CJ McCollum in position to burn the Blazers, who have a 2022 lottery pick riding on a Pelicans play-in loss

The Portland Trail Blazers did not want to trade CJ McCollum, who was an extremely productive and popular player over his eight-plus seasons in the Pacific Northwest. Joe Cronin, who took over as Portland’s interim general manager after the firing of Neil Olshey, felt he had no other choice.

The McCollum-Lillard backcourt had seemingly topped out, and the Blazers, who also offloaded Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and Robert Covington at the deadline, needed to free up cap space while also bring back a few assets that they could possibly flip in an even bigger move this summer.

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Putting aside the cap flexibility they created with these trades, the Blazers came out stocked with two potential lottery picks for this upcoming draft. The first is their own, which they tanked their way into; Portland has the sixth-best lottery odds, which equates to a nine-percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick and a 37.2 percent chance of getting a top-four pick.

The second lottery pick the Blazers potentially gained comes via the Pelicans, who sent back a protected 2022 first-rounder in the McCollum deal. Protected is the operative term. The New Orleans pick only conveys to Portland if it falls between No. 5 and 14 — the latter being the final lottery slot. If the Pelicans make the playoffs, which they are one play-in victory over the Clippers on Friday from doing, their 2022 pick will fall below the lottery line, to at least No. 15, which is a long way of saying the Blazers won’t get it.

Instead, the Blazers will get the Milwaukee Bucks‘ 2025 first-round pick, which is not only three years away but also has little chance of being a lottery pick unless Giannis Antetokounmpo decides to leave town (to be fair, he could become a free agent in the summer of 2024, and if he relocates, perhaps the Bucks would fall off the map and go into tank mode themselves, which could make the pick in 2025 pretty valuable).

But that’s a lot of ifs, and it’s also a long way away. The Blazers need to make big moves this summer. Three years down the road is another lifetime. Lillard might be long gone by then. At the very least he’ll be 35 years old. The Blazers want — no they need — that second lottery pick right now.

With one lottery pick, which very possibly won’t even fall in the top five, they can pique some interest around the league. Jerami Grant can probably be had for a pick like that. But with two? That will get them into just about any trade conversation without potentially having to include, say, Anfernee Simons, who’s Portland’s only truly attractive asset outside those two picks. Portland does not want to trade Simons. I doubt it would even talk about it seriously. 

Also remember, the Blazers have to replace three starters in McCollum, Powell and Covington. Simons takes McCollum’s spot, and you still need two starters that represent meaningful upgrades. Rather than packaging those two lottery picks and swinging big, the Blazers likely intend to use them on separate deals as they try to re-fill a roster than was largely depleted at the deadline. 

Either way, the Blazers need those two lottery picks, and to get them both, they need the Pelicans to lose on Friday to the Clippers in the elimination game for the West’s No. 8 seed. McCollum, who went for 32 points in New Orleans’ first play-in victory over the Spurs, will have plenty to say about that. 

It would be some kind of cruel joke for the Blazers to lose a lottery pick at the hands of McCollum just two months after trading him, but that’s what it’s come down to. When Cronin made that deal, he knew there was a chance the Pelicans could make the playoffs. They were No. 10 in the West when the deal went down, and McCollum and Nance were obviously going to make them better. Still, it’s kind of hard to believe it’s come down to the Blazers essentially having to cross their fingers and hope for McCollum, or at least his team, to lay an egg. The Blazers love McCollum, but this is a business, and they would love that second lottery even more. 

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