I get the feeling that the Portland Trail Blazers are at a crossroads after getting swept out of the playoffs. Even though everyone from President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey to starting guard CJ McCollum insist everything’s fine (repeating that tired, pointless “Third seed!” refrain over and over even though seeding didn’t make a pissing difference against the New Orleans Pelicans), the Blazers have earned a reputation as a streaky regular season team that turns into fresh meat in the postseason. That might be enough for Olshey and McCollum, but the star of the team, Damian Lillard, likely feels otherwise.
Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen a couple of months ago to express his feelings about the Blazers’ mediocrity and lack of ability to compete for a championship. Even though the Blazers went on a 13-game winning streak shortly after news of that meeting went public, they eventually were exposed under the microscope of the playoffs, where specially tailored strategies and mismatch-hunting are the rule of the day. It was one thing when the Golden State Warriors beat up on them; the current Warriors are on the short list of the best NBA teams of all time. When the Pelicans, a team as middling overall as Portland is, smash you into the ground like Thor crunching a hapless sap into the ground with his hammer, it’s another thing entirely.
The Pelicans series confirmed a couple of things. One, Lillard can’t be the best player on a championship team. Two, McCollum and Lillard aren’t a championship-caliber backcourt. And if Lillard is serious about chasing a ring and is willing to put pressure on the Blazers to make it happen, the team has no recourse but to make drastic changes.
However, the Blazers are currently maxed out on the salary cap, and most of the players they have are not desirable pieces to take back in a trade. Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis are free agents, Evan Turner is a year away from serving as trade bait (transforming into Evan Turner’s Expiring Contract, can’t wait for that day!), Al-Farouq Aminu is a cheap player who is a useful glue guy, Mo Harkless shows flashes of utility along with inconsistency, Meyers Lenard is a seven-year vet with no bankable skill other than being really tall…there isn’t much to work with, even for a front-office whiz. Olshey might be an expert politician—no man can survive working for Universal Arsehole Donald Sterling without having great people skills—but he’s no whiz.
If Portland wants to get serious about competing for a championship, if they truly want to help Damian Lillard win a title for the city he has grown to love (and he does love it here), they have only one option. It’s a nuclear option, the last ace up the sleeve, the last trick to play.
They must trade CJ McCollum.
And not just trade McCollum, but trade him for an elite two-way wing player.
But Jared, you ask, who’s available right now? Well, no one really is. There is one guy who could be a nice trade option, though. An elite player who’s due to become a free agent, and whose team washed out in the first round of the playoffs, as well.
I’m talking about Paul George.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder and George agree on his personal max contract, then work out a sign-and-trade, George and McCollum can be traded straight up. Cash considerations may have to come into play, but the Blazers do have a trade exception they can use as well.
Will this happen? No. But it’s fun to think about, and it would solve many of the Blazers’ needs in one fell swoop. Here’s why it would make sense for the teams and parties involved:
The Blazers’ Perspective
They get to swap an undersized non-All-Star wing who’s primarily a scorer for a five-time All-Star who’s widely considered a top-10 player in the NBA, is an elite defender, can do anything you need him to on offense, and would instantly become the best player on the team, though Lillard would remain the face of the franchise. You do that move in a heartbeat if you’re Portland, no matter your attachment to and feelings for McCollum.
Lillard is good friends with McCollum, but the NBA is a business, and they’re both professionals. If nothing else, it would signal that the Blazers are serious about doing whatever they can to contend.
Would swapping McCollum for Playoff P (that is a stupid nickname George gave himself) solve all the Blazers’ ills? No, but he would be an upgrade over McCollum, and the sheer switchablility of George (who can play the 2! You don’t even need to adjust the starting lineup!), Aminu, and Harkless on defense should wreak havoc with teams trying to play small, and the willingness of Chief and Mo to defend power forwards is another plus; George despises defending in the post.
George can shoot (40% from three-point range last season), handle the ball, drive, use his six-foot-eight frame to great effect, run a pick-and-roll, spot up, play on or off the ball…he is a Swiss Army Knife of a basketball player. And he’s only 27, just a year older than McCollum, and around the same age as Lillard. If I were Olshey, I would pay very close attention to the talks between George and the Thunder during the summer.
The Thunder’s Perspective
OKC’s season ended with a dull thud, falling to the Utah Jazz in six games. George had a horrific stinker of a game, finishing with five points, two made field-goals, and six turnovers. The series was a microcosm of PG13’s season in the land of cattle, flat plains, and funny-talking yokels: some stellar games, some terrible games, and some games where it didn’t matter what he did because Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook decided the game for him. Those two made one of my favorite players, and a tremendous talent, disappear because of their ball-hoggery. I’m glad they’re no longer staining my TV screen this postseason.
It’s rumored that George wants to head to Los Angeles to sign with the Lakers; he grew up in Southern California. If the talks he has with Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and Westbrook don’t get anywhere but stay cordial enough to where George is open to suggestions, Presti might suggest a sign-and-trade to make sure that the Thunder don’t lose him for nothing one year after trading Victor Oladipo, Domatas Sabonis, and a draft pick for George.
If George wants to compete for a championship during his prime, neither of the LA teams are attractive situations right now. The Clippers are in a transition period, deciding whether to trade away their remaining veterans or hang onto them, while there’s no guarantee the Lakers will attract any other free agents; they’ve failed to do so the last few years, and honestly, Philadelphia is a much more attractive destination for LeBron James than Laker Land, despite James owning a mansion there. (Not that that means much; most of the top NBA players congregate in Los Angeles during the offseason, and own summer homes there. They’re all rich dudes.)
For all their flaws, the Blazers could be the best chance for George to compete while at the peak of his powers. Lillard is a more versatile player than Westbrook, whose approach to playing basketball is part Oscar Robertson, part Kobe Bryant, part Vince Carter, and part J.R. Smith. Westbrook plays hard all the time, every day, which is admirable and awesome. Unfortunately, the $200 Million Man’s approach has also marginalized his teammates, castrated his coaches, and rendered the front-office genius of Presti pointless and moot. George would be better off getting away from all that, and the fact that he’s still willing to listen to what the Thunder are trying to sell him shows that he’s still a decent dude.
Again, these ideas myself and others will be presenting are likely never going to happen. Olshey is on record saying he’s not trading wither Lillard or McCollum, and it would take his dismissal or a directive from Paul Allen himself to change that. (Don’t discount the latter, by the way; Lillard has already gone over Olshey’s head before to talk with the owner.) If the Blazers do decide to break up their backcourt, though, I would love to see Paul George suit up for Rip City.