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Back(court) to the Future: The Blazers Extend CJ McCollum, and Their Status Quo

Portland inked the guard to a three-year extension on Tuesday, and the team’s duo of McCollum and Damian Lillard is now locked in through 2024. But are those two enough to get the team over the hump in the West?

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The Blazers are betting on continuity ... again. Through thick, thin, numerous playoff eliminations, and various calls for the team’s backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to be split up, Portland has doubled down. And this time, the Blazers are locking things in through 2024.

On Tuesday, McCollum agreed to a three-year, $100 million extension, which expands the deal he signed in 2016 to a five-year, $157 million contract (the extension will start in 2021). Lillard, who agreed to a four-year, $196 million supermax extension earlier this summer, is signed through the 2025 season.

Lillard’s extension includes a player option for the last season of the deal—when he would make $54.25 million—and if he opts in (spoiler alert: he will), the team will pay him and McCollum a cool $414.34 million over the next six seasons, according to Jeff Siegel of the salary cap site Early Bird Rights. That is the cost of both remaining relevant and staying relatively competitive in a market that likely won’t attract big-name free agents. Portland doesn’t have much of a choice, and this pairing has gotten the team to the Western Conference finals. But that’s still no number to sneeze at, especially considering that, unlike the newly minted powerhouses 1,000 miles south in L.A., the Blazers’ chances in the playoffs will probably come down to how well they managed to outfit the roster around their stars.

For the past five years or so, Portland has tinkered with the outskirts of the roster constantly, adding major pieces like Jusuf Nurkic while also buying low on guys like Rodney Hood. The core duo has remained the same through it all, and they’ve watched as superteams were formed and destroyed and the idea of the dynamic duo came back into fashion. Now, as the Warriors have lost their status as automatic title favorites, the league has become a repository for star-studded pairings.

The Blazers have had their own version all along, but it has yet to result in a happy ending. Angst has followed the McCollum-Lillard backcourt, largely because the Blazers kept running into the Warriors wall nearly every season—including last year. Much like the Raptors’ relationship with LeBron when he was in Cleveland, the Blazers just couldn’t get past their Goliath. Now he is gone, and while there is a feeling of openness around the NBA for the first time in a long time, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the other pairings have higher ceilings than Portland’s. The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; the Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis; the Rockets have James Harden and Russell Westbrook; and the Warriors still have Steph Curry and Draymond Green. Even the Nuggets, who don’t quite have a headlining couple, have a deeper roster than the Blazers. And that’s just in the West.

Portland has made some interesting moves outside of Dame and CJ’s extensions this offseason. The team traded for Hassan Whiteside, added Kent Bazemore, retained Hood, and let go of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. Whiteside is Nurkic insurance as the center takes his time to return from a broken leg. Hood and Bazemore should be reliable wing options next to Lillard and McCollum. And the Blazers’ ceiling could expand dramatically with improvement from Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons, both high-upside draft picks that the Blazers are hoping can add value this season. Collins seems primed for a breakout year. And Simons could become the backup scoring guard they need—but there’s a chance he is still a year away.

To say the Blazers were handcuffed into making this McCollum extension happen feels harsh, if only because both Lillard and McCollum are All-Star-caliber guards who can still get better—especially McCollum, given he’s only 27. But the Blazers are now locked into this reality for the foreseeable future. It’s not a bad place to be depending on your perspective; the pessimistic view says they’ve probably already hit their ceiling, but the optimistic outlook says that staying competitive for this long should eventually get them their day in the sun. How McCollum and Lillard perform through their contracts will ultimately be what determines which view comes true.