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Players the Sixers should not acquire: CJ McCollum

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first installment of an occasional series on players I don’t want the Sixers to obtain. The series may include bad players, good-but-overpaid players, good and fairly-paid players who are overrated and whom I therefore think aren’t worth trading for given the expected cost, players I think wouldn’t fit our scheme or culture, perhaps now and then a player who just annoys me. We begin with a player I see as good but who is, in my opinion, both overrated and overpaid: CJ McCollum.

1. Overview

Let me start by explaining just how much I don’t want CJ McCollum on the Sixers. CJ is a good player, of course, but CJ and his contract constitute a bundle that is a negative-value asset. The Sixers had the last pick in this year’s draft, the #60 pick. If Portland had offered us CJ McCollum for that pick, I would have considered taking the deal, but only because I think some other team might offer us something decent for him. If I knew we would have to hold onto him for the next few years, I would turn that deal down flat, and it wouldn’t be a hard call.

And yet, very smart observers like former LB editor Kyle Neubeck think the team should seriously consider trading for CJ, even though they expect the cost of such a deal to be very high, perhaps a good young player like Dario or Markelle together with a valuable pick. It’s not just Kyle, either, I see CJ-to-Philly suggestions everywhere. Mike Levin was suggesting we give a monster package for CJ on the RTRS podcast. Derek Bodner is another who acts as though this would be a reasonable thing to do. It wouldn’t.

For busy readers who don’t have time for the full story, allow me to summarize:

  • CJ’s quality as a player is somewhere between average starter and below-average starter, and I think this is hard too dispute as basically every statistic known to man places him in this range. The only way to make a case that he is meaningfully above average — a top 10 SG — is to completely ignore defense, and even then you can’t get there because if you ignore defense then other, lesser players with great offense and awful defense move past him.
  • But CJ will be paid around $28M per year over the remainder of his contract, which is on the border between star money and superstar money.
  • Thus he is overpaid, and constitutes a negative asset. A team should not consider giving up real value for him unless they have cap space and cannot attract fairly-paid players in free agency. The Sixers were once in that position, but no longer are. Thus a trade of nothing-for-CJ would hurt us, and a trade of something-good-for-CJ would be horrific.

2. Don’t cut off the best options

Begin with the obvious: LeBron James, as he has recently proved to everyone’s satisfaction, is one hell of a basketball player. Maybe the best ever, maybe just really, really close to the best ever. And he does not appear to be over the hill. And Philly is, according to sources, on his short list of potential landing spots this offseason, along with only Cleveland and the Lakers. Moreover if we pull out all the stops we have just barely enough cap space to squeeze in a max contract for the King.

So, until such time as it becomes clear that Mr. James will not be joining us, any deal that takes on cap space is absolute GM malpractice. I am confident that Kyle and other thoughtful commenters know this, so I think we can assume that any talk on their part about trading for CJ refers to either a scenario where LeBron has turned us down or to one where we offer players in the CJ deal whose salaries match McCollum’s. But the latter scenario really doesn’t work; remember that to get enough money to sign LeBron we need to clear Jerryd Bayless and ALSO not add any salary. So adding Bayless to the CJ deal doesn’t solve anything; we’d have to find around $24M worth of non-Bayless players to give up if we still want to pursue James. If we don’t include Joel or Ben, that’s Cov and Markelle plus around $5M more of players, so now you’re at those two plus perhaps the Miami pick and TJ or Dario and #26 and Justin or something... just a crazy deal that couldn’t possibly be worth it, as I’ll show in more detail below. So the real question will be, if LeBron turns us down, would CJ be a good thing to spend $28M/year for four years on? And if he is, would he be worth trading whatever assets Portland would demand in return? I say the answers are no and no.

