lillard will be playing in 2021, let alone 2025. If this doesn’t work with Lillard, it’d be a referendum on the whole super-max system. But maybe the system is that flawed.
Extending McCollum, who also had two years left on his deal, was less of an imperative. He just couldn’t feel as entitled to an extension offer. Maybe the price will be fair, though. It certainly isn’t outrageous. But like with Lillard, I don’t feel great about guaranteeing McCollum so much for his age 30-32 seasons.
This what happens when teams succeed, though. The Trail Blazers feel good about what they accomplished last season (as they should). They want to keep it going. Olshey and coach Terry Stotts also received contract extensions.
But the principals will have plenty of change around them.
Portland lost its entire postseason starting frontcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu (Magic) and Enes Kanter (Celtics) left via free agency. The Trail Blazers also traded Maurice Harkless to upgrade from Meyers Leonard to Hassan Whiteside.
Whiteside should help at center with Jusuf Nurkic still injured. But small forwards are generally more valuable than centers, which is why I disliked that trade for Portland – even with a couple surprisingly good moves to replace Harkless at small forward.
The Trail Blazers somehow got to trade Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore and re-sign Rodney Hood with the taxpayer mid-level exception(1+1, $11,721,900). But Bazemore and Hood skew more toward shooting guard on the positional spectrum.
Portland also drafted forward Nassir Little No. 25. I was lower than most on him, but even I thought getting him there presented good value. Still, he’s a project.
Another forward, Mario Hezonja (1+1 minimum), brings some raw skill. But he was available at the minimum for a reason.
I’m not sure how much Anthony Tolliver and Pau Gasol have left in the tank, but at one-year minimum deals, it’s worth finding out. Still, this is not a reliable big-man rotation.
Nurkic should help once he gets healthy. He was playing so well before getting hurt last season, which make Lillard’s and McCollum’s playoff accomplishments even more impressive. Those two led Portland with their top teammate sidelined.
Yet, context can also go the other way. The Trail Blazers advanced through the easier side of the Western Conference playoffs then got swept by the Warriors in the conference finals. With a different draw, Portland could have gotten eliminated early once again.
Of course, that didn’t happen. We know only what did happen.
The Trail Blazers flourished last postseason then, in the aftermath, had the sensible-looking, expensive offseason that typically follows a deep playoff run. I’m just not sure they’ll be better long-term for it.