When you think of CJ McCollum, you think of Damian Lillard. The two guards, separated by one year, who both played at small schools yet managed to become NBA lottery picks for the same team rose to prominence as the starting backcourt for the Portland Trail Blazers for the better part of the last seven seasons. Often a polarizing topic of conversation both locally and nationally, the two won a lot of games and developed a unique partnership both on and off the court, even if they never managed to reach the ultimate goal of winning a championship.
With that on-court partnership now over with McCollum, along with Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell, being traded to New Orleans for a package of players and draft picks, Lillard reflected on their time together, their friendship off the court, their highs and lows on the court, knowing their time together was coming to an end, some of his favorite memories and what he’s thought of the recent reshaping of the roster...
What are your thoughts now that the trade sending CJ McCollum, a player who you’ve spent so much time with on and off the court, to New Orleans has been finalized? Where is your head at with that great partnership you two have had all these years now coming to an end?
Damian Lillard: This is something that me and C, we talked about it over the years, like, this being a possibility. I would say in the last three years it was always something where me and him would talk and he would be like “You know, I might be out of here,” just loosely saying stuff like that and I’d be like “Nah, I don’t think so.” But as time went on we both knew that it’s going to come a point where we might not be a backcourt anymore, whether that was him getting traded or me getting traded. You just never know where teams are, we don’t know as players all the time.
But we knew that we went to the Western Conference Finals, came up short. The next year we basically blew our team up and it didn’t work out. Then we basically did it again, didn’t work out. And then here we are this year, off to a rough start, obviously I’m unhealthy and things aren’t going well. So those conversations that we had over the years, we had those same conversations leading up to the trade, so it wasn’t like it was a surprise or it was something we didn’t discuss. He knew that it was a possibility and something was going to happen and so did I.
As a friend and a teammate, I love CJ, that’s like a real friend of mine, not just my teammate. We always been transparent and nothing was different this time where it was like, “I think something could happen” and he was like “Yeah, I know something is going to be coming up.” It is what it is, we both knew that this point would be coming. But that don’t make it no easier to deal with. I think that’s where I am now. Me and him literally talked about it happening, the possibility of it and it was likely and stuff like that, and I still woke up this morning like, sad. It’s actually done. When I’m seeing “CJ To The Pelicans” and stuff like that, it’s like damn, ain’t no coming back from this, this is it. It ain’t gonna be no every day, pull up to the house, dinner on the road, all that stuff. It’s done, he’s on a new team. As much as I understood it and he understood it and we kind of have always communicated in a transparent way, it don’t make it any easier to deal with or to look at. Like man, is it really over? Is the run really over? And that’s where we are.
How do you feel like CJ is taking it? He’s a professional through and through and a guy who readily admits he reads and hears everything, so it’s not as though it was a surprise, but as you mention, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Damian Lillard: I mean, he’s CJ, so he gonna roll with it, he’s gonna roll with the punches, he’s gonna roll with whatever happens, just like how he is as a player. He’s gonna just roll with it, so I know he’s fine. I don’t think any player wants to be traded. I think even the players out there that’s like “I could get moved or they could trade me” or whatever, when the day comes where it happens, I think it will always hit different. Like, it’s really over, you know what I’m saying? If I know him like I think I know him, I would think that’s where he was.
He didn’t want to be traded, he didn’t seek a trade, but he’s smart and we know how this game goes, we’ve been around a long time. So I think he understands and accepted it, but that don’t make it easy. Like “Man, this is my home, I’ve been here for a decade basically. This has been the organization that I’ve played for my whole career and it’s really over.” So I think that’s where he was. He understands, he knows how this game is, but that didn’t make it okay with him, I’m sure. It’s tough. Just like how I’m saying for me, I think he felt the same way.
And like you, CJ really put down roots here. It’s where his home is, he started businesses, bought property, started a family, does so much in the community, so that must make it harder to leave.
Damian Lillard: The foundation of his professional career is here, a decade’s worth and a lot being done in that decade. So it’s tough to be like “Alright, now I’ve got to walk away from it.” That’s hard.
For you, as someone who has been with CJ for so long as a backcourt partner, how do you see things going forward for you? I’m guessing there might be a few times where you might even forget that CJ...
