Trail Blazers

Evaluating CJ McCollum’s future on the Blazers— ‘Nothing is off the table’

Trail Blazers

After a fourth first-round exit in five seasons, the Trail Blazers and Terry Stotts decided to mutually part ways as Portland's President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey tries to form a title-contending team around franchise star Damian Lillard.

Monday afternoon, Olshey met with media via Zoom to discuss the upcoming offseason and said that the four-some of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkić and Robert Covington would all "absolutely" return next season.

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"We’ve got 80 percent of our starting lineup under contract and returning absolutely," said Olshey. 

Lillard and McCollum both enter year one of their extensions next season while Nurkić and Covington enter the final seasons of their deals. 

Norman Powell can decline a player option to become an unrestricted free agent but Portland holds his bird rights. Olshey said he acquired Powell "hoping that he’d be a long-term part of our future." If Portland can re-sign Powell remains to be seen, as he likely will command a contract of $20 million annually. 

However, when asked by Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin if his stance of breaking up Dame and CJ remains unchanged, Olshey deflected. 

"You've been here a while. Has anything we've ever done gotten out in public before it's happened in regards to trades or free agency. We don't discuss our players in a public forum, it's not fair to them. It's not what we do here... but we also understand this is a business.

 

"Nothing is ever off the table if it advances us closer to a championship." 

That's a far different tone than he's had previously, where he deemed the tandem of McCollum and Lillard nearly untradeable. 

"The odds of anything ever coming up of commensurate value is so hard to even fathom. I could give you the trite answer that nobody is untradable, but clearly, they are," said Olshey after being swept by Golden State in the 2017 Playoffs.

Still, Olshey's comments about bringing back the four starters caught Rip City off-guard as fans expected any player other than Lillard, especially McCollum, to be fair game to raise the ceiling of a team who flamed out in the first round to a backcourt of Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers. 

Instead, Olshey hinted he's relying on a new coach to get more of the roster defensively and that he feels "good about the foundation of the roster."

"At least [the new head coach] knows what they’re dealing with for the most part in terms of how they get this group to get to another level on the defensive end of the floor," he said.

Olshey also said Portland's lack of playoff success was "not a product of the roster" but rather due to the inability of Stotts to coordinate a successful defensive scheme. After the departure of David Vanderpool, Portland's defense finished 27th and 29th in the league the past two seasons.

After acquiring Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. for a total of two first-round picks and the full mid-level exception (the first given out by Portland since 2015) last summer, hoping they could enhance the Blazers perimeter defense, Portland actually regressed defensively. 

For Olshey, that was unacceptable and led to the franchise ending the Terry Stotts era.

“At 29th, you’re finishing below teams that were literally in rebuilds and teams that maybe weren’t the most motivated to compete late in the year,” said Olshey. “That was completely unacceptable."

The Blazers executive went on to explain the franchise needs to not rely on its offensive identity to carry them, but rather establish a culture on both ends of the floor.

"I think part of it is a culture where we benefited from the offensive culture by having a top-three offense. We’ve also been a victim of the defensive culture and that’s got to change, it’s a mindset as much as it is coverages." 

Despite him saying the playoff defeat to Denver was not a roster issue, Olshey conceded the team needs to find upgrades, specifically getting more defensive-minded players to come off the bench. Portland's playoff rotation had three players off the bench to begin the series who were all defensive liabilities, to say the least, in Carmelo Anthony, Anfernee Simons and Enes Kanter. By the end of the series, Kanter was deemed unplayable. 

 

“I do think that our bench this year gave me a window into knowing we have to have more impact defenders coming off our bench as opposed to just more scorers," said Olshey.

While a McCollum trade is still possible, from Olshey's public comments it seems like roster movement will come from pieces outside the starting lineup.