3. Salary

I think anyone savvy enough to read this site knows that, while there was a period when mediocre players were receiving contracts in the $25-30M/year range from reasonably-competent teams, those days are long gone. The projected cap for next year is $101M, and experts don’t expect huge increases in the next couple seasons after that. So CJ’s deal, just under $28M/year, is almost 28% of the cap. I.e. you can afford three players who cost that much, and then you’ll maybe just barely be able to fill out a roster with rookies and low-quality vets. So a player making that much has to be tremendous or he is absolutely killing you. A guy like Joel Embiid, a top-15 player, is underpaid at that pay level, he helps you. A borderline All-Star, around the 30th-best player in the league, getting paid that much probably doesn’t hurt you, but he doesn’t help much either, he’s delivering enough to justify 28% of the cap but not enough to way MORE than justify it.

So what we have to ask ourselves is: is CJ McCollum a top-15 player, who we would be happy to pay that much to, so happy we’d be willing to sacrifice valuable players and picks to get him? The answer to that is, obviously not. And then the next question is, is he a borderline All-Star, not just in popularity but in terms of his true contribution? In that case we wouldn’t mind getting him for pick #60, but we wouldn’t want to give up anything good for him. I feel confident he isn’t at that level either, but I know many observers disagree, so let’s look at that question next. But just remember: EVEN IF CJ is around the #30 player, that would only say we’d consider him a break-even if Portland gave him to us for nothing. It absolutely would not justify giving up promising players like Markelle and Dario, or valuable picks, or already-excellent guys like Cov. So unless you think CJ is an elite player, up there in the zone with the guys listed just below, you should already not want to trade for him and should continue to feel that way even if what I write in the next section is totally unconvincing.

Some elite players who are a bargain at $28M: LeBron, Steph, CP3, Harden, Butler, KD, Kawhi, Giannis, Draymond, AD & Joel

I hope it’s obvious to everyone that CJ is not anywhere close to these tremendous two-way players. I hope it’s obvious too that he also can’t touch the next group, full of guys who are superstars at one end and decent at the other, like Lillard, Russ, Gobert, Horford, KAT, and Jokic, or two-way guys who’ve only done it once, like Oladipo. It’s my contention that CJ is far, far below all these players. If CJ was worth $28 million a year, then what’s Giannis or Joel worth — $60M? And then what are Steph and LeBron worth? $100M? But that can’t be right, that’s the whole cap! Steph and LeBron are worth maybe $70M or so, but that means Joel is worth $40-45M at most, and so obviously CJ isn’t worth $28M per season.

4. Ranking the Guards

CJ is a combo guard; some say he’d be a PG if he didn’t have to play with Dame, so let’s see how he does among guards as a group. Here are the people I think that pretty much everyone would agree are better at playing guard in the NBA than CJ McCollum. They are just in the order I thought of them, not best to worst.

Curry, Harden, CP3, Westbrook, Lowry, Irving, Dame, Kemba, Wall, Ben, Butler, Oladipo, Klay, Jrue, DeRozan, Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Eric Gordon, Jaylen Brown & Mike Conley.

So that’s 20, the top third of starting guards and McCollum isn’t in it. Maybe there are one or two guys in there that you like less than McCollum; maybe you hate the C’s so much you can’t stomach Jaylen or you think one of Wall and beal is great and the other one sucks. But do you then also have CJ ahead of all of the following?

  • Guys who were far better than CJ last year but who have only been that exceptional once: Tyreke Evans & Gary Harris.
  • Guys with great on-off stats because of their terrific D: Andre Roberson, Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, Dejounte Murray, Marcus Smart & Ricky Rubio.
  • Old guys who are still good: JJ Redick, Kyle Korver & Manu Ginobili
  • Players who, like CJ, have strong offense but weak defense: Devin Booker, Lou Williams & Buddy Hield
  • All-around solid players who lack CJ’s offense but are better on D and, arguably, overall: Terry Rozier, Kent Bazemore, Justin Holiday, KCP, Evan Fournier, Darren Collison, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jeff Teague & Eric Bledsoe
  • Guys who played extremely well last year in part-time roles and who will likely see starter minutes soon: Fred VanVleet, Tyus Jones & Delon Wright

