NBA Sunday: The Trail Blazers Mean Business


How far can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum carry the Portland Trail Blazers?

If you’re general manager Neil Olshey, the answer appears to be to infinity and beyond.

In the contemporary NBA where teams routinely admit themselves to be down with O.P.P.—other people’s property—the Trail Blazers deserve some credit for taking a page out of Sam Presti’s playbook and loving the ones they’re with.

Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves to be the type of young superstars in the making whom a shrewd general manager would dream of drafting. In each their own right, Lillard (taken sixth overall in the 2012 draft) and McCollum (taken with the 10th selection the following year) have already proven to be keepers.

Olshey and his staff obviously bought into that. Last season, the Blazers signed Lillard to a maximum five-year extension worth $120 million. Re-signing Lillard was a no brainer, but this summer, owner Paul Allen proved (yet again) that he isn’t afraid to spend through the roof. With all that is said about ownership groups in Oakland and Cleveland, something needs to be said of Allen and his willingness to spend in the pursuit of winning. It has arguably never been more present than this past offseason.

With a net worth estimated at greater than $18 billion, it’s fairly obvious that Allen gave Olshey the keys to his safe. This past summer alone, the franchise committed about $350 million to its roster.

McCollum was signed to a maximum four-year extension worth $106 million, while the franchise also invested heavily in signing free agents Evan Turner (four years, $70 million) and Festus Ezeli (two years, $15 million). Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Moe Harkless (four years, $42 million) were each re-signed, and the Blazers simply refused to allow the Brooklyn Nets to pry restricted free agent Allen Crabbe away from them. Matching the four-year maximum offer sheet extended to Crabbe from the Nets cost an additional $75 million over four years.

Will it be enough?

Only time will tell, but maybe that’s a good thing.

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We are embarking on a new economic era in the NBA. Between now and next year, we will see and hear a lot as it relates to the next collective bargaining agreement and, the truth of the matter, is that nobody knows exactly what that deal is going to be.

Fortunately, for NBA fans, one can rest assured that an owner such as Allen would not be a proponent of any sort of catastrophic changes to the NBA’s cap system. We have heard rumblings about a “hard” salary cap, more oppressive luxury tax and even rules related to restricting the amount of eight-figure earners on one roster.

Even without knowing it, the Blazers have somewhat painted themselves into a corner. They are one of a whopping 15 teams in the league that will enter the 2016-17 season with a payroll exceeding $100 million and join the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies as teams that have payrolls exceeding $110 million.

When the representatives from the league and the players union continue their negotiations into the autumn and winters months, the simple truth is that the league will have to understand that it cannot go backwards. After the contracts and monies that were doled out this past offseason, building in any sort of retroactive mechanisms into the collective bargaining agreement to curb spending or redistribute talent across the league is going to face substantial opposition from the teams that have already committed hundreds of millions of dollars into their current rosters.

Agreed, Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland is a black eye to the competitive balance that the league hoped to build into the prior collective bargaining agreement, but the conversations I have had with league sources and agents yield a completely different attitude this time around than when LeBron James decided to head to Miami.

First, nobody seems to think that the Golden State Warriors are unbeatable. That was the prevailing sentiment as it related to the HEAT.

Secondly, with Durant’s departure to the Warriors, those whom I spoke to had an attitude more of resignation than contempt, with one agent in particular simply proclaiming, “Players who want to play together are going to find a way. There’s no way to foolproof the system without hamstringing every other team’s ability to improve themselves.”

So if there is a reason to be optimistic about a work stoppage being avoided, it would be that a few in the know believe it to be possible. What it may hinge on is the extent to which the players are collectively willing to fight for removing restrictions on individual maximum player salaries and whether they will insist on reacquiring some of the basketball-related income they agreed to relinquish during the negotiations that led to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

As we look toward the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, we look off into the distant future. And it is that distant future that has fans of the Portland Trail Blazers giddy with excitement.

* * * * * *

Again we ask, how far can Lillard and McCollum take the Blazers?

At this point, we don’t know. But what we do know is that, so long as the mechanisms governing team payroll restrictions and player movement remain the same, we will have an opportunity to find out. Lillard just recently celebrated his 26th birthday while McCollum is only a few weeks from his 25th birthday. Entering their fourth and third seasons, respectively, Lillard and McCollum’s “advanced” ages more represent the fact that Lillard spent four years in college while McCollum spent three. Their ages do not represent the amount of NBA wear and tear on their knees and, with the improvements in medical technology and player recovery, there is no reason to think that either won’t be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years.

In terms of the younger teams in the league, even those with the brightest futures—the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves immediately come to mind—are several steps behind the Trail Blazers. Their advancing out of the first round and getting some playoff experience this past spring will only pay dividends in the future.

And if things break right for them, so will the heavy investments that were made into the roster this past summer.

In an NBA where fans, owners and front offices are constantly obsessing over which superstar is unhappy with his current situation or who can be had, it’s refreshing to see a franchise double-down and commit to those that are homegrown talents. Over the years, things have changed fairly dramatically in the NBA, but the key to building a winning franchise always has and always will be drafting prudently, investing in talent and augmenting them with the right auxiliary pieces that make the sum greater than the individual pieces.

As it currently stands, the Blazers have $100 million worth of salary commitments for each of the next four seasons. In other words, Olshey has not only firmly committed to the nucleus of Lillard and McCollum, he has already doubled-down on their potential and what they could be. In the wake of Durant’s departure to Oakland and the continuance of the NBA’s modern talent arms race, there is something to be said for a general manager keeping his head down, staying the course, and committing to the players who he himself thought worthy of carrying his legacy.

So no, we don’t know how far Lillard and McCollum will be able to carry the Blazers, but in all likelihood, we will have the opportunity to watch and find out.

Credit Paul Allen and Neil Olshey for ensuring that to be the case.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.