CJ McCollum experienced a lot of firsts in his NBA career Wednesday during his return to the Moda Center as an opponent with the New Orleans Pelicans.
He had never before been in the visitor’s locker room. He had never participated in a morning shootaround on the Moda Center court. He had never worn an opposing team’s uniform.
“It’s been a weird few hours,” McCollum said hours before the Pelicans faced the Portland Trail Blazers in a game he said he was looking forward to, despite some of the awkwardness.
“It will be fun to play here and for the fans as well,” McCollum continued. “I think it will be a nice situation for everybody involved.”
McCollum will be playing his first game against the Blazers since they traded him to New Orleans prior to last month’s trade deadline. Dealing the nine-year NBA veteran who had spent his entire career in Portland was not an easy decision for the franchise, nor was it necessarily easy to come to grips with for McCollum, who spent several seasons forming one of the NBA’s best backcourt tandems with Damian Lillard.
But that was 50 days and 20 games ago.
McCollum is putting up career numbers with his new team (25.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 50.1 field goal percentage) and the Pelicans (32-43) are in contention for a postseason berth. Meanwhile, the Blazers (27-48) are playing for a high draft pick.
Missing from Wednesday night’s game will be most of the players McCollum played with this season. Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons are out with injuries. Others, such as Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr.., also were traded. Nance plays with McCollum in New Orleans.
“It won’t be as fun,” McCollum said.
But being in front of the fans who embraced him will be, McCollum said, and he will finally have full closure on being traded from the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2013.
“It’s something that I’m looking forward to and also looking forward to putting it behind me, so I don’t have to keep answering questions about it and we can kind of move forward in the next direction,” McCollum said. “But it will be a good time. It will be good to see a lot of familiar faces.”
Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said he was looking forward to the game and was prepared for McCollum to try and have a big-time game against his former team.
Billups, who spent 18 years in the NBA for several teams, experienced returning to a former team to play and said that McCollum is in for a special evening.
“It’s going to be an emotion that he’s never had before,” Billups said. “He’s shared his deep affinity for the city, the fans and they’ll get to show him the proper love and respect tonight. And it’s gonna be very weird for him to be playing against us. And it’s a little different too because it’s not like he’s going to be playing against Dame and Nurk, which would have added a different dimension, probably. But it’ll be different than he’s ever had before.”
McCollum said that he knew for two months that he would likely be traded and therefore could prepare himself for it mentality. As the team struggled, going 2-11 in December, Lillard’s abdomen injury flared and McCollum suffered a collapsed lung that cost him six weeks, the team spiraled down the standings. Also, the man who drafted McCollum, former president of basketball operations, Neil Olshey, was dismissed in early December, a move that the shooting guard said made him believe that a shakeup could come.
“I was prepared,” McCollum said. “It was just more so the planning part.”
McCollum said that the parting was handled well by the organization. Positive dialogue and open communication made for a good process for both sides.
“You know that this is going to happen to some point,” he said. “But it’s good that there’s happy emotions as opposed to the opposite. I’d like to call it a happy breakup where you’re not bitter at your ex.”
McCollum had a say in where he landed and the Blazers feel like they acquired good assets, especially Josh Hart, plus a first-round pick and a $21 million trade exception.
“Obviously, both parties are happy as they move forward,” McCollum said. “The Blazers are obviously happy and looking to kind of continue to figure out how to rebuild and how to kind of re-shift around the current players that are here along what they brought. And for me, I’m in a good position. I’m in a happy situation where I’m able to help a team, play a unique role on this team. So, I think that’s kind of what we wanted. What we envisioned. We felt like this could be good for all parties and there was no need for it to go south or go sour after the relationship that we built.”
Maybe the best part of returning to Portland for McCollum was being able to sleep in his own bed at his home in West Linn that he shares with his wife, Elise, and 11-week-old son, Jacoby.
“And I got to see my dog last night for the first time in two months, so she was excited,” McCollum said.
McCollum said he learned about the trade while feeding Jacoby shortly before his four-week doctor’s appointment. McCollum remained in Portland to attend the appointment and then left for the Pelicans.
“That was the hard part, leaving my little boy, leaving my wife,” McCollum said. “What’s that going to look like? How do they transition to New Orleans? When do they transition to a pediatrician? Those are things you don’t think about, right, like the human element of a trade. It’s like ‘oh, he’s getting traded. He gets paid millions of dollars, he’ll be alright,’ It’s like he will be already, but he still has to figure out some things for his family.”
McCollum said he felt good about his relationship with the Rip City fanbase and thanked them for embracing him.
“They’ve seen the best and the worst of me, honestly, from injuries to not playing well, to play well, to having some great moments,” he said. “They’ve grown with me. So, I’m appreciative of that and thankful. This organization has been great to me.”
Emotions aside, going to the Pelicans has been a good basketball move for McCollum.
“It’s exactly how I thought it would be, which is why that was a team I had kind of zeroed in and they obviously zeroed in on me,” McCollum said. “I knew what I was signing up for. I knew what I was going to be asked to do and I’m doing it and I think they have held up their end of the bargain as well. I’m happy to be in this situation. It’s 75 degrees every day. I can eat gumbo if I want, Southern cuisine and they’ve got French wine.”
Still, there remains some angst among the Blazers fanbase. Many wonder if the Blazers got fair value in return for the franchise’s fifth-leading scorer of all-time (10,710 points) and if a rebuild without him will pay off.
When asked his feelings about the franchise’s plan that led to him being traded, McCollum stood up from his chair upon a small stage with a Pelicans’ banner behind him and walked away.
“Above my pay grade,” McCollum said with a smile. “You have to ask them.”
— Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism