How the Blazers Are in the Same Chapter of Its Story As the 2012 Warriors

In the era of superteams, the Portland Trail Blazers can't advance past the second round of the playoffs with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The 2012 Golden State Warriors ran into a similar conundrum but had no problem making a team-altering trade. Does Portland need to do the same this season?

At first, the storyline was the easiest scapegoat for reporters to pry at: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum couldn’t coexist in a backcourt because of their size and inability to defend. Each player was a star in his own right, but the two would never advance in the crowded Western Conference.

The Portland Trail Blazers, led by these two guards, experienced another lap in its perennial cycle of playoff letdowns last season. Instead of losing to a juggernaut team – the Golden State Warriors in the previous two postseasons – Portland ducked out after a miserable four games against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Again, reporters asked Lillard and McCollum about their coexistence. Again, they both labeled it a lazy storyline. However, a similar situation arose in the Bay Area several years ago, and it was handled very differently.

The Warriors drafted Stephen Curry to join Monta Ellis in the backcourt, and for two and a half seasons, the franchise tried to make the duo work.

Offensively, they were a nightmare for opposing defenses. Ellis had an elite first step off the dribble, which helped him shoot 62% or better on a high volume within 3 feet. Curry was a nice blend of outside shooting and ball handling – he shot at least 43% from three in his first three NBA seasons.

However, the two didn’t work well together in the backcourt. Ellis was a score-first point guard and often ignored an open Curry on the perimeter to create his own shot. This selfishness made the Warriors worse with him on the court versus when Curry was on the court. Additionally, Curry recorded a higher offensive rating than Ellis by at least two points in their two-and-a-half shared seasons in Golden State.

Lillard and McCollum, on the other hand, both help Portland’s offense outperform its respective season-wide numbers. The two supply each other with ample scoring opportunities – 22.7% of Lillard’s passes are to McCollum, and 22.7% of McCollum’s passes are to Lillard.

They have both averaged at least 20 points per game since McCollum joined the starting backcourt in 2015. Ellis and Curry played a similar number of minutes but failed to combine for as many points and as much positive offensive contribution as the Blazers backcourt.

Both pairings encounter trouble in their coexistence on the defensive end, though. None of the four guards are taller than 6 feet 4 inches, and none are stellar defenders to make up for the size disadvantage.

Golden State’s defensive rating floated between 106 and 110 when Ellis and Curry led the backcourt, consistently ranking them in the bottom half of the league. The offensive-minded guards sacrificed defensive attention and effort for offensive production, and their teammates weren’t good enough to compensate.

Similarly, the Blazers defensive rating plummeted when McCollum took over the starting role in 2015. The team’s collective defense has improved since then, but Lillard and McCollum still have trouble navigating screens. Jusuf Nurkic contested the eighth most shots within 6 feet of the hoop last season, partly because the two guards couldn’t keep their assignment from penetrating around screens.

Nonetheless, Portland has experienced a lot more success in the Lillard-McCollum era than Golden State did with Ellis and Curry sharing the backcourt.

The Blazers have yet to miss the playoffs since McCollum made the jump to starting shooting guard. The team is a combined 134-112 with an offensive rating of 109.4 and a defensive rating of 108.4.

The Warriors failed to make the playoffs in the two complete seasons Ellis and Curry played together, recording an offensive rating of 108.2 and a defensive rating of 111.2. When Ellis was traded to Milwaukee in 2012, the Warriors were 18-21 – on their way to another missed postseason.

In 2012-2013, Golden State’s first full campaign without Ellis, Curry led the team to a 47-35 record and the Western Conference semifinals. This result was over 10 games better than any year Ellis and Curry shared the court. The Warriors have yet to miss the playoffs since, plus they have won three championships in the last four years.

Ellis never saw that success happening with him and Curry on the team together. After the 2009 draft when his team selected Curry with the seventh pick, Ellis said at media day, “You can’t put two small guys out there and try to play the 1 and the 2 when you’ve got big 2 guards in the league. You just can’t do it.”

In 2016, several years after his departure, Ellis reiterated his lack of faith in the pairing. He said, “What I said, it was true. If me and him would still be there, I think it would've been hard for us to win there with us both being small in the backcourt.”

McCollum’s time in Portland started very differently. As a senior at Lehigh, he would occasionally receive texts and talk with Lillard. Then, on draft night, he got a text with the eyes emoji from the then-rookie prior to being selected by the Blazers.

Lillard didn’t know that Neil Olshey planned on drafting the mid-major guard. But a few good games into the 2013-2014 season, he told McCollum, “Trust me. It’s going to be me and you the next eight to 12 years.”

The bond these two forged early on has kept them from succumbing to the widespread belief that Portland can’t win with them in the backcourt together. While Ellis didn’t even give Curry a chance before counting the Warriors out, Lillard and McCollum still see an opportunity to win the championship.

During an episode of his "Pull Up" podcast, McCollum spoke with Kevin Durant about DeMarcus Cousins signing with Golden State this summer. Durant stated that the Blazers have no chance of winning a title, but McCollum didn’t back down. He replied, “Bro, we have the team. We have the capabilities. Anything is possible. We can win a championship, bro.”

Ellis wanted to stay with the Warriors even after Curry was drafted and he had accepted the team’s defeat. On that same media day where he explained why two small guards can’t coexist, he said, “I’m a Warrior. I am a Golden State Warrior ‘til the day I re-sign my contract again. I’m a Golden State Warrior.” When asked why, he responded, “Because I love it here.”

However, Golden State’s general manager at the time, Larry Riley, planned to trade Ellis instead of Curry all along. Ellis didn’t have much trade value because of his one-dimensional offense and off-court issues that degraded team chemistry, so Riley dangled Curry in front of potential trade partners.

In an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio, Riley said, “The only way to get the trade started was to let them start talking about Steph Curry. That's like going fishing, you throw some bait out there. A couple of things happened with that. I wanted to switch the deal over to Monta all along.” The GM would not include Curry in a trade no matter what – he would have to have been “kicking and screaming and tied down” before he let Curry go.

As a result, the Warriors gave Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson in return. This addressed the roster’s void at the center position, plus it pushed the franchise into its next phase with a young Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt.

Moving Ellis developed this new backcourt immediately. The Warriors won 47 games in 2012-2013 and the Curry-Thompson pairing hit over 6 threes en route to a combined 39.5 points per game. They each recorded offensive ratings better than the team’s cumulative number, a feat Ellis failed to accomplish in his two-and-a-half seasons alongside Curry.

However, Warriors fans were not happy with Riley’s decision to trade the tenured guard. One week after the trade became official, the general manager hosted Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement during halftime of a game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rather than supplying Mullin with cheers and a standing ovation for his 13-year career with Golden State, fans booed Riley for trading Ellis.

One month later, new owner Joe Lacob demoted Riley to director of scouting and replaced him with the current GM, Bob Myers.

Neil Olshey, albeit a disliked figure in Portland, would not receive such extreme backlash if he traded McCollum. Of 139 Blazers fans on Twitter, 72% would not be upset if the franchise swapped him for a player of equal or better value.

Unlike Ellis, McCollum has significant trade value as a dynamic scoring two-guard and could generate a beneficial return package. Teams reportedly tried to engage in conversations with Olshey during the season about him, banking on Portland falling out of the playoff race and looking to make a blockbuster move.

The Blazers finished third in the West and any inkling of a trade disappeared. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely off the table – a poor start to next season could reopen talks at the February deadline. One general manager told Sporting News earlier in 2018, “They have a lot invested in those two guys [McCollum and Lillard], and if they’re not making progress, they’re going to get a lot of good offers.”

Receiving a player of equal or better value would please Blazers fans without an emotional attachment to McCollum. That’s why many Warriors supporters expressed anger when Ellis went to Milwaukee – they ended up with an injury-prone Bogut and near-retirement Jackson.

