If Kawhi Leonard Is Available, Portland Trail Blazers Must Think About Trading CJ McCollum

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The Portland Trail Blazers have made it painfully clear over the past few seasons that they’re not willing to break up the star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. “The odds of anything ever coming up of commensurate value is so hard to even fathom,’’ general manager Neil Olshey said in his exit interview, per Jason Quick of NBC Sports Northwest.

“I could give you the trite answer that ‘Nobody is untradeable,’ but clearly they are.’’

Hooboy. Let’s break that down.

Part I: It’s difficult to find equal value.

Strong start. Swinging a deal where you’re the unabashed loser means you’re A) tanking, or B) ridding your locker room of strife. Neither applies to Rip City, so good onya, Neil.

Part II: I’m not trading them for anybody.

Ummm…

The word “untradable” is a dangerous one in the NBA. It’s reserved for the cream of the elite crop, and it’s used by executives who are either driving up the value of their stars or have gone mad thinking about which teams are jealous of them and not which teams swept them in the first round.

But guess what? If commensurate value is the variable that can shift the team’s mindset, Olshey better start preparing to make some calls. Because there’s one player (along with Paul George) on the market who fits the bill, and who could make this team a contender despite a disastrous end to the 2017-18 season.

The Situation


In the most un-Spurs thing to ever Spur (quip h/t OSN’s Jared Wright), Kawhi Leonard became the focal point of legitimate drama this past year. His health was always going to be in question to kick off the campaign, but what nobody saw coming was a refusal to play, Tony Parker doubting his desire to get back on the court, and eventually Kawhi himself questioning how Gregg Popovich, unequivocally one of the greatest coaches the sport has ever seen, runs the show.

As Olshey has talked about ad nauseum, Portland doesn’t need to break up its backcourt. And he’s actually not wrong. The team isn’t going to send CJ McCollum packing for the corpse of Joakim Noah and the ever-confusing Emmanuel Mudiay—a deal that would work on paper—…so that much is a good thing.

But if the GM has made his mark in Portland beyond drafting two beloved guards and trading for a beast of a Bosnian, it’s with his defensive-nearing-on-brash demeanor when questioned about his guys—as well as tunnel vision for his own road map while ignoring signs for the next turn.

The Deal

The Spurs like Dejounte Murray. He’s a 21-year-old, 6’5” point guard who cracked the starting lineup and boosted his numbers to 8.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per contest this season, and they know his ceiling rises as he develops a jumper that gets him above 30 percent from deep.

But you know what the Spurs would like even more? McCollum.

Acquiring the Blazers’ 2-guard instantly fixes the lack of modern-day shooting and scoring they have in the backcourt and better prepares them for the end of the Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili era. San Antonio would be able to slide Patty Mills back to his natural position at the 1 and let McCollum come off curls (as well as play de facto point guard in crucial moments).

The Alternate Deal

 

Danny Green has had his moments throughout his career, but he’s made to come off the bench, which is something he hasn’t been able to do in Leonard’s absence.

If the Blazers sweeten the deal with a young Maurice Harkless (who flipped the script on his season late in the year) and are willing to take back a serviceable Pau Gasol on a less-than-ideal contract, the Spurs get a new small/power forward to groom in Mo. And for what it’s worth, you should trust Pop to do just that with a 24-year-old looking for a consistent role.

Why The Spurs Do It

The Spurs consider either of these deals because they’re used to having an elite guard at the helm. Nobody would question Pop (except maybe Leonard?) if he wanted to continue developing Murray and felt Mills could get the job done as a permanent starting off-guard. But having someone who contains Ginobili’s ability to catch and shoot off curls and Parker’s propensity for getting to the rim is an ideal option.

Oh yeah…and Kawhi, the player who epitomized what it meant to be a Spur for so many years —hard-working, defense-oriented, quiet as the night—is both mentally and physically checked out of the organization.

Why The Blazers Do It

I don’t care what the ESPN Trade Machine says about the Blazers getting five or six games worse.

This is a no-brainer.

