Damian Lillard’s defiance has made him a social-media punching
bag, as his Portland Trail Blazers are dissolving around him and
looking like a completely different team.
Lillard hasn’t played since New Year’s Eve, and as he recovers
from abdominal surgery, he watched his team deal Norman Powell and Robert
Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers while the best player
coming back is Eric Bledsoe. Keon Johnsn was also included in the
trade and while Portland hopes he pops off, he's only 19 years old,
so who knows how soon he can make an impact? The Blazers also
received a 2025 second-round pick – the year Lillard turns 35.
Then, on Tuesday, Lillard watched his Blazers acquire Josh Hart,
Didi Louzada, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomáš Satoransky and draft
picks in exchange for Larry Nance Jr., Tony Snell, and the reason
we’re gathered here today: CJ McCollum.
#Narratives are already in motion. The jokes have been flying on
social media about how people are, in hindsight, underwhelmed by
the run that Lillard and McCollum had. But before we stomp on their
Basketball-Reference pages and laugh in their comments about “not
having won anything,” we should offer a massive amount of respect
for what they accomplished in Portland.
You’ve probably seen the photo of a 5-foot-2 McCollum as a
freshman in high school, but even that symbolizes so much here.
The parallels Lillard and McCollum maintained were astounding;
they were the reason the backcourt became divisive among NBA
consumers — with some loving them and thinking that the Blazers
could build a contender around them, while others refused to
believe that a pair of 6-foot-3 scoring machines could lead a team
to a title, even in this guard-friendly era.
These things need to be delivered out loud and thoroughly
Lillard went to Weber State, and McCollum went to Lehigh. Both
played in mid-major conferences, and they are two of the better
mid-major players we’ve seen this century. But really, the Big Sky
and Patriot League are closer to the bottom of the NCAA’s Division
I conference rankings; take it from a Northeast Conference
Suddenly, we looked up and Lillard was the NBA's Rookie of the
Year, receiving every single first-place
vote over perennial favorite Anthony Davis, who won a gold
medal with Team USA during the 2012 Summer Olympics in
London. And then, in 2013-14, Portland was in the playoffs,
where they’ve been every year since Lillard and McCollum
became teammates – the longest active streak in the NBA. Even then,
McCollum didn’t have his coming out party until 2015-16, when he
immediately filled an All-Star sized scoring role vacated by
LaMarcus Aldridge (who left for San Antonio) and won the NBA's Most
Improved Player award.
They played similarly and complemented each other exceptionally.
Lillard and McCollum would each produce 20 points a night,
occasionally going off for 30 each, and in a brutal Western
Conference, return to playoffs no matter what was around them. And
then they’d lose, which led some to dismiss them.
In 2015, it was a five-game gentlemen’s sweep as a No. 4 seed
against the Grit N’ Grind Memphis Grizzlies, who went up 2-1 on the
Golden State Warriors in the semifinals before losing to the
eventual champions. In 2018, as a No. 3 seed, it was that memorable
sweep against the same Pelicans that McCollum now joins, who were
the sixth seed.
Then, in 2019, we finally saw a breakthrough: a run to the
Western Conference Finals. Thanks to a legendary 37-point
performance from McCollum in Game 7 of the semifinals, the Blazers
beat the Denver Nuggets on the road – still CJ's paramount
performance to date. Portland met up with the Warriors in the
Conference Finals, and Golden State ultimately swept them (even
though they were missing Kevin Durant, who was out due to a calf
The Blazers followed up that Conference-Finals appearance with
consecutive first-round exits. With that said, Portland's failures
can't be blamed on Lillard and McCollum alone.
Their fellow starters and key teammates include Al-Farouq Aminu,
Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh, Jusuf Nurkić, Evan
Turner, Mo Harkless, Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Trevor Ariza,
Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside and Norman Powell. Despite having
one of the best backcourts we’ve seen in generations, the Blazers
could never figure out how to properly surround them with talent.
(And honestly, doing is probably harder in the real world than we
But in spite of their nitpickable shortcomings, their rigorous
conference, their identical 6-foot-3 statures, their style of play
and the lack of an ideal supporting cast, Lillard and McCollum
co-engineered (along with Aldridge the first two years) the NBA’s
longest playoff streak. And they did so defiantly, as
underrecruited long-time college players who stunned scouts by
becoming top-10 picks and high-end NBA talents.
They led five 50-plus-win teams and two No. 3 seeds out West.
Lillard is a top-76 NBA player ever, and
McCollum is one of the best active NBA players to never make an
All-Star team (and he probably would've made multiple appearances
had he been in the Eastern Conference instead).
People have been trying to separate this duo for years via trade
machines, NBA 2K, forums, social-media posts, comments under those
posts, text threads, direct messages, barbershop debates, radio
call-ins, post-sex conversations, you name it. Finally, that day is
here, and the circumstances suck.
The parallels between the two are why many loved them, and the
parallels proved to be their demise. But dammit, they accomplished
a lot. We could say that they were ultimately underwhelmed by their
surroundings, but let’s also acknowledge how hard this damn thing
is. You can’t take playoff streaks for granted – look at what the
Pelicans, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings are doing this
week in hopes of ending their postseason droughts.
This could’ve had a happy ending, and it still might, but it
doesn’t appear that it’ll be with Lillard and McCollum together.
They didn’t fail, and they probably didn’t live up to your (or
their own) expectations, but that’s usually how our experiences on
Earth go. Regularly, even if we don’t want to admit it, that’s OK,
because more often than we acknowledge, that’s life.