Damian Lillard: That he’s not there. I literally came to the arena tonight. I was in my Sprinter on the way to the arena talking to someone like “Man, it’s really over.” And then when I walked into the arena and walked into the locker room, I still was expecting him to be there until I looked at his locker like “Dang.” So I think it’s definitely what you’re saying, I’m definitely going to forget that he’s not here. That’s just what it is, it’s crazy.
How would you sum up your partnership on the court after playing alongside each other for the last nine seasons and being the team’s starting backcourt for the last seven seasons?
Damian Lillard: I think we was a perfect match. We always talked about it, the way we got here. We had the same foot injury in college, we both went to small colleges, we both had a major growth spurt at some point in high school. That toughness, that confidence, that killer mentality and being able to go out there and do it when the pressure and the stakes are at their highest. To be able to perform and do it like it’s nothing. I’ve never in my career, until I got to the NBA and played with him, played with somebody that I felt like, when it’s on the line, I’m gonna believe in him doing it the same way I believe in me doing it. And it was like that. And I think he felt the same way about me. CJ, until he got here, he’ll tell you, I never played with nobody that I’m like, he can do it like me, until he played with me, you know what I’m saying? I think that’s what it is.
And then who we are off the court and our family situations. Our moms both living with us when we got here and then our moms becoming really good friends, I think that just made the connection even stronger to the point where like, now we on the court, we playing for each other. Whereas instead of us just knowing the ability was there, like you have with some pairs in the league but it’s a little bit of a competition, there was no competition. If CJ got it going, I’m gonna let him go. If I got it going, he going to let me go. If he’s getting more shots and I’m getting less, it’s like, the game is going to play out how it’s going to play out, but this is the way the game is. And if I got more shots and he got less shots, this is the way the game is going to play out. It’s hard to find that type of relationship and connection with two very good NBA players, so I think it was a great run and I think our partnership as a backcourt is definitely unique.
I always thought that was especially interesting considering how confident CJ is, such a confident personality. I always really appreciated that, yeah, he’s from a small school, had to overcome odds to get where he is, but he didn’t really talk about himself that way. There was a twinge of that, but more than anything, CJ was always like, I know I’m good and I’m going to tell you I’m good.
Damian Lillard: Big school swag. That’s my favorite thing about him. I’ll never forget, when CJ was a rookie, we was in training camp. LA gets switched onto CJ, CJ in an iso, CJ crossover, crossover, stepback jumper and when he’s raising up LA says “Hell nah!” CJ makes the jumper and say “Shut up!” Like, he tell LA “Shut up!” and run down the court. And I just remember like everybody on the team was like “Oh shit!” And I just remember LA being like “You ain’t even scored a bucket in the NBA yet!” like he was telling him you a rookie. And CJ was literally just like, you know that face he make where he like “Okay, whatever”? Everybody on the team was just like, “Damn.”
But I think that just sums him up perfectly. Unapologetically confident, sure of himself, knows who he is but is just a real dude. He not gonna fake it for you. You might not like it, you might think whatever you’re going to think about it, but at least you know what you’re getting. And he’s like that off the court, too. That’s just who he is.
How do you think you’ll be remembered as a backcourt?
Damian Lillard: I think we’ll be remembered as trouble. We never won a championship together, we never played in the Finals together, but we have always been a winning team. Us together, we’ve always been a winning team, we’ve always been a playoff team, so we never had empty success in games. We’ve always won games. Been a three-seed twice, been a five-seed, four-seed, like, we’ve been a successful pair, we just didn’t win at the highest level. We was always that team that teams prepared for. We was never like that team that didn’t win it that people just felt like “Oh, we’ve gonna beat them.” They knew ‘We got trouble tomorrow and we can be beat.”
No matter if it was the best team in the league, worst team in the league, they knew that they had trouble. And in the playoffs -- people can say what they want -- we’ve had our down moments in the playoffs an we’ve had high moments in the playoffs, I would say about split. Regardless of that, we were always the team that people would prefer not to play in the playoffs, regardless of any of that, because they knew they had trouble. That’s how I think we’ll be remember is like man, when CJ and Dame was together for that eight, nine years, trouble. I think that’s how we’ll be remembered.