Without slamming McCollum here—remember, we aren’t suggesting the Blazers outright must trade the dude—Leonard (not of the Meyers variety) is simply better. He’s a big body with enormous hands and he’s transformed himself into a defense-first player who can average 25 points per game while shooting 38.6 percent from the three-point line over the course of his career.

If what we hear about Leonard is true, he’s not likely to be best buddies with Lillard. After all, another passive personality got the hell out of Dodge when a young, elite, brilliant self-marketing point guard made Rip City his own.

But here’s the difference between Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge: Aldridge claimed he wanted to blend into a system that was all business…and then he demanded a trade because he was being overcoached on offense.

Leonard’s gripe has more to do with how the Spurs have handled his recovery and worn him down season after season. The Blazers would make sure the 26-year-old passed a physical before packing his bags, and soon as he was cleared, the discontent Kawhi’s harbored would disappear and a fresh start would be on the horizon.

Who Wins It?

As far as players go, Kawhi becomes the instant winner for escaping a situation that rendered him a water cooler topic rather than a superstar on a contender. CJ can claim victory as well for playing under Pop and seeing what he and Aldridge can do sans Dame controlling the rock…but you know McCollum is also bummed about leaving his best bball buddy and the only organization he’s ever known.

When it comes to teams, if you’re telling yourself Portland doesn’t get better, you’re ignoring how versatile Leonard is. (He’s a freaking Finals MVP after all.) And if you’re asking ‘why would the Spurs give up that guy for someone who’s never been an All-Star?’ you forget what’s happened in the city with the Alamo this year.

As Oprah would say: YOU get a win! YOU get a win! YOU get a win! CJ...you’ll be alright.

Blazers (on) Edge

There’s no basketball reason that should cause Rip Citizens to balk at this deal. If the Spurs say yes, you do it—hands down.

That said, the following would destroy the souls of Blazers fans everywhere in potentially irreversible fashion:

  • Maybe Kawhi’s injury troubles are the beginning of the end of his career. This city has seen some stuff hit the infirmary fan too many times. No need to go down the list of names, but you know them all and they haunt your dreams on a nightly basis.
  • Portland fans fall for their players as hard as any fan base in the NBA. With apologies to the Timbers and Winterhawks, the Blazers are the only major sports team in town. In the words of (probably) 11,000 different bands doing covers, breaking up is hard to do. Silver lining: Your CJ jersey will look dope at a music festival somewhere in 2038.
  • McCollum wins a championship in San Antonio…with Aldridge. If that tandem gets a title before Leonard and Lillard, the Moda Center will burn to the ground by night’s end.

Will It Go Down?

The odds are stacked against the Blazers to swing a deal that nets them a superstar to pair alongside Lillard. But there are reasons for optimism here.

Believe it or not, Portland has the leverage in this scenario. The moment a player expresses frustration, his team loses the ability to get the better end of a deal. Hence why the Indiana Pacers tried to keep Paul George’s desire to bounce a secret as long as they did.

The problem is that 29 other teams across the league will have the same leverage should the Spurs answer their calls. If Boston instigates a swap surrounding an overachieving Terry Rozier and a somehow-still-underrated Jaylen Brown, San Antonio may have to take it. If the Heat offer up their own disgruntled (semi)star in Hassan Whiteside, the Texas squad may finally have its center of the future.

In any case, the Spurs, knowing they have a 6’7”, 230-pound dilemma on their hands, aren’t going to get many offers better than McCollum. Maybe they prefer some of the Lakers’ young pieces to build around, or they believe they can steal back leverage in a sign-and-trade for the recovering DeMarcus Cousins. But Portland has someone to offer who can thrive as a primary scorer in Pop’s system.

Regardless, Leonard landing in Portland is unlikely. Las Vegas recently named nine teams with odds to land the star, and the Blazers weren’t one of them.

But this isn’t about odds. It’s about realistic trade packages—exchanges that give San Antonio a return on the investment that was once a fresh-faced kid out of San Diego State.

And it’s about Portland putting aside the notion that anyone is untouchable and realizing that improving is more important than being the envy of backcourt-lusting teams across the Association.

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