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The CJ McCollum Trade Has Boom-or-Bust Potential for the Pelicans

New Orleans anted up for the longtime Blazers guard, wagering that a splash of scoring and playmaking can make them a playoff team (especially if Zion comes back). But there’s no guarantee this won’t play out like it did last time the franchise tried to press fast-forward on its rebuild.

We’ve met the Pelicans at a very strange time in their lives. On one hand, they’re just 21-32, on pace for the franchise’s worst record in six years. On the other, thanks to the carnage and chaos surrounding them at the bottom of the West, they’re also in line for a play-in berth. Various projection models peg New Orleans’s chances of staying in the West’s top 10 somewhere between 33 percent and 60 percent—even without Zion Williamson, its All-NBA juggernaut of a point-centerpiece, who’s yet to play a single second this season as he works his way back from a broken bone in his right foot.

Since the disastrous 1-12 start that seemed destined to submarine their season, the Pelicans have played .500 ball for nearly three months, the West’s eighth-best record in that span. That includes an 18-15 mark in games with Brandon Ingram, who’s playing arguably the best basketball of his career, averaging 22.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and a career-high 5.5 assists per game; New Orleans has outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions with Ingram on the floor since that 1-12 start, equivalent to the full-season net rating of the defending champion Bucks.

The glass-half-full take: With Ingram shining, Jonas Valanciunas continuing to throw up double-doubles, and second-round steal Herb Jones starting to pair his All-Defensive talent with an advancing offensive game (13.2 points per game on 52/39/89 shooting splits since Christmas), New Orleans has a team worth adding to, and maybe even one that can make some noise if Zion’s able to come back at any point for the stretch run.

The more pessimistic view: Parting with any of the young players or draft capital that the Pelicans accrued in the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday deals just to augment a middling team would be foolish. It would call to mind the bad old days in which an embattled general manager trying to build around a no. 1 draft pick made win-now moves that depleted the franchise’s asset cache, produced just one playoff appearance, and didn’t convince that generational talent to stick around anyway.

Faced with a choice between standing pat and taking a swing before Thursday’s trade deadline, New Orleans personnel chief David Griffin opted to get busy living, working with the now-very-evidently-rebuilding Trail Blazers to put together a massive seven-player, three-draft-pick deal that brings veteran scorer CJ McCollum to the Pelicans.

The full details on the trade, via ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: New Orleans will send do-it-all swingman Josh Hart, veteran guard Tomas Satoransky, third-year guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 2019 second-round pick Didi Louzada, a protected 2022 first-round pick, and two future second-round picks to the Blazers; Portland will ship McCollum, versatile big man Larry Nance Jr., and swingman Tony Snell to New Orleans.

Coming on the heels of Friday’s jettisoning of Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers, Portland’s ongoing efforts to offload money have brought an unceremonious ending to the Lillard-McCollum marriage, which produced eight playoff runs, three 50-win seasons, and one trip to the Western Conference finals, but no championships.

Moving McCollum, fifth in points and eighth in assists in Blazers history, expunges $69.1 million from the balance sheet over the next two seasons; including Nance, for whom the Blazers traded a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick for just five months ago, clears another $9.7 million for next season. In exchange, Portland brings back Hart, a damn good player whose $13 million salary for next season is wholly unguaranteed, and Satoransky, a 30-year-old placeholder whose $10 million salary comes off the books at season’s end. The Blazers get another backcourt lottery ticket in Alexander-Walker, 2019’s no. 17 pick, and Louzada, a 6-foot-5 swingman from Brazil, who has missed most of this season with a 25-game suspension and a torn medial meniscus.

The argument, if you’re interim Portland GM Joe Cronin, is that the deals to move McCollum, Powell, Covington, and Nance added young talent, draft capital, and a ton of financial flexibility to build the next competitive version of the Blazers around Dame. And maybe that’s legit; maybe Dame has decided he’s going down with the ship regardless, and all parties involved trust Cronin to turn Alexander-Walker, Keon Johnson, a re-upped Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, two potential top-10 picks, and some $60 million in salary cap space into a good team in a hurry. It’s looking much more likely, though, that the most pressing priority in Portland is hitting the reset button on the Olshey era—even if it means selling low time and again—and saving ownership money.

While Portland’s pinching pennies, Griffin—who, last we checked, was trying to spin Zion not being able to play basketball as totally not a big deal and something everybody in New Orleans expected—is spending big to try to make the Pelicans more competitive immediately. It’s a deal that has some parallels to the Cavaliers’ trade for Caris LeVert: moves designed to ensure that the teams don’t have to rely solely on their one All-Star-caliber creator to initiate offense and generate quality shots.

