Sitting at his locker in the Portland Trail Blazers' practice facility 30 minutes before a weightlifting session, CJ McCollum dialed into a call with Bleacher Report on Wednesday afternoon.
He's occupied that chair for eight seasons, often daydreaming alongside his All-Star backcourt mate Damian Lillard, envisioning one day winning a championship for the entire state of Oregon and the subsequent parade that would follow. Would they stand on the same float? Would McCollum be able to bring his dog aboard?
"We have discussed it in detail, on multiple occasions," McCollum said. "What it would feel like, what it would look like, from down to what car would you take? Are you driving the drop top? Is it a pick-up [truck]? It's something we think about, something I think about often, whenever I take the drive to the arena, how nice it would be to have that parade."
The viability of Portland's roster, and whether the Blazers have the firepower around Lillard—McCollum included—to claim that elusive championship, has of course driven much of the offseason conversation in and around the NBA. McCollum abstained from talking specifically about Lillard's trade rumors, instead focusing on the voluntary workout at hand and the scenic greenery that surrounds the team's facilities this time of year.
Yet, it was hard to not hear the irony when he discussed late-August Portland weather, and how his words might also describe the potential future landscape of McCollum's organization: "The rain is coming," he said, "but right now, it's super pretty."
Having been elected as the new president of the National Basketball Players Association earlier this month, and, beginning today, one of the faces of a new wearable tech product called LaceClips, McCollum spoke on a variety of topics with B/R. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow.
I'm not allowed to ask about a certain teammate of yours, but let's say the quality of Portland's roster has been much debated this summer online, as I'm sure you've seen. I'll get right to it: Do you think you guys have a group that can get it done this year?
Define 'get it done.' [Laughs]
Do you guys think you have the talent to truly compete for a championship?
I think whenever we step on the court, we have a chance to win a championship. If you don't have that mindset and that mentality, then you shouldn't play. That's my mindset and mentality every year—to compete at the highest level, to really focus on being the best version of myself as a player to help us win. That being said, I feel like every year we have a chance to win a championship. But in the NBA, there's so many things that go into that. You need a little bit of luck.
A lot a bit of luck…
Right. A lot of luck, timing, health, everything matters. You gotta get breaks at the right time. Scheduling matters. You look at a lot of teams that are favored to win every year, you have to be healthy first of all, or you have no chance.
Generally, is it really as simple as when players turn 30, guys start to really think about winning a title and their time running out? Or are we just in a place in the league where guys are waking up one day traded, or signing with a new superteam in free agency, and the title race today is just considered so wide open? Is it a combination of the two?
I can't speak for all players, but I think historically, players are doing what makes them happy. I think that's what life's about, doing what makes you happy. If happiness for you is going to a certain team, going to a certain market—maybe it's home, maybe it's family—there's a lot of reasons why a player would make a decision. I think happiness is the leading factor in a lot of things. Obviously winning a championship is important to a lot of players, but I think you just try and figure out what your happiness looks like. Me, personally, I choose happiness. I choose comfort. I choose what's best for my family and for myself. I think most players are making decisions based on that alone.
You have a new head coach in Chauncey Billups, and he's obviously a former player. That's a trend we're seeing around the league right now. Willie Green goes to New Orleans, Ime Udoka to Boston, for example. And if you talk to anybody in the NBA, a course correction was certainly warranted, but there was an increase in Black head coaching hires this year. From a player's perspective, what is the difference—is it quantifiable, is it just palpable—of having a former player in that role, and somebody who just literally looks like the majority of athletes in the league?
The league is majority African American, majority Black. There's a big European influence as well. And when you look at some of the best players in this league, historically there haven't been a lot of African American coaches in this league. But I think the tide is turning, and I think more African Americans are getting a chance to show what they have to offer, and their success is leading to more hiring. I think for me, personally, there's always been this notion of, we're good enough to play, but are we good enough to coach, are we good enough to be in the front office?
From a relatability standpoint, I think the workplace, for me, looking at having Chauncey, I think he's going to definitely be able to relate to players. Based on his background, based on him being an ex-player, based on that he's also an African American man, I think those things do play a part in building a certain type of connection that we're starting to see across the league.
Does it play a part in that, being a public figure is just weird? You have people online saying what you should and shouldn't do, and criticizing you for just making regular human decisions. Does that former player relatability help in the aspect that they've literally been in your shoes before, figuring out what it's like to be a person, day-to-day, in this NBA pressure cooker and fishbowl?
They definitely can relate having played, having been in the spotlight, having had to answer those questions. But we're in a different world now. The social media world is completely different than what it was five years ago, let alone 10 years ago. It's a completely different realm of access, how to manage the access, the comments, the contents. But there is a benefit to having someone who's been in that spotlight, who's had to answer questions and tough questions after good games and bad games, who's has to deal with the media and accountability, who can relate to what it's like to be in a close game down the stretch in a playoff game. All that stuff...it matters. It does.
