Trading for fully formed superstars is nearly impossible. Cleveland wouldn’t give up LeBron James for anything. Getting a player of that caliber instantly gives your team credibility. Suddenly you’re in the room meeting with other stars. You’re playing deep into May. Your franchise has a degree of sustained relevance that’s largely unattainable otherwise. The 60-win Hawks of just two seasons ago are already breaking up.
But every few years, a potential star becomes available before they turn into the player they might one day be. It can happen for any number of reasons. Back injuries made Steve Nash available before rule changes turned him into a two-time MVP. Teams giving up on players too early was a plague of the 90s. Just ask Jermaine O’Neal and Chauncey Billups. But the most common cause is rather simple: a good player randomly ends up on a team with better players who do similar things. There’s no greater example than James Harden.
Think of how rare it is for a team to pick in the top-four three years in a row. Then multiply that by the rarity of a team taking three perimeter players in a row with those top-four picks. Then finally, multiply THAT by the ridiculous odds of that team hitting on all three picks to the point that they’re ALL superstars.
That’s what happened with Harden. He was always supposed to be a superstar. He just happened to be picked by a team that already had two ball-heavy superstars. It was a random stroke of fate. The signs were all there. By his third season he’d posted an effective field goal rate of 58.2 percent. (Higher than Michael Jordan ever had.) He was already outpacing Russell Westbrook in Win Shares per 48 minutes and had tied Kevin Durant at .23. We should’ve known he was a superstar. We just didn’t because he didn’t get the ball enough. Once he got his own team, it became obvious from the start.
It’s starting to look like C.J. McCollum might be in a similar situation. His journey to the NBA is remarkably similar to his teammate Damian Lillard’s. Both played four years at small schools and were selected in the lottery more as luxuries than necessities. Both were known as shooters but blossomed into all-around offensive stars. And, both have major defensive deficiencies.
And that’s why McCollum might someday become available: he and Lillard do many of the same things. But Lillard got there first. He was able to establish himself as the locker room leader, the face of the franchise, while McCollum was just the sidekick. So when Portland eventually asks itself if it’s possible to win a championship with two small guards who can’t play defense and comes to realize the answer is “no,” who do you think they’ll trade? The guy who got there second.
But as with Harden, there are plenty of signs that McCollum is ready for a bigger workload. He could be the rare non-fully formed superstar some team could nab before hitting peak value.
It’s an admittedly small sample size, but McCollum destroyed the league during Lillard’s recent five-game absence. He posted 31.2 PPG on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits. His assist averages might only have gone up slightly to 4.6 per game, but remember, it took Harden time to develop into an elite passer as well. He only posted 5.8 assists per game in his first Houston season. Now he’s at almost 12.
It’s not just that stretch, though. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that McCollum is more important to Portland than Lillard is. Case in point: when Lillard sits, Portland’s net rating only falls by 1.1 points per 100 possession. When McCollum sits? That number balloons to 3.5.
When you compare Portland’s offense when only one is on the floor the numbers tell a similar story. When C.J. plays without Lillard, the Blazers score 1.03 points per possession. And when Lillard plays without C.J. they score only 0.87 points per possession. Yet as far as public perception goes, Lillard is the better player.
Whether or not that’s true is a different debate. What we can see is that among the two, McCollum likely has more room to grow. He’s a year younger. He is only in his second season playing major minutes. And the numbers state pretty clearly that he can carry an offense as the only star on the floor.
None of this is to say that McCollum is available right now. But if Portland keeps losing, if their defense keeps hemorrhaging points, and if they can’t find a rim-protector anywhere else, this is something to keep an eye on. McCollum might end up as the odd man out. And it might be the best possible outcome for his career. He might be an MVP candidate who just hasn’t found the right team.