For Portland, that’d be like trading McCollum, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver. They get rid of a player unable to break into the rotation, but also their star guard and young center, in exchange for a solid, oft-injured player at a needed position, plus someone swiftly approaching the end of his career.

McCollum has more trade value than that, making any trade the first step in a new direction rather than the first step of a rebuild. Golden State went a different direction by moving Ellis – the remaining roster was able to replace his inefficient offensive production.

So what trade could the Blazers make, and would it put them on the same path as it did the Warriors?

To mimic what Riley and Myers did with Golden State, Olshey must identify what positions he wants to draft or develop internally, and which need to be addressed with the trade.

The roster is full of young guards; Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, and Wade Baldwin IV stack the depth chart. Curry has the skill to replace McCollum as the starting shooting guard, but that would create yet another undersized, defensively-lacking backcourt. Like what the Warriors did with Thompson, Portland could trust Trent Jr. to add size and defense alongside Lillard.

After re-signing Jusuf Nurkic to a four-year contract, plus Zach Collins showing promise, the Blazers don’t need to trade for a center either. That leaves the team searching for three-and-D wings –Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless don’t cut it for an organization trying to capitalize on its star’s prime and go deep in the playoffs.

Khris Middleton seems to be Portland fans’ ideal candidate for a McCollum trade, and he addresses the primary need for a wing. The proposed trade is:

Milwaukee Bucks receive: CJ McCollum, Caleb Swanigan.

Portland Trail Blazers receive: Khris Middleton, Tony Snell.

McCollum provides the Bucks with perimeter scoring, which opens the lane for Giannis Antetokounmpo to operate in. Since joining the starting lineup in 2015, McCollum’s shot 39% or better on at least 5.5 three-pointers per game. In the two seasons Middleton attempted more than 4 threes per game, he failed to shoot a better percentage than the Blazers guard.

Swanigan helps Milwaukee’s rebounding, which ranked dead last with 40.8 boards per 100 possessions in 2017-2018. He adds a different kind of size to their frontcourt consisting of John Henson and Thon Maker – he can box out opposing big men to let his taller, skinnier teammates grab the rebound.

For Portland, Khris Middleton is Maurice Harkless 2.0 at small forward. He shoots threes more consistently – Harkless has only eclipsed the 40% mark once while Middleton has done it three times on more attempts – and can defend nearly every position proficiently. Middleton frequently creates his own shot and has displayed an affinity for playmaking, both of which take offensive pressure off Lillard.

Tony Snell can fill the Blazers’ vacant spot at starting shooting guard. He has knocked down his minimal three-point attempts at a 40% rate the last two seasons and is an esteemed defender, part of the reason why the Bucks continued to play him so much the previous two years.

Middleton’s contract is the primary drawback to this deal for Portland – he has a player option for 2019-2020. After enduring five campaigns with Milwaukee and committing to its future alongside Antetokounmpo, a failed campaign with the Blazers encourages Middleton to decline his player option. That leaves them stuck with another year of Snell for $11.3 million and no McCollum to run with Lillard through the end of his contract.

The 2012 Warriors were willing to take a similar risk, and it paid off for them. Bogut strung together three consecutive seasons of at least 65 games and provided the roster with his promised interior defense. He also played a role in the team’s championship series victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014-2015. He played 28 and 25 minutes in the first two matchups respectively; in that time, he blocked four shots, and grabbed 17 rebounds.

The unexpected and unparalleled development of Thompson and Green, players not highly touted out of college, transformed Golden State into a contender. Combining that with Curry’s record-breaking three-point shooting and Harrison Barnes’ reliability on the perimeter created a homegrown super team.

Portland can’t expect a backcourt of Lillard and McCollum to lead a championship team. The blame shouldn’t be entirely on them, but the roster’s talent needs to be spread across different positions and different aspects of the game. As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Trading McCollum won’t set the Blazers on the same path as trading Ellis did for the Warriors. However, Portland’s surrounding talent and the return package of a trade for him makes it a risk worth taking.

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