CJ McCollum was the first to go, traded to New Orleans at the 2022 trade deadline when Portland Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin began his attempt to retool the team around superstar Damian Lillard.
That effort ultimately failed, leading to Wednesday’s three-team trade that sent Lillard to Milwaukee following a summer of franchise turmoil.
But from McCollum’s vantage point, despite how contentious things became between Lillard and Cronin, the seven-time all-star should feel good about his future.
“I’m really happy for him,” McCollum said. “Obviously, things didn’t end probably the way both parties wanted. But in the end, everybody kind of got what they asked for, right? It’s a situation where they add assets, they can kind of build around their young talent and move forward. Dame goes to a contender.”
In addition, McCollum noted, center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Nassir Little also went to a contender when Cronin traded the pair to Phoenix in a deal for center Deandre Ayton.
“They are all now huge pieces on teams that have championship aspirations,” McCollum said.
Lillard, drafted by the Blazers in 2012, and McCollum, selected in 2013, formed one of the NBA’s most potent scoring backcourts from 2015 to 2021.
Unfortunately, they were unable to elevate the Blazers beyond the Western Conference finals, reached once in 2019. After a failed attempt to rebuild around Lillard, the Blazers appeared to shift gears and that led to Lillard demanding a trade to Miami on July 1.
That demand went unmet but McCollum isn’t sure that wasn’t for the best.
“He’s always talked about the importance of wanting to win a championship,” McCollum said. “Miami would have been great for him and that’s where he wanted to go. But you could argue that this is a better situation in terms of winning a championship than Miami, outside of the taxes and the weather. You get to play with arguably the best player in the NBA.”
That player is 7-foot phenomenon Giannis Antetokounmpo, a two-time NBA MVP who led the Bucks to the NBA championship in 2021 and to the best record in basketball last season (58-24).
Joining forces with Antetokounmpo, McCollum said, could be a better fit for Lillard than playing with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Miami.
“No disrespect to Jimmy and Bam, and that organization, and that roster, but Giannis is different,” McCollum said. “That’s a different guy to play alongside in terms of his dominance. There’s not another guy in the league that dominates the way he does. He’s just the guy that’s really, really hard to guard.”
Antetokounmpo averaged 31.1 points and 11.8 rebounds last season. Lillard put up 32.2 points and 7.3 assists.
The Bucks will be one of the top favorites to win the NBA title next season. But what about McCollum and the Pelicans? Could a Lillard vs. McCollum NBA Finals matchup materialize?
“That would be really dope, man,” McCollum said.
The Pelicans briefly had the best record in the Western Conference early last season before star forward Zion Williamson was lost with a hamstring injury. New Orleans ultimately missed the playoffs.
Should Williamson remain healthy this season, the Pelicans could at the very least become a threat in the West.
“Honestly, you just want to get to the playoffs and be healthy and understand how long of a season it is,” McCollum said. “So, many things can happen throughout the season. But I wish (Lillard) the best. I hope he’s able to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and I hope he gets to the Finals and compete. And I’m hoping that we can do the same over here in the Western Conference.”
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