That’s 26 more. I think the significant majority of these guys are better than McCollum, which would put CJ near the top of the bottom third or the bottom of the top third of the top 60. Most of you probably rate CJ higher than that, but my guess is that if you think CJ is better than Beverley and Green, you think he’s worse than Devin Booker and maybe JJ Redick. It’s hard for me to believe many folks reading this list have CJ meaningfully higher than 30th among these 43 players; maybe you have him 25th or 33rd but surely not 10th or 16th, right? If you do see CJ as 16th on this list, well, then, we disagree, but in that case a) see the statistical analysis below and b) recall the point above, which is that the 16th-best guard is STILL not worth $28M/year and is REALLY, REALLY not worth $28M a year plus valuable trade assets! For him to be worth that much he’d need to be maybe a top 5 guard, certainly top 10. There’s just no way to make the case that less than 10 of those guards are better than CJ McCollum.

Curry, Harden, CP3, Westbrook, Irving, Dame, Ben, Butler, Oladipo & Klay

That’s 10 guards, 10 of the top 25 players, and CJ isn’t close to any of them in ability. He can’t possibly be worth $28M/year.

5. Looking at the numbers

I’ll make this mercifully short, because the numbers are awfully consistent in the case of CJ McCollum.

  • RAPM, the adjusted plus-minus stat that is my personal favorite all-around quality measure, had him as an average player over the past two seasons. Two years ago he was almost exactly at average-starter level, but this most recent season he fell to average-backup quality, again, putting the two together he was approximately an average player.
  • RPM says he was right around average last year, below average for a starter, well above average on offense but well below on D, cancelling out the offensive edge.
  • I prefer on/off stats like RPM and RAPM, but of the stats that combine counting statistics (points, rebounds, steals, etc.) in smart ways my favorite is BPM. BPM has CJ a little above average for a player, a bit below average for a starter.
  • Dean Oliver’s Orty-Drtg has him right around average for a player both for his career and for last year
  • Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) shows him as a little above average for a player and a little below the starter average for both last year and his career as a whole. In 2016-17 he had his best year by this measure, hitting or maybe surpassing average-starter level that season.
  • My least favorite combo stat is PER, the one that likes points so much it rated Jahlil Okafor as good. Even PER has CJ only as around average-starter level both last year and for his career.

Look, we all know how imperfect basketball stats are. But rarely are the numbers for a famous player so consistently mediocre. Remember, some of these measures, like WS/48 and BPM, are based on points scored and rebounds and steals and such. But others, like RAPM, don’t take those numbers into account AT ALL; they rely only upon how the team did when CJ was and wasn’t playing. It’s almost inconceivable that all these very-differently-computed estimates of his ability would all be hugely wrong, year after year after year, and all, every year, in the same direction. CJ McCollum deserves to start in the NBA, but I just can’t find anything that says he’s meaningfully above average as a starter, and most of the evidence says he’s in the bottom half of starters and probably the bottom third.

6. What about fit?

As regular readers know, I lean toward quality over fit. Some observers worry that LeBron won’t fit with Ben Simmons. My view is, let’s get perhaps the two best passers in the NBA on the floor together and find a way to make it work, and if we can’t, go get a coach who can! Not that I think Brett Brown would struggle to manage such a situation, just saying that in my view if you give a coach that kind of talent and he can’t do anything with it, then he’s not the coach I think BB is!

But of course I don’t deny that it’s a good idea to fill needs, to find players who fit well together. It’s just that I think people are terrible at guessing what players will fit well. GMs and coaches are bad at it, and fans and pundits are even worse. Even when we actually get to see the players play we have trouble judging fit. Are Wall and Beal a terrific backcourt fit, a great-passing PG with scoring ability and a great-scoring SG who passes reasonably well? Or are they mismatched and would do better apart? I don’t know!

