Trade season is here, which means it’s time to litter the internet with fake deals. For our “Who Says No?” series, Ringer staffers will pass along their best trade ideas, along with explanations as to why the agreements make too much sense to pass up. Got it? OK, who says no to ...
The Orlando Magic and the Portland Trail Blazers are stuck in different types of ruts. The former is in a never-ending rebuilding project, while the latter can’t break out of the middle of the Western Conference. Nothing has changed this season. Orlando has fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference after a quick start, and Portland is one of six teams within two games of each other in the standings out West. Their underlying problem is the same: They aren’t getting the most out of their key players. Aaron Gordon would be better in a more complementary role, while C.J. McCollum would be better in a featured one. Trading Gordon for McCollum could jump-start both their careers and their new teams.
McCollum has been in Damian Lillard’s shadow his entire career. He was drafted a year after Lillard, and he didn’t become a regular in the starting lineup until his third year in the NBA, when Lillard was already an All-Star. McCollum, despite only being 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, had to shift to shooting guard, where he gives up a ton of size. The two have become one of the most explosive duos in the league, combining to average 46.8 points per game this season. But there’s only room for one ball-dominant player in a backcourt; McCollum, the little brother in the relationship, has always taken the back seat.
One of the big changes for Portland this season is that McCollum is spending even less time on the ball than before. The Blazers used to stagger the minutes of their two star guards so that each had time to run the offense over the course of the game. They have gone to a more distinct second unit with Evan Turner as the primary ball handler, and McCollum and Lillard playing almost the whole game together. McCollum went from playing 64.9 percent of his minutes with Lillard last season to 91.5 percent this season. As a result, he is averaging the fewest points (20.6 per game on 45.6 percent shooting) and assists (2.6) since he became a starter in the 2015-16 season.
McCollum hasn’t complained publicly. He and Lillard seem to have a good relationship, and there doesn’t appear to be any friction about their place in the pecking order. The issue is more that they aren’t making each other better. They both have the shooting ability to play off the other, but a backcourt with two 6-foot-3 guards is giving up a lot of size on defense. The Blazers start most games at a defensive disadvantage, and the offensive synergy between Lillard and McCollum isn’t enough to make up the difference. Their loss to the Pelicans in the first round of last season’s playoffs was the perfect example of how that dynamic plays out.
New Orleans blitzed almost every pick-and-roll that Lillard and McCollum ran, forcing them to give up the ball and daring their teammates to beat them in four-on-three situations. Portland didn’t have a roll man who could take advantage by making plays on the move, like Draymond Green does in the pick-and-roll with Steph Curry. Neither Lillard nor McCollum is big enough for that role, so all they could do was watch helplessly as the other was taken out of the game. A team whose best player is a pick-and-roll guard should pair him with a high-level playmaking forward, which Lillard has never had.
Gordon fits that role perfectly. He is more well-rounded than any of the current frontcourt players in Portland. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, he is an elite athlete with a high basketball IQ who can match up with at least three positions on defense. He came into the league with the ability to put the ball on the floor, read the defense, and make the right decision, and he has worked tirelessly to improve as a shooter. Gordon is averaging 15.6 points on 44.6 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game this season, while shooting 35.2 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game.
Blitzing Lillard on the pick-and-roll would be more dangerous if it created open lanes to the rim for Gordon. He wouldn’t just be looking to make the next pass. He can drive and dunk on any player in the league if they have to rotate over. Gordon combines the ball skills of Turner with the size and athleticism of Al-Farouq Aminu, and even that might be underselling just how athletic he is. Many NBA executives think he’s one of the most underutilized players in the league. He’s in his fifth season, but he’s still only 23 years old. He could easily develop into an All-Star–caliber player in the right situation.
Gordon has never played with a high-level point guard in Orlando. He spent his first four seasons next to Elfrid Payton, a poor outside shooter who doesn’t put much stress on the defense. Payton, who is now in New Orleans, has been replaced in the starting lineup this season by D.J. Augustin, a journeyman who has played for eight teams in 11 seasons in the NBA. Augustin is a decent player, but no defense is going to double him and create open driving lanes for Gordon.
There’s an even bigger long-term issue with Gordon in Orlando. He is blocking the development of their last two lottery picks: Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Gordon and Isaac are power forwards who can double as small-ball centers, and they are stuck in an uneasy pairing as starting forwards next to another center. Neither Gordon nor Isaac ever play at the 5, since that position is occupied by Nikola Vucevic and Bamba. Bamba and Isaac were the first two lottery picks made by GM John Hammond in Orlando, and it seems unlikely that he would be willing to give up on either without at least trying to make it work. He should be putting shooters and a point guard around them, not a combo forward who needs to play their positions.
