(Editor’s note: this has been updated with information regarding the Joe Ingles trade.)
It’s officially the end of an era for the Portland Trail Blazers, after CJ McCollum got dealt out to the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal that involved six players.
McCollum, who was drafted a year after Damian Lillard, had helped the Blazers make the playoffs in every single year that he was with the organization. After posting averages of 5.3 points in 2013-14 and 6.8 points in 2014-15, McCollum never dipped below a scoring average of at least 20 points a game in any other season.
It’s arguably a crime that he never made an All-Star team, but he played for a small market team in an age where the Western Conference was just jam-packed with backcourt talent.
McCollum gets a new lease on life with the Pelicans and the talented Brandon Ingram, and potentially Zion Williamson if he ever takes rehab seriously and lives up to his talent. That puts him in a decent spot at age 30, since he won’t be relied on to carry the team’s scoring burdens on a nightly basis, like he has been when Lillard has been injured.
The elephant in the room now, after this trade, is whether or not Lillard bothers to stay in the offseason. After having surgery on an abdominal injury that had apparently bothered him from years, Lillard had already said that he didn’t feel it necessary to come back and play this season if they’re not competing for the playoffs. The Blazers’ moves ahead of the trade deadline do not put them in a position to do so.
They may still be in 11th place and just out of the play-ins, but they’ve now shipped out Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Clippers for Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow and Keon Johnson. They then moved McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., and Tony Snell for Josh Hart, Nickel Alexander-Walker and Tomas Satoransky. I don’t believe either trade moves the needle toward contention for the Blazers, and so now Lillard must seriously be questioning his decision to stay this past offseason.
Even the pick they’re getting from the Pelicans is in a bit of a weird place, too.
The Blazers also flipped Alexander-Walker in a trade a day later to acquire Joe Ingles, whose $12.43 million contract expires at the end of the season. That also looks like a sign that the Blazers are blowing it all up. It would be very difficult to convince me that the Blazers are going to try to make a play to sign someone with cap space, especially since the 2022 free agent pool is pretty thin and Portland isn’t a big free agent destination. Ingles is also out for the season with an injury.
If I were Dame, I’d probably see this as a clear sign that the Blazers are looking to go in on a rebuild. Lillard, a superstar scorer whose 19.0 points per game in his rookie season was the lowest in his career, must now be wondering how he can engineer a move to a place that will give him a chance to compete for a title as his career winds down. He turns 32 in July, and he’s probably in his last big contract as his current deal runs out after the end of the 2024-25 season. That last contract year also happens to be a player option for him, so the Blazers realistically only have one or two more seasons to get max value out of him.
With a long recovery period from the surgery, and potentially just taking the rest of the season off, you wouldn’t be able to blame Lillard if he forced his way out in the offseason. He’s done enough to try to help the Blazers try to contend and, a bit like Kevin Garnett in the past, has been loyal to a fault. There’s no loyalty in this business, and front offices can make insane moves that don’t help their teams all the time.
I personally think this is the last season that we see Lillard play in Portland, but the NBA is a crazy place. We’ll have to wait and see.