After the Sixers’ painful playoff loss to the Celtics, most observers drew the conclusion that the team needs a guard who can get his own shot. Perhaps! But, a few comments.

a) We should always be careful not to overreact to small samples and small differences. We lost 4-1, and that can’t be denied. But if a few more shots had fallen, the series might have ended differently, and then some folks here would be saying we shouldn’t pursue LeBron because we’re already good enough with our homegrown talent. Of course we should always be striving to get better, but we shouldn’t judge the way we need to improve solely based on the outcome of three extremely close games.

b) By 11 months from now Ben Simmons may be a guard who can get his own shot. Not that he’ll be launching 5 threes a game effectively; I think we all know that’s not going to happen that soon, if ever. But I think it’s actually pretty likely that by next year’s playoffs Ben is viewed as a guy who can drive and either score or get to the line with consistency, and that moreover his free throw shooting is decent enough that the latter is not a terrifying outcome. I.e. Ben will be seen as a bucket-getter, just as Giannis is, just as LeBron was before he learned to hit the three.

c) Markelle Fultz may be that player. Already in April he looked like a guy who could get to the rim with ease. He wasn’t the finisher you’d want to see, but look how far Ben came in that area in a single year. Obviously I don’t know any more than you do about Markelle’s shooting, how it got here and where it’s headed. But I will say this: a lot of Sixer fans have pounded the table for the team to acquire Terry Rozier, and Terry appears to be a fine player. But his rookie year he shot 23% from 3, followed by 31% in his second season, and 38% in his third. And Rozier was 21 as a rookie, two years older than Markelle. I.e. Markelle last season was 4 years away from being at the age Rozier was when he finally became effective from three. Hell, we just watched Dario increase his 3P% by like 8 points in a year. Yes, I know Markelle was at 0 and 8 points above zero stilll sucks, ha ha! But I’m just saying that it’s very foolish to write guys off when they are so young and so talented.

d) We might add a free agent who fills that role who won’t cost the assets CJ would, more on this below.

e) We could add a player, through trade or free agency (though of course I prefer the latter), who helps us in other ways. Folks say we need a bucket-getter like CJ. But is that actually what we need, actually the lack that killed us against the C’s? I would argue the real problem was a lack of two-way players. Basically the coach had the choice of playing JJ and Marco and getting punished defensively, or not playing them and losing scoring punch. A bucket-getter would have been terrific, but if we could have exchanged Marco for a guy who does what Marco does but also played defense, that probably would have turned one or two of the three close losses our way. For my money, replacing Marco, a great shooter and so-so driver who doesn’t play D with CJ, a great shooter and very good driver who doesn’t play D, would not be as sensible an upgrade as adding a great shooter who does play D. Of course ideally we want it all, a hoops deity like LeBron, or failing that a player like PG who can create his own shot and who also brings shooting and defense. But the tech guys like to say “fast-cheap-good: you can pick two.” If we can only pick two of 3-D-bucketzz”, we know for sure that 3 is on the list. But is it obvious that the ability to create for oneself would help the current Sixer squad more, in general or in a Celtics series, than adding defense? I don’t see why. I think Danny Green would have been just as beneficial an addition as McCollum against Boston. Or maybe he’d have been 80% as valuable an addition, for a quarter the all-in cost!

Upshot is, there are a lot of ways this team can be improved, not just one. Some of those ways involve adding a creator, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to those approaches, and even if we do there are better options than CJ McCollum.

7. Intangibles

There’s more to winning basketball than just night-after-night on-court productivity of the sort the stats above measure. Intangibles matter too, and CJ has some positive points worth mentioning.

  • He graduated from a fine university, Lehigh, with a degree in a real subject, journalism. I myself was a math major but now that I work part-time as a journalist, I declare that journalism is a real subject! It’s safe to say not every player in the NBA would have been capable of doing well in that sort of academic setting, and it’s very much to CJ’s credit. And it’s not like he did that because he wasn’t a serious hoops prospect, he was taken 10th in the draft; presumably he did it because he’s an intelligent and thoughtful person. The view that having intelligent and thoughtful people on your sports team helps you win is not universally held, but it is held by me!
  • Lehigh is not far from Philly and as mentioned CJ spent four years there so he has legitimate local connections as far as I’m concerned, a minor positive.
  • If we sign him and keep Redick, we’d have CJ, TJ and JJ, and that would bring me a certain amount of amusement and satisfaction. BJ Armstrong is long retired, as is Kevin “KJ” Johnson and that guy they called MJ, but DJ Augustin is probably available in a trade. PJ Tucker might be harder to obtain. Is there an AJ in the league? Ok, I’ll see myself out....
  • He led a 15-seed Lehigh team to an NCAA tournament victory over 2-seed Duke. I am not myself a Duke hater but I think everyone who didn’t graduate from Duke has to view that win as a major feather in CJ’s cap, on multiple dimensions!
  • On the other hand: Portland has never made any real playoff noise in CJ’s time there. He’s played fine in the postseason but not great; he has scored about 2 points below his norm, with one fewer assist and one fewer rebound (all per 36 minutes). Nothing to be ashamed of by any means, most players’ numbers drop when they face elite playoff competition like the Warriors. But there are guys where you can say that the regular season numbers may underestimate them because they save their very best for the postseason, and CJ is not, as of now, one of those guys.

