Portland Trail Blazers

For better or worse, CJ McCollum extension ensures status quo for Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have agreed to a hefty three-year extension with CJ McCollum. For better or worse, it ensures the status quo for a franchise trying to get over the hump.

General manager Neil Olshey has rarely shied away from ponying up the dough for his own players, and the Portland Trail Blazers’ latest extension is no exception.

According to ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Blazers have agreed to a three-year, $100 million extension for shooting guard CJ McCollum, putting his total contract at $157 million over the next five years.

McCollum’s importance to Rip City cannot be understated. While Damian Lillard’s series-clinching 3-pointer against the Oklahoma City Thunder was the lasting image from the Blazers’ playoff run, it was CJ’s play that pushed them past a 54-win Denver Nuggets squad and into the conference finals.

In that second round series, McCollum posted 26.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on .446/.371/.595 shooting splits, while Dame’s numbers shrank to 25.1 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds on decidedly worse efficiency (.396/.270/.794).

If not for Lillard’s first round buzzer-beater and subsequent wave goodbye to Russell Westbrook’s time in OKC, McCollum’s Game 7 dagger in the second round would’ve been the linchpin moment in Portland’s memorable run to the Western Conference Finals.

After one Most Improved Player award and four straight seasons averaging at least 20 points per game, there’s no question about the scoring, shooting and secondary playmaking McCollum provides. He and Lillard compose one of the league’s most potent offensive backcourts, and lineups with those two boasted an offensive rating of 116.4 and a Net Rating of plus-7.5 last year, per NBA.com.

Keeping them together for the foreseeable future makes sense, especially now that the West is so wide open and the league is searching for its next powerhouse. If there were ever a time for Olshey to overcommit and get away with it, it’s now.

With that being said, as triumphant as an extension like is for McCollum, the Blazers and the fans who have dreaded the idea of trading him away for a more complementary star, it simply reinforces the status quo for a franchise that’s struggled to get over the hump for years now.

There’s no softballing this one: Between McCollum’s $157 million and Damian Lillard’s $257.4 million over the next six seasons, that’s a hefty amount to commit to the core of a team that usually tops out as a second round playoff squad.

This is nothing new for Olshey; his ill-fated 2016 spending spree on McCollum (four years, $106 million), Evan Turner (four years, $70 million), Allen Crabbe (four years, $75 million) Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Maurice Harkless (four years, $42 million) erred on the side of sentimentality, keeping the core of a 44-win team together and banking too heavily on internal improvement that never came.

Turner, of course, failed to live up to his gaudy contract. Crabbe was traded after one season, while Leonard and Harkless never progressed in any meaningful way, ultimately leading to their exits via trade this summer. All of this lowered Portland’s ceiling internally and restricted their flexibility to improve externally.

McCollum clearly doesn’t deserve to be put in that same category of role players; he’s lived up to his prior extension, cemented himself as a staple of Rip City basketball and is only now entering his prime as he approaches his 28th birthday — all of which explain why he’s the only member of that 2016 spending spree to remain on the roster.

With that being said, his numbers have hovered around the same level over the last three years, with his 3-point efficiency dipping as the defensive end of the floor has demanded more and more of his attention.

The Blazers are still a good team, and this group will probably be in the thick of the playoff race as long as head coach Terry Stotts remains at the helm. Throw in Kent Bazemore to replace Al-Farouq Aminu, a bigger role for Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside filling in for a recovering Jusuf Nurkic and a full season of Rodney Hood, and suddenly Portland could push for its third straight 3-seed in the loaded West.

However, the challenge for the Blazers will be finding a way to put the right complementary pieces in place to build on their trademark brand of sustained but moderate success. Even with their star backcourt locked in through 2023-24, Lillard will be 34 and McCollum will be 33 at that point.

The window for contention is small, especially for a small-market franchise that now has $360 million committed to two players over the next five seasons.

Since McCollum’s rise to prominence and their first season without LaMarcus Aldridge back in 2015-16, the Blazers have won 44, 41, 49 and 53 games. They’ve won three of their seven playoff series, with three of the four defeats coming via sweep. Three of those series losses have come at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, with Portland winning only one of those 13 contests.

The Nuggets team Portland bested in seven games is only going to get better as its young core grows more experienced. Ditto for a Utah Jazz team that added Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic this summer. The Houston Rockets aren’t going anywhere with Russell Westbrook, and if Klay Thompson returns healthy around the All-Star break, no one should forget how the Dubs swept Portland in the conference finals sans Kevin Durant.

McCollum and Lillard’s scoring prowess already may have peaked in 2016-17, and the team just lost two of its most prominent wings in Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. So even with the West “wide open” and the immovable Warriors road block suddenly looking unsteady, no one is pegging this Blazers team to reach the NBA Finals.

The bright side is this extension doesn’t impact their short-term prospects in any negative way. McCollum was already locked in through 2020-21 before the agreement, so this commitment costs Portland nothing for the time being. In fact, it’s slightly less than the $114.1 million max he could have received.

Modest cap relief is coming next summer as well, when both Whiteside ($35.1 million cap hold) and Bazemore ($28.9 million) will be unrestricted free agents. Much he did like 2016, Olshey will have another opportunity and more flexibility to raise his team’s ceiling to where it needs to be after such a hearty investment in his backcourt.

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At that point, just being another good regular season team won’t be enough to justify such massive deals for Dame and CJ, who are being paid like the best players on a championship-caliber team. The fanbase loves them and there’s something to be said for continuity and maintained success, but keeping a good team intact and preserving this enjoyable era of Rip City basketball has never been Olshey’s problem.

Finding a way to build a great one — a process that begins in 2020 and comes with heightened pressure in the wake of CJ McCollum’s latest extension — is how these substantial investments in his own guys can finally pay off.

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