Ingram ranks 10th in the NBA in frontcourt touches per game and 17th in usage rate this season. He’s been handling the ball, shooting, and table-setting more than he ever has in his career because, with a Zion-shaped hole in the Pelicans’ team concept, he’s basically had to: New Orleans has outscored opponents by 42 points in Ingram’s 1,345 minutes this season, and been outscored by a whopping 230 points in 1,209 minutes without him, with its offense plummeting from league average to just-about-the-worst-in-the-NBA when he leaves the floor.

The damage hasn’t been quite as bad recently—while New Orleans went 1-4 during Ingram’s recent five-game absence due to a sprained right ankle, it played the Sixers, Nuggets, Celtics, and Cavs tight into the fourth quarter before falling away—but the overall need for more playmaking and shot creation has been glaring. Even with Ingram on the court, New Orleans has struggled to unlock opponents’ set defenses, scoring just 91.9 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—equivalent to Houston’s 23rd-ranked half-court offense. Enter McCollum, who’s averaging about 20-5-5 on 46.3 percent shooting since returning from a collapsed lung, and who should provide a shot in the arm to one of the league’s most punchless perimeter attacks.

McCollum’s a tick below All-Star status, but he’s a quality complementary scorer, facilitator, and caretaker; among high-usage players, only LaMarcus Aldridge and Kristaps Porzingis have a lower turnover rate over the past five years than CJ, and neither of them do anywhere near the amount of ballhandling he does. He can both reduce the sheer volume of Ingram’s playmaking responsibilities and provide another floor-spacing shooting threat to make his life on the ball easier.

The veteran guard’s game has always been more craft than combustion, with his snare-drum-tight handle and pristine footwork cracking open windows for him to elevate for pull-up jumpers and soft-touch floaters. He can get to the cup, though, averaging 10.1 drives to the basket per game and 6.0 points off of them this season, both more than any Pelican save Ingram. He’s a rock-solid pick-and-roll playmaker, averaging 1.02 points per possession finished as the ball handler in the two-man game—tied for the sixth-best mark out of 100 players to log at least 100 such plays this season, according to Synergy—and you’d imagine he and stiff-screening menace Jonas Valanciunas will waste little time developing a fruitful partnership.

He’s also got plenty of experience operating off the ball alongside a high-volume, high-octane scorer, and will give New Orleans another dangerous option spotting up away from the action when Ingram initiates. McCollum has knocked down just under 43 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point tries since 2013, according to Second Spectrum tracking—a boon to a Pelicans squad that’s tied for 19th in team accuracy on catch-and-shoot triples. And when the play breaks down and New Orleans needs to create something out of thin air, McCollum offers another non-Ingram option, averaging 0.94 points per isolation play—about what Trae Young’s producing this season—between 2015 and 2021.

McCollum represents the backcourt upgrade that New Orleans has yearned for since December. He comes at a cost, though—both the $69.1 million he’ll be making through age 32, and a quiet linchpin of the Pelicans’ best lineup.

Hart’s been fantastic this season, averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 assists per game on 50.5 percent shooting—all career highs—to go with 7.8 rebounds and solid defense across multiple positions. His versatility, aggressiveness off the bounce (more than half of his shots have come at the rim), and efficiency (1.2 points per shot, a very strong mark for a wing) have played a pivotal role in the Pelicans’ turnaround over the past few months; he’s been a big reason New Orleans’s shuffled-up starting five had blossomed into one of the NBA’s best big-minutes lineups. If Cronin really is serious about building something sturdy around Lillard for next season, Hart would certainly seem to have a place as the kind of defensively capable and tough off-guard complement Portland lacked with the Dame-CJ tandem. If he’s not—if this really has been more about saving money than anything else—then it wouldn’t be a shock if teams in need of some defensive help on the wing (maybe Utah?) place some calls to the Blazers to see whether Hart can’t be redirected over the next couple of days.

As solid as Hart’s been, though, you need to give up something to get scoring and playmaking. The Pelicans offense as currently constructed had a hard, low ceiling—McCollum raises it. While taking on his contract for the next two seasons makes it tougher to make big moves should the need arise, the Pelicans still have several movable players at reasonable numbers—Nance, Graham, Valanciunas—plus a passel of future firsts from the Lakers and Bucks and all of their own no. 1s after this season. Griffin still has plenty of ammunition to use in his pursuit of putting a contender on the floor. His ability to do so remains tied to whether Zion can return healthy and look like the world-breaker he was last season, and whether he decides, when he becomes eligible for an extension, that he wants to stick around New Orleans for the long haul.

In the meantime, though, the Pelicans just got less dependent on their stars, more versatile and dangerous in the half court, and—just maybe—a little more interesting as an on-court product than an off-court melodrama.