TUALATIN, Ore. — There’s something rebellious and weird about the way this current Portland Trail Blazers team is constructed. They should keep it that way.
Multiple columns have been written, podcasts recorded and radio segments aired with variations of the same end in mind: breaking up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in return for x-player(s).
Fans too doubt about the future of team beyond this season. The Blazers are built on two ball-dominant guards with overlapping skill sets.
But to say these two can’t co-exist and be successful? That’s just like saying jump-shooting teams can’t win a championship because you need a dominant big man.
“It kind of bothers me that people say it can’t work,” Lillard said. “But I think it doesn’t work when two guys may not respect each other. Two guys might not like each other. One might want to one-up the other guy or things like that. I think it bothers me for those reasons. Everything else is just a challenge.”
They have a Wonder Twin relationship when they’re on the court, always knowing where the other one is.
“I think they compliment each other very well on the court and personality-wise,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
“People are going to talk,” McCollum said. “The better you get, they’re going to talk. Before the season ‘I wasn’t ready, I couldn’t be a starting two guard.’ Now I am a starting two guard but now ‘I can’t start alongside Dame.’ They’re going to keep figuring out things to say. That’s the media’s job.”
The media have floated McCollum’s name in many hypothetical trades, but he’s used to the doubts. Heck, he was listed behind Gerald Henderson in most season previews.
“They said the same thing about Draymond Green, look at him, he’s an All-Star,” McCollum said. “He’s an undersized big but the reason they’re successful is because of their offense? No. He’s starting a trend now. Teams are looking for the next Draymond Green.”
Lillard is often compared to Stephen Curry for how he stretches defenses.
Not long ago that comparison would have been fair on the other end, as Curry was by all accounts was a defensive liability until last season, his sixth.
In his fourth season, Lillard gets around screens better but still gets drilled by opposing big men. Plantar fasciitis that will linger throughout the season hasn’t helped.
As long as attacking Lillard remains an efficient strategy for opponents, Portland may never be a real title contender, but he’s up to the challenge.
“Us being a small backcourt, it might be hard to defend other backcourts, things like that, I can accept,” Lillard said. “That’s a challenge that we have to step up and that we can match-up with a bigger backcourt.”
Given what we know about Lillard’s work ethic, do you want to bet against him making a real defensive improvement? I won’t.
And guess what? There are plenty of Blazers that need to work on their defense because a great deal of them are 25 or younger.
A McCollum trade changes nothing on that end and only would serve to rob them of that which could make them special.
Lillard and McCollum rank 7th and 8th respectively in the league in points per possession in pick and rolls among players who’ve ran 200 or more. They’re 5th and 6th, respectively, in points per possession on isolation plays among players who’ve isolated on more than 100 possessions.
Most teams just don’t have guys that efficient, let alone two.
Take a look around the league. Giving up future assets, such as another first round pick could leave you in a Brooklyn Nets situation, leaving you with no Plan B, C or D, if it fails.
Portland doesn’t appear to be buyers at the trade deadline, according to league sources, but much can change over the next three weeks.
The Orlando Magic still haven’t found one star they can build around after four years of rebuilding. Less than a year into their own restart, Portland has two.
Olshey’s thrift shop player acquisitions fed this team’s dynamic and although the value of cap space has never been lower, his track record leads you to believe he’ll use the cleanest cap sheet in the NBA wiser than most.
Speculation aside, the substance in Lillard and McCollum’s success is something that other teams are taking seriously, so maybe we should too.
“(Damian Lillard) and CJ have made this team very competitive,” Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins said.
“When you have skilled players who are high character guys who work hard and want to win, that’s a good place to start,” Stotts said.
Erik Gundersen covers the Portland Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @blazerbanter.