WHEN THE NBA selected Mike Conley as an All-Star in February, CJ McCollum became the likely answer to a dubious sports bar debate: Who is the best NBA player without an All-Star appearance? In Portland, where McCollum is in his eighth season with the Trail Blazers, the question is beside the point.
His teammates love him for his professionalism as one of the best high-degree-of-difficulty shot-makers in the league. The Portland Trail Blazers management loves him for his undying commitment to the franchise. Coaches love him for his competitiveness and what drives it -- life as the 5-foot-2 high school freshman who was ignored by recruiters, then played four years for an unheralded mid-major school, where he suffered a season-ending injury as a senior.
Prior to fracturing his foot in January, McCollum was playing MVP-level basketball for the perennially playoff-bound Trail Blazers. His tantalizing performances from early this season -- not unlike his Game 7 road masterpiece in the 2019 conference semifinals against Denver -- prompted onlookers to wonder whether that luster could ever form into transcendence. Even if it doesn't, there's a lot to be said for reliable production as a fringe superstar on a fringe contender. Twenty-nine other NBA teams would gladly hand 34 minutes per night to a player of McCollum's creativity and class.
"What more can CJ McCollum bring?" is the operative question for the eight-year vet and the Trail Blazers. As breathtaking as McCollum's best outing, the answer to "what more" isn't necessarily more Game 7s. With Damian Lillard as one of the game's premier closers, the Trail Blazers rarely need someone else to claim the last half-dozen possessions of the game for personal consumption. Quite often the Trail Blazers need McCollum to be more arsenic than assassin -- quiet lethalness alongside Lillard's unconscionable destruction.
Though big moments always seem to be defined by big plays, the Trail Blazers' path to title contention might just rest with McCollum getting better in the margins -- which is the hardest thing to do in the NBA. The Trail Blazers' run to the conference finals in 2019, along with Lillard's perennial MVP candidacy, has only reaffirmed the notion that contention shouldn't be too far away should they stay healthy (a condition they haven't enjoyed in recent seasons).
As much as they tinker with the composition of the supporting cast by swapping perimeter threats for defensive specialists or bringing in additional creators, McCollum still represents the fulcrum of Portland's success: If peak CJ is a new normal each spring, there's still time.
But what happens if McCollum, who by every measure of potential was never supposed to sniff the NBA, has squeezed out every drop of talent?