To Blaze on or move on. That’s the biggest question facing Blazer GM Neil Olshey during what is expected to be a turbulent NBA offseason for the Portland Trail Blazers.
For the better portion of the last decade, the Portland Trail Blazers have developed and maintained what has consistently been one of the best backcourt duos in the NBA. As the Ying to the other’s Yang, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has served as the Blazers’ combined centerpiece since 2015. An offensive firepower built on sharpshooting, dribble penetration, and excellent facilitation, the Rose City duo have spent years serving as the backbone of a team thought to be just a few pieces away from contending for an NBA title.
Alas, each June feels like a song stuck on repeat for Portland, with phrase after phrase about the season’s potential, the supporting moves made, the disappointment when stacked against the expectations, and a concluding verse about how something finally needs to change.
We’re here yet again in 2021, with Portland heading into the offseason coming off an ugly showing against the Denver Nuggets. Despite predictions around the country for Blazers in six, the Nuggets won in six games, without star point guard Jamal Murray and an equally abysmal defense. So once again, a tradition like no other, it’s decision time for Portland. Blaze on with another year of the same duo, and likely a similar result, or pull the trigger on a Rose City shake-up?
Of course, one can’t criticize Neil Olshey for doing “nothing – he quickly parted ways with head man Terry Stotts. But the rhetorical question of the Summer is: how long are we going to ride out the Dame and CJ experiment? It has been tried and tried repeatedly and ultimately leads to the same place. Despite the 2019 season for the ages culminating with a WCF berth and eventual sweep, the first or second-round exits have become a blazer staple since these two came on the scene. The mind games begin as the two schools of thought begin to collide. A) Dame and CJ together are still among the best duos in the league; they just need more pieces around them! And B) if it were going to work, it would have already worked—time to move in a new direction.
Maybe we are sitting here having a different conversation if Zach Collins stayed healthy or if Jusuf Nurkic never experienced his gruesome episode. But the age-old saying always wins. “If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, wouldn’t it be a Merry Christmas?” Every team in the league can play that game, and at the end of the season, you have either gotten it done and made progress, or you haven’t.
So, if significant moves were made, then what? Of all the adjectives one could apply to Dame Dolla, “loyal” is usually atop the list. Few inside Blazer nation think Lillard would ever force Portland’s hand with a trade, but after this past season, it’s evident yet again that he has superstar talent without a supporting cast. He’s surely running out of patience, and he’s also running out of time. 31-year-old Lillard won’t be in his prime forever, and his opportunity to tend for a title is diminishing. Should he choose to force his way out of the Rose City, the suitors would surely come calling.
While that scenario can’t be taken completely off of the table, the much more likely scenario is and should be a move for CJ McCollum (finally). As a move that fans have embraced for years, there seems to be no time like the present. The dynamic duo experiment has shown flashes and left us with incredible memories, but it has run its course. I am a firm believer in the school of thought “A” from above – if this were going to work out as a title-contending option, it already would have.
Among other chatter, the move has picked up the most publicity since the offseason is a move to trade CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons. While some Blazer faithful seem to have embraced the idea, I remain unsold that this is a move that takes Portland to the next level. Simmons is an incredible defender and has offensive facilitation skills second to almost none in the league. Certainly, no denying it. That said, this is also the same guy considering switching shooting hands, as reported last month by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Simmons’ offensive woes have been clear as of late, but considering a switch in shooting hands moving into year four of an NBA career is an unprecedented mental conundrum. I’m not convinced that such a player brings the type of offensive support Damian Lillard so desperately needed during the playoffs.
This brings me to another point. Following Portland’s marathon game 5 loss to Denver in double overtime, where Lillard proceeded to drain miracle shot after miracle shot to extend time, each one crazier than the one before it, the NBA social sphere was unifying around the theme, “GET DAME SOME HELP!” In a game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, All-Star and team centerpiece Ben Simmons scored 5 points in 36 minutes of a game 7……at HOME! That won’t cut it, and the last thing Damian Lillard needs as a support agent is a guard that can’t shoot that disappears when a playoff series is on the line.
I’m not saying the Blazers shouldn’t move on from CJ McCollum, but I’m not sold that Ben Simmons in the Rose City provides the supporting spark that Dame Dolla needs to bring an NBA title to the Northwest. Yes, move McCollum, but make the splash needed when you do it.