McCollum reflects on his ascension, state of the Blazers
Adorning the T-shirts of the 300 youths attending CJ McCollum's sixth annual youth basketball camp at the Beaverton Hoop on Monday were this curious phrase: "Never saw it coming."
It was designed by a "homie" of the Trail Blazers guard, mindful of McCollum's ascension from a virtual nobody to a player commanding respect and ungodly amounts of legal tender.
"It's a nice saying, a nice gesture, looking at my story," McCollum said as he took a break from camp duties to meet with the media. "A lot of people never saw it coming. I thought it was fitting to put it on a T-shirt. Then we made it into the kids' camp T-shirt. I think it's cool."
So was the contract extension for McCollum that was announced Monday — for three years and a cool $100 million.
Tacked on to the final two years of the four-year, $106-million extension he signed in 2017, McCollum now stands to make $157 million over five years in a deal that now stretches through 2023-24.
That's twice what he would have made had the former sports editor of Lehigh's Brown and White school newspaper stuck with journalism, but I digress.
Owner Jody Allen's largesse extends to McCollum's backcourt mate, Damian Lillard, who on July 1 signed a four-year, $196-million super-max extension. The pact gives Portland's captain a player option for $54.3 million in the last year of the deal in 2024-25, when he will be about to turn 35. If he exercises the final-year option, Lillard, who has two years and $61 million left on his current deal, will reap more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the duration of his contract.
And for pocket change, Lillard and McCollum can turn to their multi-million-dollar shoe endorsement deals — Lillard with Adidas, McCollum with Chinese band Li-Ning.
Not a bad gig if you can get it.
At least Lillard is a superstar, considered among the top 10 players in the game. He is a four-time All-Star who was first-team all-NBA in 2017-18 and second team in both 2018-19 and 2015-16.
McCollum has never made an All-Star team. His biggest accolade was the league's Most Improved Player Award in 2015-16.
But Lillard and McCollum are arguably the premier backcourt in the NBA, and — in an era where many of the top players are looking at moving on to greener pastures — the Blazers have them locked up for the next five years.
No surprise, McCollum likes the deal.
"It gives me security, and also gives the team security, knowing I'm not going to become a free agent in two seasons," he said. "It allows me to continue to play alongside 'Dame' and to continue to help things not only on the court but in the community. It made sense for me; it made sense for the team. I'm glad we were able to get it done."
Neil Olshey, Portland's president of basketball operations, is banking that stability — which has served the Blazers well in recent seasons — will continue them on a path toward an NBA championship. With top-level free agents showing little interest, Olshey wants to keep his best players home and build around them. "Player retention," he calls it.
Lillard and McCollum, meanwhile, have showed loyalty to the organization by staying put and helping the team grow organically.
"I'm happy with the situation I'm in," McCollum said. "I love the city. I bought a home here. I look forward to potentially raising a family here. All those things played a factor (in signing an extension)."
Before they're through, Lillard and McCollum may surpass Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter as the greatest backcourt tandem in franchise history. That's mind-boggling to McCollum, given his beginnings as an undersized, under-recruited high school player who arrived in Portland from a mid-major college with a foot injury as a rookie.
"I was just trying to make it to the NBA when I came in," he said. "That was the goal. Once I got here, I was trying to stick and stay as long as I could and figure out a way to be successful. I've done those things. I've worked extremely hard to be in this position, and it's nice to see the fruits of your labor pay off.
"It's an honor and a blessing to be in this position. Growing up in Canton, Ohio, going to a small school (Lehigh), the career I've had early on to now — it's a testament to hard work and to the organization having faith in me throughout my career. I'm looking forward to spending five more years here."
Lillard, 29, and McCollum, who turns 28 in September, are close friends off the court, which CJ believes has helped them develop chemistry on the court.
"We have a deep understanding of each other," McCollum said. "When you get to know somebody on a personal level, where you truly understand what makes them tick, what they play for, things they like to do in their spare time, you're able to co-exist better.
"When you genuinely care about somebody and seeing them succeed and are happy for them, that makes everything easier. We've both been that way from the beginning. It's an authentic relationship that wasn't forced. We knew each other before (coming to Portland) and just happened to become teammates. We'll continue to only get better going forward."
McCollum says he and Lillard bounce ideas off of each other.
"When I see certain things he might need to do better, I'm not afraid to tell him," McCollum said. "He's not going to take it personally. If there's something he sees that I need to do better, he'll say it. We're not afraid to correct each other and empower each other to do more, or to do less.
"That's what it takes to be successful. The great ones figure out whatever it takes. Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes you need to take criticism. He's a guy who leads by example, but he's not too cool to talk to."
Like Lillard, McCollum withdrew last week from the training camp for the U.S. team that will compete in the World Cup in China from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15. He said there were several factors, including work load, the travel, the timing. McCollum suffered a left knee injury that cost him seven games late in the 2018-19 regular season.
"A lot went into figuring out how to rest and get ready for next season," he said. "(Last season) was the longest season I've been through, and I had an injury, so I'm being cautious in what I'm trying to accomplish next season, especially knowing we could be playing in May and June.
"I was thinking long-term, and I felt like it was in my best interest not to do it. There were some things I wanted to work on, and USAB would not put me in a position to accomplish a lot of things I want to accomplish."
Before the Blazers open camp in late September, McCollum said he'll work on 3-point shooting — he shot .375 from beyond the arc last season, the worst percentage since his rookie season. He also will spend time honing his game with Lillard. McCollum wants to pick up some of Lillard's burst to the basket. Lillard wants to develop some of McCollum's horizontal shake-and-bake moves.
"We'll get together toward the latter part of the summer, and we work out every day during the season," McCollum said. "He's north/south, and I have to get more north/south. He's trying to get more east/west.
"I want to get to the foul line more, even though I didn't shoot well at the line in the playoffs (.732). It's about using the pump fake more, and being smarter. If I can get (the defenders) off balance, create space, get them in the air, and take the contact, it will make the game easier."
Portland welcomes veteran acquisitions Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, along with first-round draft pick Nassir Little, to its 2019-20 squad.
"I worked out with 'KB' this morning," McCollum said. "We have some great pieces. It's probably the first year in a long time we have (that many) new players. We're getting some shooting, some shot-blocking, guys who can finish around the basket, some key pieces who can work pick-and-rolls."
The Blazers' payroll for next season now stands at more than $145 million, by far the most in the NBA and well above the luxury tax threshold of $132 million. Owner Jody Allen and Olshey are pulling out all the stops with the stars — Lillard and McCollum — in their prime years.
Anything less than winning it all, then, would be a disappointment?
"Every year when you don't win it all, it's disappointing, even when you're not supposed to," McCollum said. "But when you get a taste of success, and then you get humbled in the conference finals (as the Blazers did against Golden State), it changes your perspective on things.
"Collectively, we realize how close we are, but also how small the margin for error is. You can't drop games you're not supposed to lose to, especially now the way the conference is shaping up. Every game is going to be important."
Leading the way will be Lillard and McCollum, well-compensated and — the Blazers hope — properly motivated to make "Rip City" a title town again.
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