The key for their development is finding a point guard who can create easy shots for them. Isaac and Bamba are both fairly raw players who only spent one season in college. They were drafted on their athletic upside and offensive potential, not where they are now. Neither can create their own shot off the dribble or be a consistent 3-point shooter, although both have shown promise in the latter. They need a point guard who can spoon-feed them open looks; a player like that would help them build their confidence and grow into bigger roles over time. Isaac and Bamba are even less polished than Gordon was at the same stage in his career. Playing with a high-level point guard could accelerate their development so they aren’t where Gordon is now in the 2020s.
McCollum is the best chance for Orlando to get that player. The Magic won’t attract a star like Kemba Walker in free agency, and teams rarely let good young point guards walk. They will have to either gamble on a backup in restricted free agency like Terry Rozier or Delon Wright, swoop in on a player whose original team no longer wants him like Dennis Smith Jr., or draft someone like Ja Morant, a sophomore at Murray State who has shot up boards this season. Rozier and Wright may not move the needle enough, and pairing a younger point guard with a two young big men is the blind leading the blind. The Magic have been rebuilding for almost a decade. Committing to either Smith or Morant means staying on that path for at least two to three seasons, even in a best-case scenario. Situations like McCollum’s in Portland, where a good point guard in his prime is blocked by an even better one, are rare.
McCollum would put up huge numbers in Orlando. He’s a proven scorer who has averaged 21.5 points on 45.7 percent shooting and 3.6 assists per game in four seasons as a starter in Portland. He can explode when given the opportunity. He has had 37 games in his career where he has scored 30 points or more, and he has scored over 40 three times. He’s an elite shooter who can pull-up from far beyond the 3-point line, and he combines that with the ball-handling ability to create space off the dribble and the vision to find the open man. McCollum fits the mold of where the point guard position is going. Even a poor man’s version of Damian Lillard would be an incredibly valuable player in Orlando. Defenses have to account for McCollum as soon as he crosses half court. Just his presence on the floor would make everyone around him better.
The Magic have nothing to lose. They are sliding out of the playoff race, and they have to find a long-term answer to the logjam up front with Gordon, Isaac, and Bamba. They would have no answer at point guard and no easy path to getting one beyond hoping they can develop someone they select in the draft. McCollum might not be happy about being traded, but Orlando could at least sell him on being The Man there. Either way, they would have long-term security since he’s under contract for two more seasons after this one. It would be worth it even if he ends up leaving since the next two seasons are crucial in the development of Isaac and Bamba.
The situation is a little trickier for Portland. The trade would create an unbalanced roster without a clear replacement for McCollum, and the Blazers can’t afford to punt another year of Lillard’s prime. The easiest solution is to add Terrence Ross, who is in the last year of his contract, to the deal. Ross, a Portland native, is averaging 13.9 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting as a sixth man in Orlando. He should be able to raise those numbers in a bigger role playing off Lillard, and he has started for playoff teams in Toronto. At 6-foot-7 and 206 pounds, Ross is much bigger and more athletic than McCollum, and he is just as deadly as a shooter. He’s in the 96th percentile of pick-and-roll scorers this season on a healthy number (121) of attempts. And while he’s not as good of a playmaker, McCollum isn’t being asked to be one in Portland anymore.
The financials are straightforward. Portland would need to send someone with McCollum ($25.8 million) to equal the salaries of Gordon ($21.6 million) and Ross ($10.5 million). They could use either Mo Harkless ($10.7 million) or Meyers Leonard ($10.6 million). Harkless, a prototypical 3-and-D forward, is more valuable than Leonard, but he has struggled to stay healthy. Portland could do without either if they had Gordon, but they would likely prefer to keep Harkless. They would have to give up a first-round draft pick as a trade sweetener regardless, since both Harkless and Leonard have an extra year on their deal, unlike Ross. Orlando would then have two first-rounders and three second-rounders in this year’s draft to either upgrade their roster now or make a trade in the offseason.
This version of the Blazers would give Lillard the best chance to make a deep run in the playoffs since LaMarcus Aldridge left. He would be the only player under 6-foot-7 in a starting lineup with Ross, Harkless, Gordon, and Jusuf Nurkic. That group would put a lot more size and shooting ability around the pick-and-roll between Lillard and Nurkic, and they could get even more athleticism and shooting by going smaller with either Zach Collins or Al-Farouq Aminu in at center instead of Nurkic. Add Turner and Seth Curry, and they would have a legitimate nine-man rotation that could match up with anyone in the West outside of the Warriors. Lillard has never been in a playoff series where the opposing team didn’t have the option of blitzing him to take him out of his rhythm. Changing that is the best chance Portland has of making some noise.
Portland and Orlando are on opposite ends of the same problem. The Blazers have an elite point guard whom they have never been able to build around, and the Magic have a group of young players who need an elite point guard to develop. It’s win-win for everyone. The ceiling for a team built around Lillard and Gordon is higher than one with Lillard and McCollum, and the ceiling for a team built around McCollum is higher than one with Gordon. Both teams will have to make a trade at some point to get out of their current situations, and neither is likely to get a much better offer. Let’s make it happen.