Welcome to NBA Jam week on NBA.com where all week long we're celebrating the remarkable collection of star duos throughout the NBA and viewing the upcoming season through the prism of what these duos mean entering 2019-20.
In 2012, the Portland Trail Blazers used the sixth pick in the NBA Draft to take Damian Lillard, who would go on to win the 2013 Rookie of the Year.
Portland again would take a guard in the 2013 draft, selecting CJ McCollum 10th overall, though his career didn't get off to as fast a start as Lillard.
Since 2015, the duo has been the Trail Blazers' starting backcourt, leading the team to the West's No. 3 seed these past two seasons, advancing as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2019.
So what's next?
It's the 50th season of Trail Blazers basketball and Year 5 for the franchise's dynamic backcourt.
As they embark on their fifth year as a one-two punch, five questions come to mind for Lillard and McCollum.
Is this the year Dame is an MVP finalist?
Portland's four-time All-Star point guard is 29-years-old and in the prime of his career.
Last season, his 25.8 points per game were good for fourth among all guards and he added a career-high 6.9 assists per contest. Despite leading the Trail Blazers to 53 wins, Lillard finished sixth in MVP voting last season behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry.
While it seems he's always in MVP conversations, Lillard's highest MVP finish was in the 2017-18 season when he finished fourth.
Of course, being considered a finalist requires a top-three finish in voting, which is well within the realm of possibility.
Lillard has always been one to prioritize the team's success over personal accolades but it's worth noting what such a high honour would ultimately mean for the Blazers.
A top-three finish in MVP voting would essentially mean that Dame would again raise his play to another level to keep Portland atop the Western Conference. As we saw in the postseason, the Blazers can go as far as he leads them, and he was lights out in the opening round.
As Portland dismantled OKC in five games, he posted averages of 33.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds on .461/.481/.846 shooting splits and closed things out by calmly knocking down one of the coldest game-winners in the NBA history.
#2, @Dame_Lillard called SERIES with this game-winner to advance the @trailblazers! ⌚️ #BestOfNBA pic.twitter.com/k9gR44B31C- NBA (@NBA) August 31, 2019
Some might consider them "bad shots," but Logo Lillard's video-game range is far from a fluke. Dame's ability to terrorize defences from 30 feet and beyond suggests his prime is far from over.
Will CJ McCollum finally earn an All-Star nod?
Since becoming Portland's starting two guard in 2015, McCollum has averaged 21.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists on .457/.403/.856 shooting splits but he has yet to receive an All-Star selection.
Being in the Western Conference doesn't make it any easier.
With an array of moves, combos and counters, McCollum is as pure of an isolation scorer as there is. Still, CJ's 21.0 points per game landed him at 11th among all guards in the West last season.
Needless to say, there's pretty stiff competition out West at the guard position.
It's worth noting that CJ puts these numbers up as the second option, but he's shown the ability to take over time and time again. During the regular season, he scored 30 or more points 14 times, including two 40-point performances.
McCollum would again show up in the postseason when it mattered the most. In the Blazers' seven-game series win over the Nuggets, he averaged 26.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists, including three MAJOR games:
- Game 3 - 41 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals in 60 minutes of action in a 4OT win
- Game 6 - 30 points (12-24 FG), 6 rebounds and 3 assists to help force a decisive Game 7
- Game 7 - 37 points (17-29 FG) and 9 rebounds on the road to lead Portland to Conference Finals
Should we see more of the same in the upcoming season, McCollum could very well earn the first All-Star selection of his career in his seventh season.
While it's yet another personal accolade, could an All-Star nod for McCollum be a harbinger for team success? It's worth noting that just three champions in the past 10 seasons had just one All-Star on their team.
Could that be what allows the Blazers to reach new heights, or…
Have we already seen the best of this duo?
To the surprise of many, Portland bounced back from disappointment in the 2018 postseason to win 53 games and finish third in the Western Conference.
They weren't done yet.
Advantageous seeding in the first round allowed Portland to make light work of an OKC team it failed to beat once in the regular season.
With Golden State and Houston on the same side of the playoff tree, the Blazers met a less-experienced Nuggets team in the semifinals and outlasted them in seven games.
Of course, the Blazers would meet the Warriors in the Conference Finals, where they held their own despite failing to win a game.
In fact, the Trail Blazers had the back-to-back champs on the ropes throughout the series, leading for 101 minutes and trailing for just 83. They just failed to overcome the second-half flurries that Golden State has become notorious for making.
While it was less-than-ideal, it was still a step in the right direction for the franchise, but is that the most we can expect from them?
With new pieces in tow and a power shift in the Western Conference, is a Western Conference Finals appearance the most you can reasonably expect from the Blazers, or…
Is this upcoming season Portland's best shot at winning a title?
The aforementioned shift in power begins up top, as the Warriors are prime to be dethroned after the departure of Kevin Durant via free agency and the injury that will sideline Klay Thompson for the better part of the upcoming season.
There's a number of new powers in the West, with the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz and Rockets all bringing in major pieces that will take time to get acquainted with one another.
While the Blazers have made a number of moves this offseason themselves, their top two options remain the same with everything running through CJ and Dame. As teams elsewhere work to establish a hierarchy among the team's top talent, Portland's sole focus will be bringing along its supporting cast.
That's an advantage.
On the topic of the duo's supporting cast, the newly-acquired Hassan Whiteside stands to make an immediate impact with a change of scenery while third-year forward Zach Collins is primed for a breakout season. Rodney Hood has proven to be capable of taking over offensively in spurts and Kent Bazemore will look to contribute on both ends of the floor in a contract year.
Rookie forward Nassir Little could also make an immediate impact as he was a projected lottery pick before falling to Portland at 25, while 20-year-old Anfernee Simons will see his role grow as a backup guard in his second season.
And, of course, the team awaits the return of Jusuf Nurkic, who is rehabbing from a gruesome leg injury last season. If and when Nurkic returns to the level of play he showed last season, Portland could have one of the best big trios in the league.
Is that a reach? Maybe. But the doubts surrounding anything involving Lillard and McCollum move me to ask…
Is this the most slept on duo in the NBA?
When we talk about Lillard and McCollum, their successes often come with qualifiers such as "surprisingly" or "unexpectedly."
Admittedly, I'm guilty of doing the same thing.
It's seemingly a product of the stock put into their shortcomings. Yes, they've had some struggles in the postseason but most have come at the hands of one of the greatest dynasties the NBA has ever seen. It's truly no reason to diminish what these two have done or what they're capable of doing.
For those reasons, this duo is clearly the most slept on in the league because of how much it gets written off.
This should be the year that stops.
CJ comes in off of the momentum he made with his postseason takeovers and "Logo Lillard" has cemented himself as one of the top two point guards in the league - he won't be slowing down any time soon.
The Trail Blazers gave each of them the respect they deserve this offseason in the form of lucrative contract extensions that will keep them both in Portland until at least 2025.
It's time everyone gives them the respect they deserve, too. From now until their time together comes to an end.
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