The Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have no interest in joining the NBA’s player movement — even as the stars have seen their competitors demand trades and forge new allegiances.
“I don’t care what the trend is,” Lillard told USA TODAY Sports. “Players are taking control of the power and influence they have. I don’t have an issue with it because there’s been times in the league that players didn’t have that and players were taken advantage of and put in tough situations. So I understand it. But I play for a great organization. I play for a great coach. I love where I live. I have a great situation.”
LeBron James and Anthony Davis have teamed up with the Los Angeles Lakers. So did Paul George and Kawhi Leonard with the Los Angeles Clippers. After winning two NBA titles in Golden State with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Kevin Durant bolted this summer so he could play with Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets. After Chris Paul became decimated with injuries, the Houston Rockets traded him to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook to pair with James Harden.
As for Lillard and McCollum? They represent the rare stars who have resisted forging new alliances in different uniforms. Why do that when they have each other?
“Everybody has the right to make the decision that they feel is best for themselves, That’s the way the league has gone,” McCollum told USA TODAY Sports. “But I’m indifferent. I really just work on myself and work on how I can get better for our team.”
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Some needed context: Lillard and McCollum have yet to win an NBA championship, let alone appear in the NBA Finals. Yet, these two stars have not labored on a rebuilding team. As Portland coach Terry Stotts said, “There is that commitment, but I wouldn’t oversell it; they’ve been part of success.”
Ever since Portland drafted Lillard (No. 6 in 2012) and McCollum (No. 10 in 2013), the Trail Blazers have become one of five NBA teams to make the playoffs for the past six seasons. They won two Pacific Divisions. They advanced last year to the Western Conference Finals. Lillard and McCollum have talked openly with teammates about their confidence that Portland can win an NBA title this season.
As Portland’s 4-6 start indicates, though, Lillard and McCollum have encountered challenges. They sniffed three first-round exits. Despite holding double-digit leads in three of the four games, the Warriors swept Portland last year in the Western Conference Finals without a healthy Durant. The Western Conference remains loaded partly because of fluid player movement. Portland currently has a spate of injuries to Jusuf Norkic, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol. Even when Lillard scored a season-high 60 points last week against Brooklyn, the Blazers still lost.
“They’d rather be a really important player on a very successful franchise than to go team up with other players just for the sake of making their lives easier,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey told USA TODAY Sports. “They know the challenges we face as a small market with player acquisition and retention. But they take the responsibility to help build an environment.”
Embracing Portland’s culture
Sure, Portland has become appealing partly because of how Lillard and McCollum play basketball.
They have both averaged at least 20 points in the last four seasons. Lillard delivered playoff daggers to eliminate Houston (2014) and Oklahoma City (2019) in the playoffs. McCollum set a franchise record for most points scored in a Game 7 when he had 37 points in a decisive win over Denver last season in the second round.
Those on the Trail Blazers do not just marvel on how Lillard and McCollum play, though. They also admire them for how they act.
“The culture often times in the NBA is often defined by your best player,” Stotts said. “Dame and CJ are very professional in their approach. We cater to being on time, being professional and being respectful of your teammates and co-workers. They are all about that.”
Lillard and McCollum have shown those qualities in different ways.
They empower teammates to arrive early and stay late by doing that themselves. They ensure that everyone keeps the practice facility and locker room areas clean without leaning on their equipment managers. They host team dinners. They embrace Stotts for critiquing them in film session in front of their teammates. As Lillard observed, “if you were a fly on the wall, you would see it’s real.”
“When you work hard and do things the right way and you’re one of the higher paid players on the team, I think it’s easier for other guys to follow in line and understand,” McCollum said. “It sets the tone for how everything goes. How we play, how we mentor and how we lead – it rubs off on everybody.”
It has rubbed off on the dynamic between Lillard and McCollum, who represent the rare star duo who do not seem threatened with each other’s greatness. They do not fight over touches. They do not fight over shots. They do not resent the other’s success, even if it overshadows their own.
“We’re in the era that teams like to put stars against each other. With us being the two best players on our team, it’s never been a competition,” Lillard said. “It’s always been a partnership and a friendship. I always appreciate that from him. Our friendship is always first.”
It has rubbed off on the coaching staff. Stotts has often solicited feedback from Lillard and McCollum on the team’s playcalls, defensive schemes and spacing. No wonder Lillard called Stotts “an easy-going coach that gives guys a lot of opportunity.”
“They know the game and they’re out there on the floor. I think it’s important to involve them in things and I respect their opinion,” Stotts said. “When you got guys that know the game and are committed to it and care about it, how can you not take what they have to say into account?”
It has rubbed off on the front office. The Trail Blazers might face limitations that most small-market teams face. They have not been part of the major free-agency sweepstakes, and they lost All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge four years ago. Yet, the Blazers have remained competitive partly by acquiring complementary players in recent year, which includes Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonia, Anthony Tolliver and Gasol this season. Olshey has made several moves and resisted others often after consulting with Lillard and McCollum.
“That doesn’t mean they’re sitting in a room telling us ‘yay’ or ‘no’ to certain guys,” Olshey said. “What I try to do is shift the conversation to positional need, fit and skillset. These guys are on the floor and know what elements we’re strong in and lacking in. I take that feedback. They’re the ones out there playing the game.”
Lillard and McCollum did not need to spend as much time with Olshey to discuss their own futures. Shortly after the Blazers’ playoff-run ended last year, Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million extension that keeps him under contract through 2025. McCollum then agreed to a three-year, $100 million extension, and has an additional two years left on his deal.
“I just feel like there’s always a reward at the end. When you do things the right way and you do the work, you’re going to get the results,” Lillard said. “I really believe that. We’ve gotten the results. Even after failures, we come back and answer to it. We’re staying the course. That’s worth it to me.”
That has left the Blazers feeling grateful for keeping their All-Star point guards. Yet, they never sensed any sign that they were on the verge of ever losing them.
“I don’t think there was ever a seminal moment,” Olshey said. “It’s never gotten to the point with Dame and CJ where they were impending free agents and they played it out to maximize their leverage over the organization. Obviously, our goal was always to retain them for the extent of their careers and we did everything in our power to do it. But there were never hints or any fractures where we felt vulnerable with any one of them. That’s why it was so much easier to reward them with contracts at the first possible opportunity.”
Unlike some of their contemporaries, Lillard and McCollum signed at that first possible opportunity. When that does not happen, a star player could demand a trade. That has left NBA teams feeling pressure to make a deal so their star does not eventually leave for nothing.
“A lot of the people that are forcing things or using that power to do what they want regardless of who they might cross, put on the backburner or leave in a bad spot, I think that lines you up,” Lillard said. “At the end of your career and that power is gone and you’re no longer at the top of the top and you lose that power, how are you going to go out? What’s going to happen when they remember when you were pulling all of these (moves)? They might not (do anything), but that’s the stuff I think about when I’m looking at all of this stuff. It’s going to come back”
Lillard and McCollum both stressed they do not resent their contemporaries for either forming or joining super teams. Still, McCollum teased Durant on his podcast in the 2018 offseason for joining the Warriors, while Durant predicted McCollum would never win an NBA title if he stayed in Portland. McCollum considered the exchange to be “playful banter” and expressed support for Durant’s move last summer to Brooklyn. Still, the episode offered a window into both how McCollum and Lillard think through both success and failure.
“You’re not going to succeed in everything that you do. There’s only one winner every year,” McCollum said. “Regardless of how much success I’m having or how much turmoil I’m having, you just figure out ways to continue to work. Your process stays the same and you just build on that.”
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