The Portland Trail Blazers will have to make a salary decision on young guard Gary Trent Jr. If Trent rises any further, does CJ McCollum become expendable?
Every offseason, media that cover the Blazers discuss trades with McCollum as the main piece. This is no different from every other team, though. Kevin Love with LeBron James, Draymond Green with Stephen Curry, Khris Middleton with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
When a team only makes the first or second round of the playoffs, it’s natural that media and fans review how the team can get better.
CJ is in these discussions every season, and a lot of fans don’t like it. I understand this. Not only is CJ a great guy on and off the court, but he is also loved in Portland, and most importantly, he is one of the best shooting guards in the league.
CJ is an elite shooter and shot creator. There is no denying this. Every game he plays, there are one or two moments where he makes an impossible shot or cooks an opposition defender. CJ is also consistent. He has averaged 20 points a game for five straight years and never shot less than 37.9 percent from three in that time.
He is an elite shot creator who can create at the rim, from floater range, from mid-range, or from three. He is a three-level scorer who can do it on the biggest stage.
CJ’s game, in my eyes, has never been in question.
Every off-season, when there were conversations around a potential trade, the Blazers had no evidence that another option could work offensively. Any potential trade was just a theory and was a massive risk. But, this summer, the conversation is different.
Gary Trent Jr. has prompted a rethink. Not because he is a better player than CJ, but because he fits better with Lillard. This team only has a certain amount of years where they have Lillard at a superstar level. 2019/20 was one of them.
The 2020/21 season will be Lillard’s age 31 season. In my mind, he has two, maybe three more years at a peak superstar level. This means the clock is ticking on a championship window. Some NBA teams don’t have an All-NBA level talent for 10 years, let alone someone who can win a playoff series singlehandedly.
This 2019/20 season, some of the Blazers’ best minutes were with Lillard at point guard and Trent alongside at shooting guard.
And, they were better than the CJ and Lillard minutes. This doesn’t mean that Trent is a better player than CJ; it means that Lillard and Trent were a better combo over a large sample.
Here’s why I think this is the case. Firstly, Trent’s defense. Trent is a better defender than CJ, and instantly the team is stronger on the defensive end when you have Trent at the two. He is six-foot-five and is longer than McCollum too.
Also, and this is big for the team, Trent can guard the point of attack, leaving Dame to rest on the other team’s weakest defender. Don’t underestimate the effort that it takes Dame to guard the best guard because he is a better defender than CJ. Trent, though, when he is on the floor, can take that responsibility, meaning Dame can exert a little less effort on defense.
The less effort Dame expends on defense, the more that he has for offense. Trent obviously isn’t as good an offensive player as CJ, but he has some different strengths to CJ. He is already a better finisher at the rim, and as he gains more of a role and plays more minutes, he will probably get to the line more. As both Dame and CJ age, they will both get to the rim and the line less.
Trent is ten years younger than Dame, so as Dame ages, Trent will bloom and can still attack the line aggressively and finish strongly in transition. You would have contrasting styles at the one and the two.
The angle though that I’m looking at in terms of potentially moving CJ is that you are paying him an average of $30 million a year for the next five years, where a guy like Trent will likely get between $10 and $14 million a year for the next four years starting in 2021, even if he improves.
Trent can probably do about 75 percent of what CJ does on offense, but he can defend at a significantly higher level. Trent can do a lot of what CJ does, but for half the price.
In the hypothetical situation that you were to move CJ, you would trade him for a forward who would fit well with Dame.
There is no denying that bringing in a legitimate small forward to pair with Damian Lillard would enhance the Blazers championship chances.
Again, this doesn’t mean that CJ is a bad player or that the Blazers need to dump him because they haven’t made the NBA finals. It just means that there could be a player out there who fits better with Dame.
The likelihood of Neil Olshey making this type of move seems slim. But, if Trent was to explode to the tune of 18 points a game and was playing All-NBA level defense, then this may force Olshey’s hand.
Remember, Dame’s window is only a few years. The most important thing shouldn’t be keeping everyone together; the priority should be winning a championship.
Were DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry unhappy when the Toronto Raptors traded DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs? Yes. But they brought in Kawhi Leonard, and the Raptors won a championship. The NBA is a business, and sometimes decisions have to be made that are tough for both the franchise and the fans.
I love CJ’s game, and maybe when this team is fit this year, with the addition of Trent, they take the next step and make the NBA finals. I wouldn’t count this possibility out.
But, we know that Trent is a better fit next to Dame, and the time may come in the future that this needs to be addressed.