NBA Trade Deadline: CJ McCollum Is a Significant Name but Doesn’t Address the Pelicans’ Most Glaring Weaknesses

After increasing speculation they were looking to make a splash, the New Orleans Pelicans reeled in CJ McCollum in a blockbuster deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.

New Orleans is receiving McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., and Tony Snell in exchange for Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomas Satoransky, and Didi Louzada. Additionally, Portland will land a protected 2022 first-round pick and two future second-round picks.

McCollum, 30, is a significant addition for the 21-32 Pelicans. In their mind, the high-scoring guard will form a prolific trio with Brandon Ingram and eventually Zion Williamson for the next several seasons. But by making this deal, New Orleans isn’t addressing two of the more pressing concerns facing its roster.

The New Orleans Pelicans finally found their missing piece in CJ McCollum

Considering they’re 11 games under .500, few would have expected the Pelicans to become one of the trade deadline’s hottest buyers. Yet over the last few days, the franchise has been linked to big names like De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, and Kevin Huerter. But two days before the deadline, New Orleans landed their man in McCollum.

The 6-foot-3 guard will be playing for his second franchise since entering the league in 2013. Over the last 8+ seasons, McCollum has 19.0 points for his career but 20.0 or more in each of the last seven seasons. This year, the veteran is averaging 20.5 points on 43.6% shooting in only 36 games. He missed a sizable chunk of time due to a collapsed lung, his second straight year with a major ailment.

The Pelicans’ backcourt has seen a massive transformation over the last couple of years, and not necessarily for the better. New Orleans has moved on from Jrue Holiday, Eric Bledsoe, and Lonzo Ball and replaced them with Devonte’ Graham, Kira Lewis, and Alexander-Walker.

Now, with Alexander-Walker moving to Portland and Lewis recovering from a torn ACL, McCollum will give the Pelicans a steady, productive veteran to add stability to the guard position.

McCollum’s arrival still doesn’t solve New Orleans’ major weaknesses

As the 10th and final occupant in the Western Conference playoff picture, the Pelicans have a stronger case to move up the standings thanks to McCollum. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t viable concerns about how CJ will impact two of New Orleans’ largest concerns.

The first, on a broader scale, is defense. Entering Tuesday, New Orleans’ 112.4 defensive rating is just 22nd in the NBA. Now add McCollum, a subpar defender coming from a Trail Blazers team that’s been bottom-three in defensive rating for three consecutive seasons.

McCollum and his 116.0 D-rating will now join Graham, who carries a 116.0 of his own. Together, those two will have plenty of scoring upside but will serve as major liabilities on the other end. This might limit how often McCollum and Graham are on the court together, particularly when Zion returns.

The other major concern is New Orleans’ lack of a true playmaker. After moving on from Ball and bringing in Graham, the Pelicans more or less decided Ingram would serve as the team’s top facilitator. Yet he’s also supposed to be the team’s top scorer.

Now, with McCollum in the fold, the Pelicans will either have Ingram lean even more into the facilitator role or ask McCollum to do so. For what it’s worth, the former Trail Blazer has never averaged above 4.7 assists in a season despite playing alongside Damian Lillard, one of the league’s most prolific scorers.

In order to feed McCollum, Ingram, Graham, and eventually Zion, it would be wise for New Orleans to have a top-notch facilitator to keep the ball moving. Time will tell if that person is currently on the roster.

The Pelicans are committed to their new core

While it’s evident New Orleans wants to make the playoffs this season, acquiring McCollum is more of a long-term play. Now, the 30-year-old becomes one of several players locked up in the Bayou for the foreseeable future.

McCollum is on track to make $69 million over the next two years, keeping him with the Pels through 2024. One year later, Ingram’s five-year, $158 million extension will expire. Elsewhere, Graham is still in year one of a four-year, $47 million pact, while center Jonas Valanciunas still has another two years and $30 million left after 2021-22.

That’s not even getting to Zion. The superstar forward, who’s been out all season due to a broken foot, is eligible for a five-year, $181 million max extension after this season. Barring anything unforeseen, that will mean the former top pick will be on the books through 2027.

The Pelicans can take comfort in having a strong core locked in place for the next few years. But is it good enough to win a championship? McCollum seemingly gets them closer to that goal, but there are several other questions that must be answered before we know for sure if New Orleans is a legitimate contender.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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