How Risky Is Portland Trail Blazers' $100 Million Bet on CJ McCollum?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2019

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) in the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Denver. Portland won 97-90. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — On the heels of their deepest playoff run in 19 years, the Portland Trail Blazers made a long-term commitment to their high-scoring backcourt, keeping Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in town for the foreseeable future.

Lillard's four-year, $196 million supermax extension was a no-brainer for the undisputed face of the franchise, a perennial All-Star and All-NBA superstar with two of the most iconic playoff-series-winning shots in franchise history. But it was McCollum's three-year, $100 million extension, announced last week, that raised eyebrows.

McCollum's pact starts after the 2020-21 season, keeping him under contract through 2024, his age-32 campaign. He's been a staple alongside Lillard in the Blazers backcourt since the franchise drafted him No. 10 overall in 2013, and he's proved capable of carrying the scoring load and taking pressure off his higher-profile teammate.

He's been integral to Portland's success during this run, in which the Blazers have made the playoffs each of the past six years and advanced to the Western Conference Finals this spring for the first time since 2000.

But with his big, new deal come big, new expectations. McCollum has never made an All-Star team, and he's now being paid like an All-Star. Part of that is the Western Conference's incredibly deep pool of guards—just ask Mike Conley about the "never made an All-Star team" label—but the Blazers gave McCollum this contract with the assumption that he has a leap left to make from fringe All-Star-caliber scorer to surefire second star on a team with aspirations of perennial contention.

After his breakout third season in 2015-16, in which he captured the NBA's Most Improved Player award, McCollum kept up that level of production. Since he became a full-time starter that year, McCollum has been a 21.6-point-per-game scorer and 40.3 percent three-point shooter. He mostly plays off the ball while sharing the court with Lillard but is plenty capable of creating for himself and others.

McCollum doesn't have the indelible playoff moments Lillard does—it's hard to, when the latter hit one of the most iconic shots in NBA playoff history to close out Oklahoma City in last season's first round—but his playoff resume is strong.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

In particular, McCollum was spectacular in the Blazers' second-round series against the Denver Nuggets in May, scoring 41 points in a four-overtime Game 3 win, 30 in a series-saving Game 6 and 37 in the closeout Game 7. Denver's defenders blitzed Lillard relentlessly, and McCollum proved more than capable of doing the heavy lifting in his stead.

The synergy that has developed between Lillard and McCollum has contributed in no small part to the Blazers' consistent competitiveness in an unrelenting conference. Portland has never had a losing record in the Lillard-McCollum era, although it went 41-41 in 2016-17 to earn the eighth seed in the West.

Since the summer 2015 departures of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and starters Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, Lillard and McCollum have been the clear top scorers surrounded by a mostly solid cast of role players. Center Jusuf Nurkic emerged as a legitimate third pillar last season before he suffered a serious leg injury in March that will keep him sidelined well into the 2019-20 campaign.

This summer has seen the most roster turnover in Portland since that 2015 offseason. Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless are gone, replaced by ex-Hawks forward Kent Bazemore and polarizing Heat center Hassan Whiteside. 

Team president Neil Olshey isn't running back the Western Conference Finals team, but the extensions he gave to Lillard and McCollum sent a clear message about the organization's thinking: The Blazers' ceiling may not be as high as those of the newly formed superteams in Los Angeles and Houston, but as long as these two homegrown stars are in the backcourt, they'll be in the mix.

It's smart to bet on stability and consistency, and the track record of the Lillard-McCollum pairing suggests they will continue to compete. But the Blazers caught some lucky breaks during their latest playoff run. Their first-round matchup was against a Thunder team with an ailing Paul George, which radically altered the series' dynamic. They advanced to face a talented but inexperienced Denver team that, unlike the battle-tested Blazers, was unprepared for the moment.

Those breaks won't come around again—or at least, Portland can't count on them. So the Blazers need McCollum to make another leap as a scorer and all-around playmaker and become a legitimate second star next to Lillard, who has firmly established himself in the NBA's uppermost echelon of stars.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Lillard proved well before he signed his extension that he was that guy. Now, McCollum will have to prove after signing his that he is, too. It will all be judged on whether the Blazers can build on this year's postseason success and take it even further.

"I think the bar is just to win a championship," McCollum said last week at the press conference to announce the extension. "If you can get a couple, get a couple. If you can get a few, get a few. I think that's how you're remembered. Points and three-pointers and percentages are great. But there's a reason why most of the players from that 1977 championship roster, their jerseys are hanging in the rafters, because of what they were able to accomplish as a whole. So if we can do that, that will be enough for us to look back and say we did everything we could."

In a Western Conference that's as wide open as it's ever been in a post-Warriors dynasty world, the Blazers want to prove that this year's conference finals run wasn't a fluke. Everyone knows how good Lillard is, and he will be around for the long haul. Now, McCollum has a chance to prove he's just as worthy of that same commitment.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.