The Portland Trail Blazers have one of the best backcourt trios in the NBA with Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe, but the group was almost broken up this past summer.
The Brooklyn Nets made a four-year, $75 million offer sheet to Crabbe as a restricted free agent, which Portland ultimately matched.
Crabbe recently visited Barclays Center, which would’ve been his home arena had Portland declined to match his offer sheet.
“It’s human nature [to wonder] what if?” Crabbe told Basketball Insiders inside the visitor’s locker room in the arena. “I’m happy with where I’m at. Walking in here, it felt kind of weird like, ‘Oh, I could’ve played here.’ But I’m where I’m at and I’m happy here so just continue to do what I got to do to be a great asset to this team.”
Portland had Lillard and McCollum as the backcourt of the future and a young, talented roster with upside and cap space when Crabbe entered restricted free agency. Brooklyn had more cap space, but little talent on the roster other than Brook Lopez and many holes to fill with few draft picks to select homegrown talent for the future.
With that in mind, what made Crabbe want to sign the offer sheet with Brooklyn?
“The culture, straightforward coaches and they told me everything, all the things they were doing with their organization and they were straightforward with it and I respected that a lot,” Crabbe replied. “I looked at how they were going, how they said they wanted to use me and things like that. As a basketball player, of course, you don’t want to turn a situation like that down. So I felt like, ‘Sign that offer sheet.’ And then again, it also shows that it’s good to be wanted by other teams. I mean, not just by your team, obviously. I’m glad that Portland did match it because it showed that they wanted me still on this team and they still value me. I feel like it’s a good thing. It shows that the organization is doing a good job developing their players and you’re getting attention from other teams. So I felt like with me, it was just a blessing and a good opportunity for me. It was really like my first year really getting to play significant minutes and having a significant role on the team. It was fun, but like I said, just to know that you have interest from teams and the way Brooklyn wanted to use me, it’s a good feeling. I know that I’m going in the right direction as a player and I just want to continue to build on that.”
Lillard, the face of the franchise, spoke highly of Crabbe’s value to the team on both sides of the court.
“He’s a really good perimeter defender,” Lillard said. “In our offense, we use a lot of flare screens and pin downs and he’s great with that action, coming off of them and shooting, coming off and catching, hitting the guy in the pocket, one dribble pull-up jumper; he’s great at those things. In this league, that’s in high demand right now. Guys that can make threes and play defense, especially at his size with his length, and kind of guy he is, he was that important to our team. I’m glad Brooklyn didn’t get him and we did.”
While Crabbe would be a starter on many other teams, he’s accepted his role with the Trail Blazers coming off the bench as part of the league’s most explosive backcourt trio.
“I think everybody as a competitor, everybody wants to bring something to the table,” Crabbe said of the trio. “Just watching them day in and day out, how hard they go and just looking at the hard work and seeing how it’s paying off. Everybody wants to be on the same level, but we also know that everybody’s role is different. One of the biggest things our coaching staff always told us is, ‘Be an All-Star in your role. Whatever we ask you to do, what you do best, do that to the best of your ability each and every night and that’s what’s going to help the team.’
“Everybody knows you’re not going to have the same opportunities as other players on the team. But our biggest thing, like I said, playing our role to the best of our ability. I feel that’s why we’ve had such great success. We don’t have selfish guys on the team. Nobody cares who gets the most shots one night or who gets the most points. It’s all about winning. That’s the culture we created over here and everybody’s just chipping in what they can to get wins.”
While Crabbe has proven to be a capable scorer off the bench (and shown upside when given more playing time), the headlines will always focus on the star backcourt tandem of Lillard and McCollum.
With that in mind, I asked Lillard where the team’s starting backcourt ranks among the league and he answered confidently.
“I think we’re right at the top,” Lillard said. “We can match up with anybody when it comes to our backcourt. I think we play well off each other because I’m constantly seeing where he is, I’m constantly seeing how involved he’s been in the game, I’m trying to get him going and vice versa, same for him. If it’s a game where maybe he’s hit a few shots and I haven’t got going, he’s like, ‘Dame, let’s look at this, let’s look at that, kind of get you in position to at least make a play.’ Or at least get a shot, because we care about each other, we care about how he can go out there and dominate the game and I can still be effective. We’re playing off of each other, but that and just the firepower, we’re able to score points in bunches. That’s a problem [for other teams].”
McCollum, who broke out last season in his first opportunity as a full-time starter by averaging 21 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent beyond the arc, agreed with Lillard’s assessment.
“I think we play extremely well off of each other and I think he hit it right on the head, I think we’re one of the top backcourts in the NBA,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve just got to continue to build on that.”
With that in mind, what are the expectations for the Trail Blazers after losing in the Western Conference Semifinals last season?
“Just being a better team,” Lillard replied. “I think we came in and we had issues on the road, we had issues being consistent. We want to be better about those things and come out every night regardless of who’s the team we’re playing against, regardless of if it’s at home or on the road, regardless of it being a back to back, regardless of the record, we’re going to go out there and we’re going to be a better team. That’s what we expected of ourselves, to play a more complete game. When you expect so much of yourself and you’re not living up to what you expected of yourself, it’s more, I guess, disappointing from within our team than with everybody else. But we also feel like we’re going to work towards that. I said it in our first couple games: it was much better to learn and win games than to lose and have to learn from that. So I’m grateful for where we are, but we got a lot of work to do. I think it just shows how far we have to go.”
For Portland to challenge the Golden State Warriors and L.A. Clippers among others in the West, Lillard must take his game to an MVP level.
“I think I’m playing pretty well,” Lillard said. “Obviously, being probably my own biggest critic, I feel like there are a lot of things I could do much better. I feel like I can defend much better, just to help the team with our perimeter defense. A lot of times we’re giving up penetration or trailing in pick-and-roll situations and causing problems for our bigs to contest shots and the rim and then their man is getting offensive rebounds. Being a better playmaker, coming back and helping rebound more, things like that. But I think I’m having a pretty good season so far, it’s still early.
“As far as the MVP, I mentioned it because that’s really a goal of mine. I don’t go in to every game saying, ‘I want to me MVP.’ I’ve got to do what’s best for the team and we’ve got to win games if that’s going to be anywhere close to being a possibility. I try to focus on anything I can do to give us our best chance to win.”
While Lillard and McCollum get the headlines as the dynamic duo, there’s no doubt the collective trio with Crabbe is one of the league’s most explosive backcourts and will be the backbone of any success Portland has going forward.
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