This summer's free agency has been one where a lot of players have been squeezed out, maybe more so than years past. And we're also in a situation where the league is obviously very top-heavy with talent—there are a lot of teams stockpiling rosters with three guys making $30 million, not leaving much room for the middle class—and it feels like more players are now taking the minimum. The market's just not really there for them. What are your thoughts, in your new role as president, on this idea that maybe the NBA's middle class keeps getting squeezed here?
I think it's something that we'll continue to look at. But from a budget standpoint, the teams only have so much money. It's a hard cap. Teams can decide to go over if they want to, but then you have a dollar-for-dollar tax, especially if you're in the repeater tax. I think teams are strategically trying to figure out how to build their roster. You obviously need star power, or a certain level or caliber of player, to compete for a championship, and a lot of teams are trying to go for the $30 million player or the $25 million player, per se.
But there's still space on those rosters for role players. You need role players. You need minimum guys who can contribute. You need guys, you used the term ‘middle class,' you need those guys on your roster to have success. It's still hard to win a championship. You need to have a solid roster. Look at what the Milwuakee Bucks did and their key pieces and their pickups. Pat Connaughton, a guy I played with, he's not making $30 million a year, but he's an impact player. The big fella [Bobby Portis] out there in Milwaukee who's beloved, he's not making $30 million a year, but he's still impacting games and having an impact on winning. Even P.J. Tucker, he's not making $30 million. Guys are continuing to carve out a niche and a role in this league while still making good money. I think it just comes down to the teams are going to do what's best for their organization. Obviously, I want everybody to get paid and have long careers, but it's the team's decision on how to utilize the salary cap.
I guess what you said kind of even proves my point a little bit, though? To me, the fact that Bobby Portis is going back to Milwaukee on a lower number, it's obviously good for the Bucks, and he has his own free will, he can take a paycut and try and repeat. But if you're not a $20-30 million guy and you want to be in a winning situation, teams can basically say, ‘If you're not taking this minimum, like Paul Millsap right now, there's going to be another player who does.' And that's just the market—it is what it is. The league is a business, right? But if that's how teams are manipulating the cap in their favor, is that something that's concerning at all to you?
Yeah, but like you said, it's a choice. There's players out there who could make more money, but they made a choice, whether it's winning or they decide to go to a certain situation. You look at the market now, obviously free agency started a little while ago. A lot of teams either don't have a lot of money left, or they built out their roster as they see fit. I think you have a point, but in the case of Paul Millsap, he has to kind of decide on his own what type of situation he wants to be in. Obviously, the teams have to have space, and they have to have a need or a want for you.
You said 'free agency started a little while ago.' Obviously anyone in it knows those conversations are starting well before 6 p.m. the day things open.
[Laughs] I can't agree with that! I can't comment on that!
Well to me, the notion of tampering is ridiculous! When teams and GMs go to the Combine, and agents are there, too, it just makes sense to be efficient from a work standpoint, to start doing business then. I don't get why the league doesn't just legalize those interactions or turn a blind eye to it. Am I off base in thinking that?”
[Laughs] You're trying to get me in trouble, man.
I'm just asking good questions!
I think players, teams, organizations, historically have done a good job following the rules. In the event that something happened, they've been punished. And in the event that it did happen, the league has investigated it, and taken the matter seriously. Like the [Bogdan] Bogdanovic situation last year.
I did a story with NBPA and the Retired Players Association a few years ago when they were making a real effort to help retired players, and players in general, better understand investment opportunities and long-term health. Why do you personally feel it's important to teach guys about preparing for life after basketball, and why is this LaceClips opportunity one that you were intrigued by?
One, I think it's really important that we continue to think about life after basketball because it ends quickly. The average lifespan of a professional basketball player is about four, four and a half years. So that means you come in at 20, 21, you play for four, five years, you're 25, 26, headed towards retirement, or at least leaving the NBA. We basically make the majority of our money during our youth. We have to kind of be prepared to live 50, 60 years outside of our professional career. I think it's just really important to find ways to generate income off the court, to figure out ways for what I like to call "healthy hobbies," to keep you sharp and inspired, but also to keep you sane. Because this game is here today, gone tomorrow, you know what I mean? You have to have a plan in place so you don't go through the normal stress, the normal anxiety, the normal depression that most of us go through upon retiring.
For me, I've always tried to find healthy hobbies. I like to think that I'm pretty savvy in terms of understanding business and how things work. I have a very good team around me that helps me get deals, and this particular case with LaceClips, it was a no-brainer, because I felt like it was a value add. I felt like it was something the market was missing and would make the world a better place. It checks a lot of boxes—it empowers people to really care about their health, it empowers kids to kind of compete against each other [on the accompanying app] and use wearable technology. Whereas most often times, kids don't like to wear those things, or they're literally not allowed. And this is something that literally goes onto your shoe, tracks your movement, it tracks everything, and it allows you to kinda compete against not only all of your friends, but also professional athletes. It's something that my brother and I would have definitely used as kids, and it's something that we'll definitely use now. He just left to go to Russia about five days ago to play for Lokomotiv.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.