It was only a short time ago Damian Lillard dismantled the Thunder and hit a 35-foot step-back three to send the Portland Trail Blazers to the second round of the playoffs this season. Once there, Lillard and longtime backcourt mate C.J. McCollum took turns scoring and eked by the Denver Nuggets to advance to their first Western Conference Finals. They were then swept by a battered Golden State Warriors squad, but the optimism was there: they beat two good teams and won a Game 7 on an opponent’s floor before the sweep.
GM Neil Olshey clearly shared this optimism. He signed Lillard to a super-max contract extension last month, then doubled down and signed McCollum to a three-year extension worth $100 million with two years still left on his deal this week. Portland will pay their backcourt nearly $500 million over the next six years. After several years’ worth of trade speculation and suggestions that Portland was good but not good enough, the Blazers have doubled down on their star pairing. Is that a good idea?
The criticisms of the Lillard/McCollum duo have long revolved around how much their skills overlap; both are ball-dominant guards who aren’t terribly effective on the defensive end. That hasn’t changed. But the playoffs showed how those overlapping skills can be useful as long as they don’t leak points on the defensive end of the floor. Neither will become elite defenders, but during the playoffs, they played hard and were smart enough with their positioning that they didn’t make it easy for their opponents. They didn’t make it difficult, per se, but they didn’t just die when they ran into a pick or let guys blow by them one-on-one.
On the offensive side of things, their whole playoff run was an exhibition of the benefits that come with two guys who can create and make their own shots. Whenever Lillard hit a funk, he’d defer to McCollum, who could beat most big men off the switch and was most dangerous when he started hitting pull-up Js. When McCollum’s jumper stopped falling and he got tired from the physical play at the rim, he flipped it to Lillard, whose stature allows him to survive better than McCollum in the paint and is a deadeye shooter when he’s cooking.
If Lillard and McCollum played with a competent defensive big man to clean up their mistakes on the back end, they’d be as good as nearly anybody. As is, they have Hassan Whiteside (who is sometimes that guy and other times very much not that guy) and Zach Collins (a work in progress). Locking down Lillard and McCollum without a solid answer behind them is risky.
But at the end of the day, the Warriors are the only other team in the league that have true home-grown superstars. Portland is a small market and just watched the epic collapse of another one in OKC. They are fully aware of the issues that come along with not playing in New York or L.A. They’ve found two guys who not only like it there, but fully buy into the Portland program and are permanent fixtures in the community. Signing them both until 2025 gives their team a hard floor; barring injury, they’ll always range from good to elite, and a good chunk of the teams in the NBA would be ecstatic to have that kind of consistency and security.
Will a Lillard/McCollum duo ever win a championship? Maybe. It might not be this year if Whiteside doesn’t buy in and after losing several key wings. But offense will never be an issue in Portland. Unless they’re playing another Warriors-esque superteam, they only need to be good enough on defense. And remember- all it takes is one ill-timed injury or one cold streak to turn things around in a playoff series. Portland hasn’t had much in the way of postseason luck over the last several years. Dame and C.J. may not be able to overcome that lack of luck, but they’ll ensure Portland will be present and have the chance to receive some, one way or the other.