The Portland Trail Blazers had arguably the best starting backcourt in the NBA in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but now Portland’s abundance of guard talent has become a problem
For years the Portland Trail Blazers had a starting backcourt that was regarded as one of the best in the NBA. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were back-to-back first round picks for the Blazers in 2012 and 2013 and have been Portland’s two leading scorers since the 2015-2016 season.
The Blazers added Norman Powell via a trade with the Toronto Raptors almost exactly one year ago, and had gone with a three-guard lineup this season, until injuries and COVID brought havoc to Portland’s lineup.
McCollum missed 18 games with a collapsed right lung and for the birth of his son Jacobi, and Lillard is out until at least mid-March after surgery to repair damage in his abdomen. In their absence, Anfernee Simons has flourished and guaranteed himself a bunch of offers in his impending dalliance with restricted free agency.
Ben McLemore has also shone for Portland given the opportunity provided him by a rampaging virus and a couple of damaged torsos, and ordinarily such an abundance of talent at one position would be a boon for a team.
But in Joe Cronin, Portland has an interim general manager who – while personally motivated to make big moves and an impression large enough to take the “interim” out of his job title – may not have the blessing of ownership to do so.
Recent rumblings indicate that they are willing to make another run with Lillard, McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic as the cornerstones, but that hasn’t taken them far enough in the playoffs to warrant going any further down that road.
They could use Bird rights to re-sign Nurkic, Robert Covington, and Simons and pay an eleventy gazillion dollar luxury tax next year, but they’d still be among the league’s worst defensive teams. Of the top four Blazer guards, two need to be on different rosters by September for Portland to have any title hopes in the near future.
Lillard and McCollum are too alike, and Powell needs to be returned to his natural two-guard spot or mercifully be given a new home. A case could be made for either Lillard or McCollum to be kept, but Lillard offers a higher ceiling and doesn’t cost much more than his backcourt mate.
The nearly decade-old pairing hasn’t taken the Blazers to a single NBA Finals and certainly won’t this season or next. And given that Powell is the only one of the four who plays any defense at all, the soundest strategy probably includes him.
Which leaves McCollum and Simons as the odd men out, unless the Blazers are willing to pay upwards of $20 million for a sixth man or commit to the three-guard lineup long term, neither of which are viable paths to a championship.