CJ McCollum trade grades: Pelicans pair star guard with Zion Williamson; Blazers continue teardown

The Portland Trail Blazers are trading CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package centered around Josh Hart and draft compensation, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. McCollum has spent his entire eight-year career sharing the Blazers backcourt with Damian Lillard, but is now set to move on to a New Orleans team desperate for his scoring punch. 

It’s a seven-player deal in total, with the Pelicans also receiving Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Blazers are getting Nickeil Alexander-WalkerTomas Satoransky and Didi Louzada in the deal. The Pelicans will also receive New Orleans’ 2022 first-round pick (with protections) and two future second-round selections, per Wojnarowski. The teams officially announced the deal on Tuesday night. 

The move is just the latest part of a teardown from interim Portland GM Joe Cronin. The Blazers traded Robert Covington and Norman Powell to the Los Angeles Clippers to help duck the luxury tax last week, and now, they’re giving up a franchise icon in yet another step toward a rebuild. McCollum averaged 19 points per game in his eight seasons in Portland, but he never got the Blazers beyond the Western Conference Finals. Now, they appear to be retooling.

The Pelicans may be near the bottom of the Western Conference standings (they enter Tuesday in 10th, a half-game ahead of the Blazers), but they have acted as buyers throughout this trading period in an attempt to build a winning roster for the eventual return of Zion Williamson. When Williamson — who’s missed the entire season to date with a foot issue — does make it back to the floor, McCollum and Brandon Ingram will give him a strong group of supporting scorers, but beyond that, McCollum’s presence will balance out the young roster with another veteran presence. Williamson will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason, and rumors have persisted that he might hesitate to sign it. McCollum is proof that the Pelicans are serious about putting a winner around him and keeping him happy in New Orleans.

McCollum’s acquisition may help one star, but it’s unclear how it will affect another. Lillard has been adamant about wanting to win in Portland, but the Blazers have now traded three of his four fellow opening day starters. The fifth, Jusuf Nurkic, is also on the trading block due to his expiring contract. Portland is clearly angling toward a rebuild, but it isn’t clear what part Lillard will play in it. He has reportedly been open to the idea of the Blazers getting younger around him, but he will turn 32 in July. By the time a younger roster is ready to win, will he still be? Will the Blazers want to commit the money it will take to extend him knowing that his prime will likely be over when those young players and picks bear fruit?

That is the major question here. This deal has a perpetual lottery team taking a step toward the playoffs and a perpetual playoff team taking a step toward the lottery. Only time will tell if now was the right moment for either team to make such a drastic move in that direction. For now, here’s how both teams graded in the deal.

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Portland receives:

  • 2022 first-round pick (protected)
  • Two future second-round picks

New Orleans receives:  

Trail Blazers trade grade: D

Reports started circulating soon after the deal that the Blazers plan to pursue high-end talent now rather than retreat. High-end talent? Like McCollum himself? The goal, seemingly, is to use the $60 million in potential cap space the Blazers created along with the draft capital acquired in both this trade and Friday’s deal with the Clippers to reload immediately … but Portland walked away from both trades with only one extra first-round pick and that $60 million cap space figure is a work of pure fiction. Yes, the Blazers technically could create significant space, but it would require all of the following: 

  • Finding a taker for Eric Bledsoe. He has $3.9 million in guaranteed money that will sit on Portland’s books next summer if he is waived.
  • Waiving Josh Hart. While Hart is presumably the centerpiece of the McCollum deal, his $13 million salary for next season is technically not guaranteed.
  • Renouncing their rights to Anfernee Simons (who has an $11.8 million cap hold) and Jusuf Nurkic ($18 million).

Getting off of Bledsoe would be difficult, but probably doable. But waiving Hart and renouncing Simons and Nurkic only gives the Blazers more players to replace, and considering the players they’ve already given up, they were already operating at a meaningful talent deficit. Perhaps in a better free-agent class sacrificing so much talent for space would make sense, but the NBA‘s recent trend of extending almost every contract before free agency has left this offseason’s market somewhat devoid of difference-makers. Do the Blazers think they can swipe Deandre Ayton away from the Suns? Unlikely considering their ability to match any offer he gets as a restricted free agent. Odds are, James Harden and Bradley Beal aren’t interested either. They want to win. Beyond those three, there just aren’t difference-makers on the market.

More likely, the Blazers will continue to operate as an above-the-cap team and make use of the $21 million trade exception that this deal generated. That is a pretty sizable salary slot they could potentially fill without moving off of Hart, Nurkic or Simons, and there are a few notable players in this deadline’s rumor mill that would fit into it, including:

  • Myles Turner, making $18 million
  • Jerami Grant, making roughly $20 million
  • Harrison Barnes, making roughly $20.3 million

In other words, the Blazers don’t necessarily need to be done dealing at the deadline. They could, in theory, fill that trade exception now and send back some of the assets accumulated in these past two trades. With their own pick likely now falling into the lottery, the Blazers could position themselves to be moderately competitive again as soon as next season.

