As the NBA heads into what looks set to be one of the most eventful and landscape-shifting offseasons in recent memory, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves caught between two paths with no clear way forward.
Portland's 49-33 record was good enough to earn the third seed in the Western Conference, but it was swept in four games by the New Orleans Pelicans. With the uber-talented Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz on the rise and rumblings of a new superteam forming in Los Angeles with some combination of LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Blazers are faced with a question: Should they run back what was a surprisingly successful group, or finally consider breaking up the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?
Lillard, who is coming off a career year and his first-ever selection to the All-NBA First Team, responded to a fan's tweet this week by cautioning that big changes don't guarantee success.
At April's exit interviews following the first-round loss to New Orleans, Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey was adamant the front office was not considering splitting up the high-scoring guards.
"When 27 other teams aren't jealous of our backcourt, then I'll start worrying about it," Olshey said that day.
The pairing of Lillard and McCollum is indeed one of the most offensively dynamic in the league. And Portland may ultimately decide to make changes around the edges of the roster rather than fundamentally changing the core. However, the playoff loss and the impending arms race around the league create a compelling case that the Blazers should at least explore the possibility of big changes.
Trading Lillard seems unthinkable. He means too much to the organization and to the fanbase both on and off the court. He's repeatedly stated that he wants to play the rest of his career in Portland. But he also wants to win and wants to make sure the Blazers are in a position to do so while he's in his prime, something he made clear in a January meeting with owner Paul Allen, first reported by ESPN's Chris Haynes.
McCollum is a different story. Given the limitations of the rest of the Blazers roster and payroll, trading McCollum for a package of picks or younger players at other positions is one of the only impactful moves Olshey can make.
The Blazers go into next season with $110 million in guaranteed money on the books, and that's before potentially re-signing their own free agents, including big men Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis, forward Pat Connaughton and guard Shabazz Napier. The next time they're slated to have cap space is the 2020 offseason, when the big contracts signed in 2016 come off the books.
As great as local streetwear brand Trillblazin's LeBron recruitment billboard was, Portland wouldn't have the money to sign James or any other big-name free agents even if they wanted to come.
The potential for trades outside of McCollum is limited, too. It's hard to picture any team taking on the hefty contracts of guard Evan Turner (due $36.4 million over the next two seasons) and center Meyers Leonard ($21.8 million through 2020) unless the Blazers attached future first-round picks or promising second-year center Zach Collins as sweeteners.
The deals for forwards Al-Farouq Aminu ($6.9 million expiring) and Maurice Harkless ($22.3 million over two years remaining) are much more appealing, but those are role players, not pieces the Blazers would expect to receive a return that moves the needle.
That leaves McCollum, 26 years old on a fair contract for someone who has produced at his level. The sixth-year guard is due $82.6 million over the next three seasons, well below what a player of his caliber could earn on the open market today, and with three years of team control that make him an appealing trade chip.
With James' future in Cleveland uncertain, the Cavaliers could look to rebuild around McCollum, an Ohio native, in a deal featuring Kevin Love or the No. 8 overall pick in June 21's draft. If the Toronto Raptors decide to move on from DeMar DeRozan, McCollum could be an appealing replacement. Or the Blazers could finally pull the trigger on acquiring a player they've long been linked to, that Olshey drafted and signed to his first contract: Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and presents some intriguing sign-and-trade possibilities.
If Olshey doesn't make a big move and opts instead to simply re-sign Davis, Nurkic and Connaughton, the Blazers will be running back a team good enough to make the playoffs every year but not seriously contend for anything beyond that.
In a small market without the free-agent pull of the Lakers and Rockets or the unprecedented collection of talent in Golden State, maybe that's good enough. But if they want to give themselves the chance to be something more than that, to force their way into what's only going to be a more crowded playoff competition in the Western Conference, they can't take any possibility off the table.