8. What should we do if we can’t sign LeBron?

You can’t beat something with nothing, so it’s fair for fans of a CJ trade to ask me what the team should do should the King decide not to join us. Let’s also assume we can’t get PG; perhaps George and James move to LA together to create a Laker team with fellows who have the surnames William, Henry and Charles, forming the All-British-Monarch team! Now what?

a) We can sign some players to one-year deals and then pursue a star like Butler or Kemba or Klay or, who knows, perhaps LBJ or PG13 (they may sign one-year deals!), in 2019.

b) We can trade for a true superstar like Kawhi or KAT, paying a heavy price but getting a truly rare commodity in return.

c) We can trade for a player who is not at that Kawhi megastar level but who is nevertheless a lot better than CJ, such as Kemba Walker; Kemba matches CJ’s offense while not being so weak defensively.

d) We can trade for a player who is around as good as CJ but who would cost a lot less in trade and in contract; see the lists above for many examples.

e) We can take on one-year salary dumps where we get valuable future draft picks in the package. A month ago it was rumored that Denver was willing to trade the #14 pick and Kenneth Faried for, essentially, nothing; they needed to clear Faried’s cap hit. If we’d done that deal we’d have to put the champagne on ice for another year, as neither Faried nor the draft selection would likely make us better than the Warriors in 2018-19. But on the plus side, we’d have Michael Freaking Porter on our team! That deal is presumably no longer available, but with $25M in cap space we could take on two big one-year deals, likely picking up some valuable trade assets in the bargain.

f) Even if none of those are possible and we have to sign four-year deals and kill our chance at a superduperstar free agent, we can get a lot more than CJ for the money in free agency (and without sacrificing trade assets). In particular I’d like to once more draw your attention to Mr. Tyreke Evans. Tyreke was as good offensively as CJ and was dramatically, massively better defensively last year. It’s true that Reke has been guilty of getting hurt in the past, but it’s also true that CJ has been guilty of being mediocre in the past, and also in the present. Give me distant injuries anytime! Reke is a combo guard who can get his own shot. So if that’s what you think we need, he delivers it. But he delivers it while playing strong D and having good length to support switchability (6’6” vs. CJ’s 6’3”).

And of course Tyreke isn’t going to cost $28 million a year! This offseason is hard to forecast as only a few teams have money, so it’s uncertain what Reke will get, but a likely guess is that 3 years, $30M might get it done and 3 years, $45M would almost certainly suffice. Numbers like that leave room to add other quality free agents. This is certainly not my preferred plan, I agree with Brett Brown that we should be hunting superstars, either this offseason or, failing that, next. But this plan is better on every dimension than trading for CJ — we get a better player, preserve more financial flexibility, and avoid sacrificing assets. I mean, would you rather have Tyreke, Trevor Ariza and Kyle O’Quinn or CJ, TLC and Richaun for the same money? The question answers itself! And that’s if Portland gave us CJ for nothing, which, spoiler alert, they aren’t going to. So now it’s Tyreke, Ariza, O’Quinn, Dario, and the Miami pick vs. CJ, TLC and Richaun... why are we even discussing this?!?! Let’s just not trade for CJ McCollum. Let’s all stop acting as though doing so would be anything other than pure insanity.

As always, I look forward to being gently corrected in comments by kindhearted souls who are unpersuaded by my arguments. Fire away!

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