The problem with that line of thinking is that the Blazers were already moderately competitive. They’ve made the playoffs eight years in a row, the longest active streak in the NBA. The idea behind retooling their roster to such an extreme degree probably should have been to rebuild, but if they insisted on winning now, they should have at least positioned themselves to chase the sort of true second superstar that they haven’t had during the Lillard era. That probably isn’t possible. Remember, the Blazers are still Stepien-locked. They can’t trade any of their own first-round picks because of the protections on the one that they owe to Chicago. Simons has value, but even his best-case outcome is likely inferior to where McCollum already was. If there’s a true partner in crime out there for Lillard, the Blazers aren’t exactly in a position to get him.

And then there’s the matter of process. This teardown has been overseen by Joe Cronin, an interim general manager. Allowing an executive with a temporary job title such latitude to rebuild this roster is among the more irresponsible decisions any franchise has made in recent NBA history. That has nothing to do with Cronin and everything to do with his title. These are the sort of franchise-altering moves that should really be made by a permanent general manager. Hotel guests aren’t allowed to renovate their rooms.

If you’re looking for silver linings here, there are a few. Hart is more valuable than he’ll get credit for. He’s not close to McCollum’s equal as a scorer, but he’s better at pretty much everything else. The Blazers haven’t had the sort of rugged, physical guard play he’ll bring to the table during the Lillard era. Having that extra first-round pick from the Pelicans offers a modicum of flexibility that they’d previously lacked.

But if you’re looking for a conspiracy theory, here’s something to chew on: Let’s say the Blazers do want to trade Lillard … but don’t want to absorb the public relations hit of dealing a franchise icon who’s publicly committed to Portland. How do you get your superstar to ask for a trade himself? Probably by trading three of his fellow starters for a modest return. If this move is the start of a full-scale rebuild in Portland, it looks significantly better. Until we have any evidence that was the case, it must be treated as an ill-fated attempt at winning with Lillard. The Blazers aren’t getting credit for shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic they’ve created.

Pelicans trade grade: B+

New Orleans has had a serious resource allocation problem over the past few years. It traded significant draft capital in the offseason to clear cap space for a player in Kyle Lowry who didn’t end up joining their team. Losing Lonzo Ball for what amounted to little more than expiring contracts was borderline disastrous. But give the Pelicans a shred of credit here. They managed to trade their 2022 first-round pick twice … without even necessarily losing it. The Pelicans first gave that pick away in the offseason to help land Devonte’ Graham. If it falls between 15 and 30, it goes to Charlotte. If not? The Hornets only get two second-round picks. New Orleans wisely took advantage of those protections to trade the pick again, this time to Portland, for McCollum. The Blazers only get it if it ends up landing between 5-14, though. If the Pelicans somehow end up in the top four, which isn’t completely farfetched considering they have the NBA’s ninth-worst record as of this writing, they get to keep it. That’s how you make the most of a pick as a trade asset. 

The McCollum fit is an interesting one, though it’s a tad redundant. New Orleans surely hoped that Graham himself would slot in as their small, scoring guard, but he’s proven best suited to a bench role this season and McCollum is a far more diverse offensive player. New Orleans lacks a traditional point guard, but Brandon Ingram has grown meaningfully as a playmaker over the past few months. Slot in McCollum’s pick-and-roll shot creation and the unstoppable behemoth that is Point Zion and the Pelicans have more than adequately compromised for their unorthodox team construction. Throw in Graham’s shooting and Jonas Valanciunas’ all-around offensive game and when the Pelicans are healthy, there is no reason to believe they won’t have an elite offense. The shooting they’ve accumulated around Williamson is downright terrifying.

The defensive fit is going to be clunkier. The Pelicans are making an enormous bet on rookie Herb Jones to essentially become an All-Defense-caliber player, because if he doesn’t getting stops is going to be extremely challenging for this roster. Swiping Nance helps, and he gives the Pelicans the small-ball center option they’ve lacked during the Williamson era. But if New Orleans is ever going to build a sustainable defense, it probably needs to at least replace Hart at some point. Fortunately, the bar for a team with this much scoring is fairly low. Considering the fairly meager cost New Orleans paid to so drastically improve offensively, the deal was a pretty clear short-term win.

It’s just worth asking whether the short term should’ve been this team’s priority. It’s no secret that David Griffin is fighting for his job. Landing McCollum, and perhaps more importantly for his sake, weakening the Blazers to such a degree that they will likely fall out of the play-in race, should make the Pelicans better right now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Williamson is only 21 and the rest of the roster is still fairly young. McCollum is 30 and has two big-money years left on his contract. Will he still be a high-end scorer by the time the rest of the roster is ready to genuinely compete? At the very least, there’s not going to be much overlap. In a perfect world, New Orleans would have landed a 25-year-old version of McCollum and extended their runway a little bit.

But getting the older version of him isn’t the end of the world. The Pelicans still have plenty of spare draft picks lying around from the Lakers and Bucks. This doesn’t have to be their last significant trade. Getting better right now has real value even if the Pelicans are years away from meaningful contention. Getting Williamson’s signature on an extension is probably a given. Getting him to buy into what his team is building is quite another. That was the true goal of this trade. If McCollum helps keep Williamson engaged in New Orleans long enough for Griffin to see his vision for this roster through, the deal will be an unmitigated success.

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