CJ’s performance in Game 7 versus the Denver Nuggets will be something Trail Blazers fans remember for a long time. Do you have a favorite CJ play or on-court memory? He had so many fun moments, things like spinning Dirk Nowitzki or dropping Donte DiVincenzo, blocking Jamal Murray in Game 7. It seemed like he just had a knack for those kinds of moments, such a flare.
Damian Lillard: He’s just natural, too. He wasn’t trying to do it, it was just instinct. I don’t know if I can pick a favorite.
Okay, my favorite moment of CJ’s was like, when CJ got here I knew CJ was really good. Me and him sat next to each other on the plane, we was at each other’s house all the time, we was together on the road all the time, we worked out with DV (David Vanterpool) every day after practice, before the game we worked out. We was always together, talking. And I would always tell him like “We gonna play in the backcourt together.” I would always tell him that because we would hear the stuff about who was trying to leave, who wasn’t going to be here and I’m like, if this thing is going to be starting over, me and CJ going to be in the backcourt.
We play against Memphis in the playoffs and I just remember Wes (Matthews) being out, we was struggling, series was pretty much over and CJ had like 38 or something like that (ed note: it was 33 points) against Memphis in an elimination game. I just remembered that moment, that’s probably my favorite moment because that was when I was like, we’re losing this series, with how the season ended, not knowing who is going to be here, we’re going a new direction, it’s going to be me and him in the backcourt. So that’s the moment. That’s probably the best moment for me that I can remember because that’s when I knew the direction we were going to go in.
What about CJ off the court? Such a funny guy, really clever, really funny, super sharp and a bit of an attitude. I’m sure there’s things you wouldn’t or couldn’t share, but are there any stories about something CJ did or said that really stick out to you?
Damian Lillard: The funniest story that I want to say I can’t even say. Oh my god. The funniest one I can’t say on record.
But I’ll tell this funny story because it’s connected to the Trail Blazers. It was my seventh year, CJ’s sixth year. And we sitting out there doing starting lineups. You know how before the game they say “You’re the sixth man and the Moda Center is...” and the crowd says “OUR HOUSE!” So I’m sitting next to CJ and Mason comes on and says “You’re the sixth man and the Moda Center is...” and CJ is sitting next to me and he say “JACKED UP!” So I’m like, “Jacked up?” and he was like “That’s what they say, right?” I said “You mean to tell me you been here this whole time and you thought they said ‘Jacked up?’ They’re saying ‘OUR HOUSE.’” And he just like, it was nothing! I’m like bro, you really thought they said that! Crazy.
How do you feel about where the team is at right now? Obviously a lot of things are in flux, it seems like there’s still some work to be done, some things still need to come together. Where do you land right now in terms of what you’ve seen?
Damian Lillard: Right now, I haven’t had a mental break from being a great point guard, being a leader of a team, trying to keep my body right, having to do all these things to be successful and have our team be successful. I’ve always had that pressure and that burden on me because I’ve always wanted to lead us to success. I’ve had that for 10 years where I’ve felt that way, so having a mental break and a physical break for a real injury -- I was really struggling, more than I even knew now that I’m removed from it -- now I’ve just focused on rehab. I’ve been with my kids every day, taking my son to school, watching my twins, I’m with my wife every day. I’m doing stuff that I have never been able to do, so it’s putting me in a place of peace and appreciation.
For me, my heart is Portland Trail Blazer. I want to win it. I know that I have a plan that’s going to put me on my best level when I come back to play. And I want our team to fit that. I’m a huge fan of Chauncey Billups. I love Chauncey, we’ve got a great relationship and I think he’ll continue to grow into the head coach that he wants to be. And I’m a Joe Cronin fan. In his position I think it takes being bold and doing bold things, doing what you see fit and standing on it. He’s told me that our plan is to build a winning team, not to rebuild. Because we had a prior relationship to him becoming GM, I trust his word.
I’m at peace, I’m doing what I’ve got to do to get myself right and being at home with my family. I’m just waiting patiently to let things unfold and allow him to execute his plan. Once we get there and we see what that looks like and what that is, then I’ll have, I guess, more feelings than I have now but you’ve got to allow him to do his job and see what that finished product is. That’s just where I am.