With C.J. McCollum agreeing to a four-year, $106 million extension on Monday, the Portland Trail Blazers have now committed over $300 million in new contracts this offseason alone. After starting last season with the lowest opening payroll in the league, the Blazers are now firmly in the top 10 and will likely enter the luxury tax bracket in the coming years, when McCollum’s new deal takes effect. Portland has traded its financial flexibility to make an investment in a core that the franchise believes can grow together. The Blazers’ rebuild turned out to be more of a reappraisal.
Before last season, the Blazers’ projected 2015–16 win total in Vegas was set at 26.5, a figure they obliterated en route to the second round of the playoffs. Few had expected a team that lost four of its starters from the previous season (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez) to regain its relevancy so quickly. They became the talk of the NBA after going 11–1 in a month-long stretch starting in late January; they were the only team last season to win a game against the Warriors in the regular season and the playoffs. They were playing with house money, but now they’re betting big on what they’ve developed over the past few years — their new talent acquisitions (Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli) figure to be high-level reserves, but reserves nonetheless. The team has identified the tandem of Damian Lillard and McCollum as its nucleus, and when you make that kind of assertion, the last thing you want to do is waste precious time.
The Blazers will have to reckon with some of the downsides of going all in sooner than later (losing their financial flexibility and having to cut corners trying to keep the luxury tax at bay). That said, the McCollum extension was a no-brainer. He would have gone for the max in the semi-open market next season as a restricted free agent, and other teams would have offered all the perks (a trade kicker, a player option) that weren’t included in the Blazers’ deal. Securing dynamic talent is imperative, and McCollum is really, really good.
He is one of the more versatile perimeter scorers in the league, capable of creating his own shot off the dribble, playing off screens, and spotting up. A career 41 percent shooter from 3, he has the ability to be effective anywhere on the perimeter, with or without the ball. McCollum not only eases the pressure on Lillard, but capitalizes on Terry Stotts’s flow offense and empowers unlikely passing savants like Mason Plumlee to make those reads while catching the ball at the elbow or rolling to the rim. But the true joys of watching McCollum are revealed when he has the ball in his hands. While he isn’t particularly long or explosive, he has a database full of hesitations, crossovers, step-backs, and step-throughs that are pieced together unprompted, like a pop quiz for his defender. He experiments with the dimensions of his own trickery — he is equally adept at disarming his defender with a quick and compact crossover as he is with elongated, rhythmic lateral strides.
McCollum is a master of creating space, and while he makes it look easy, his shots aren’t: Last season, nearly 29 percent of McCollum’s field goal attempts from at least 10 feet away were tightly defended. Of players with at least 200 field goal attempts in the restricted area, only Emmanuel Mudiay and Derrick Rose converted at a lower percentage than McCollum’s 49.3 percent. It doesn’t help that McCollum hardly ever gets to the line; there aren’t many prolific scorers in the history of the game that can match his paltry free throw attempt rate. It seems equal parts lack of top-end burst, reticence to absorb contact given his injury history, and a tendency to fall in love with fadeaway midrange jumpers. If McCollum could apply some of his guile to drawing fouls, à la James Harden, he’d be a truly complete scorer.
Portland’s foregrounding of McCollum and his basketball soulmate, Lillard, isn’t just about fostering their Steve Francis–Cuttino Mobley–like relationship. It’s a signal to players like Allen Crabbe and young Noah Vonleh that the Blazers are a team that rewards patience. By putting Lillard and McCollum on the same timetable, they’ve established a clear pecking order on the roster. Portland is banking on a very modern idea that having several playmakers on the court with the ability to shoot behind the arc off the dribble means you control the chessboard — or at least that you’re never out of a game.
During that incredible February run, the Blazers were the alt-Warriors, trading in the blue and white for red and black. But offensive versatility was never in doubt — they were a top-10 offense last season, and in the top three after the All-Star break. But the Blazers had serious problems on the opposite end of the court and didn’t address the issue with a long-term solution in the offseason.
Lillard and McCollum are the Lillard and McCollum of bad defensive backcourts. In four games against them last season, Harden averaged 39.5 points per game; both the Raptors’ and Warriors’ starting backcourts averaged 62 points against the Blazers. Among starting guard duos who played at least 60 games together, only three had a worse defensive rating than Lillard and McCollum: the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, the Knicks’ Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo, and the Nuggets’ Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris. The Lakers and Nuggets both started teenage point guards; the Knicks started an aging cured meat producer. What’s the Blazers’ excuse?
Instead of throwing their fortune at Hassan Whiteside or Dwight Howard for the rim protection the team so desperately needs, the Blazers essentially decided to run it all back by committee. Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis are the team’s most consistent defenders, specifically in the pick-and-roll. Meyers Leonard and Plumlee are back, but their value to the team is largely based on their skills on offense. Ezeli, the new addition, will be the de facto rim protector (provided he’s reassembled himself after disintegrating in the Finals), but he appears to be a stopgap as the team finds out what high-potential players like Leonard and Vonleh can become in the upcoming season. Of all the big men on Portland’s roster, only Leonard and Aminu have guaranteed futures with the team. But with the Blazers fending off the luxury tax starting in 2017, figuring out their front line in the future will be much less manageable than if they’d come to a long-term decision this summer.
Portland is a work in progress with very little wiggle room going forward. The fifth-youngest team in the NBA last year, the Blazers are no longer feel-good insurgents. They’re now just another maxed-out team with outsize expectations attached to the equally enormous bill they’re footing — they’re about to take their first steps into the realities of adulthood, and all that entails.