The Portland Trail Blazers sent C.J. McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, a move that continues their roster overhaul leading up to the trade deadline and signals the end of an era in Rip City. Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell are headed to New Orleans as well, with Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, Didi Louzada a protected 2022 first-round pick and two second-picks coming back to Portland.
This blockbuster deal marks the second trade in less than a week that the Blazers prioritized long-term personnel and financial flexibility over winning the talent transaction on paper. Unlike in Friday’s dispiriting swap with the LA Clippers involving Norman Powell and Robert Covington, though, Portland at least received multiple players and picks of positive value while moving McCollum and Nance to the Pelicans.
Here are three reasons why the Blazers won the McCollum trade.
Positive value for CJ!
Heads rolled in Rip City last week, when Powell was included in a cost-cutting trade with Los Angeles that netted the Blazers little more than a luxury-tax disbursement and a rookie who played below replacement-level in the G-League. Keon Johnson, the No. 21 pick in last year’s draft, could still ultimately live up to his draft spot. He’s just 19, with the physical tools and dogged demeanor needed to emerge as a quality perimeter defender at worst.
But Johnson’s status as the “prize” in the deal with LA still represented a disappointing return for Portland, especially after the Indiana Pacers got back a lottery-protected first-round pick and a pair of second-rounders for sending Caris LeVert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeVert is three years younger than McCollum with superior positional size, and his upcoming new contract with Cleveland—likely via extension this summer—should pay him barely more than half of what McCollum is owed annually over the next two seasons.
McCollum is still a devastating shot-maker when he has it going, and deserves immense credit for immediately resuming his normal level of play upon returning to the floor last month from a collapsed lung. He’s flat-out overpaid, though, and the Blazers weren’t exactly operating from a position of strength as the deadline’s preeminent sellers. Even so, Portland got a quality wing on a reasonable contract, a first-rounder that could very well fall in the lottery and a young combo guard whose game still intrigues despite this season’s struggles for trading McCollum and the $69.1 million left on his contract through 2023-24.
That’s an objective win for Portland, even factoring in Nance—bitten by the injury bug again this season—also going to New Orleans. Any other assessment of the Blazers’ return here misinterprets not just McCollum’s value in a vacuum, but the market just established for shooting guards of a roughly similar, if less productive, caliber.
Bringing back Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Hart isn’t a star, obviously, and could already be at his playing peak. He turns 27 in March. But just because he’s not the type of talent usually headlining trades for a player of McCollum’s reputation doesn’t mean Hart won’t make a significant impact in Portland.
At a rugged 6’5”, 215 pounds with a plus wingspan, Hart boasts the all-around versatility needed to capably guard three positions and is a voracious rebounder. He’s a smart ball-mover, cutter and straight-line driver, too, well suited for Chauncey Billups’ motion-heavy, read-and-react offensive system even if he leaves a bit to be desired in terms of volume and accuracy from beyond the arc. Hart’s 32.6% three-point shooting this season is a bit misleading, too. He’s at 35.1% on catch-and-shoot triples, per NBA.com/stats; the Blazers won’t need him to take many threes off the bounce.
Hart isn’t just appealing for on-court reasons, either. His $12.9 million salary is non-guaranteed for next season and serves as a player option in 2023-24. Portland is bound to keep him for 2022-23 unless a win-now trade it can’t pass up materializes this summer, then will be able to use Bird Rights to re-sign Hart in July 2023 assuming he opts out of his current deal. He could be a long-term fit on the wing for the Blazers, as a spot starter or quality backup.
Alexander-Walker has labored in 2021-22, taking a step back statistically while shouldering a slightly heavier load on offense. He’ll revert back to ancillary ball-handler status in Portland, attacking scrambling defenses with second-side ball screens and slithery drives to the rim off overzealous close-outs. The biggest key for Alexander-Walker? Improving his 32.0% clip on catch-and-shoot threes, per NBA.com/stats.
But his combination of size, youth and creativity with the ball make Alexander-Walker a snug theoretical fit next to Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons when one of Portland’s starting guards heads to the bench. Eligible for an extension this offseason, expect Alexander-Walker and the Blazers to push contract negotiations to the following summer, when he enters restricted free agency.
Flexibility and possibility for the future
Go ahead and ignore speculation that the Blazers will turn their new stable of assets and hypothetical cap room into major additions around Lillard before next season. The positive spin interim general manager Joe Cronin and the front office provided to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski helpfully neglects unfortunate realities of available stars, cap holds and this summer’s class of free agents.
Portland's plan is to fully reshape roster around Damian Lillard now. Portland created a $21M trade exception today, potentially $60M in salary cap space this summer, multiple draft picks and assets via Pels and Clippers trades. Plan is to pursue high-end talent now, not retreat.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 8, 2022
That projected $60 million in space is a bit generous, and doesn’t even factor in an inevitable new contract for Simons—not to mention Portland retaining Hart for next season and re-signing Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers would no doubt be willing to part with Hart and Nurkic if a star free agent finally wanted to come to the Pacific Northwest, but just who is that player?
Portland’s trade with New Orleans can be considered a big-picture win for Cronin and company at face value. Remember, the Blazers will keep their first-rounder if they miss the playoffs, and specific protections on the pick the Pelicans now owe them make it feasible Cronin could have two lottery picks at his disposal come July 29th.
New Orleans' 2022 first-round pick:
1-4: Goes to the Pelicans
5-14: Goes to the Blazers
15-30: Goes to the Hornets
– Blazers get a future first-round pick if it doesn't convey
– Hornets get future second-round picks if it doesn't convey
— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) February 8, 2022
Maybe another disgruntled star becomes available next season, prompting Portland to come calling with two rookie lottery picks, Hart and Bledsoe’s barely-guaranteed contract. It’s not impossible.
In lieu of that scenario, though, the Blazers could do much worse than continuing on their next phase of team-building with a core of Lillard, Simons, Nurkic, Nassir Little, Hart and a pair of high-value rookies. They were going nowhere as previously constructed, and their books are far cleaner going forward should Lillard ever renege on his re-commitment to Rip City.
Portland’s path after trading McCollum is indeed uncertain, but that’s far preferable to remaining stuck in the non-contending wilderness of its old status quo.