Blazers opening season without CJ McCollum
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The season opener for the Portland Trail Blazers has come with an unexpected twist: The absence of starter CJ McCollum, who is suspended for Wednesday’s game at Phoenix.
The suspension was handed down Saturday. McCollum was disciplined for leaving the bench when Portland’s Caleb Swanigan and the Suns’ Alex Len tussled in the fourth quarter of a preseason game last Wednesday night — coincidentally in Phoenix.
McCollum didn’t engage anyone after taking a few steps onto the floor, but leaving the bench area merited the penalty under NBA rules. So he will be a spectator when the Blazers open the season against the Suns. He’ll also lose some $164,000 in salary.
Some — including McCollum — questioned the suspension, given that he isn’t a brawler at all, it was a preseason game, and the action wasn’t menacing.
Nonetheless, he took full responsibility for his actions.
“You never want to miss games, especially like that to start the season. You work so hard to prepare for the season, you go through a lot of preseason games that don’t mean anything and then you miss a regular-season game because of an incident that you weren’t even involved in,” he told reporters following practice Monday. “There’s nothing I can do about it now but more forward and learn from it.”
McCollum averaged a career-best 23 points per game on 48 percent shooting last season as half of a formidable backcourt duo with Damian Lillard, who had a career-best average of 27 points per game, along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists
The Blazers beat the Suns 113-104 in last Wednesday’s game, finishing the preseason 5-1.
Phoenix is in rebuilding mode, with coach Earl Watson guiding the development of 20-year-old burgeoning star Devin Booker and promising rookie Josh Jackson, alongside steady point guard Eric Bledsoe. The Suns went 24-58 last season, second-worst in the league.
Celebrating the franchise’s 50th season this year, the Suns haven’t made the playoffs in six years, the longest drought in franchise history.
The Blazers went 41-41 last season and made the playoffs, where they had the unfortunate luck of facing the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Portland got off to a poor start last season but saw improvement with the arrival of center Jusuf Nurkic, who was able to quickly develop chemistry with the rest of the team. He averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers, who were 14-5 with him in the starting lineup.
Nurkic was injured at the end of last season, and appeared in just one of the playoff games against the Warriors.
The 7-footer, known as the Bosnian Beast, shed about 35 pounds in the offseason to become more agile. He suggested that in the talented Western Conference, the Blazers could become the NBA’s Bad Boys, drawing inspiration from the Detroit Pistons of years past.
McCollum said it will be tough for the Blazers in a loaded Western Conference topped by the Warriors. But Portland could draw inspiration from two seasons ago, when the young squad of underdogs surprised the league after the departure of four starters.
“We need to be competitive, we need to have a chip on our shoulder, we need to be accountable for our actions, our words and our preparation each day,” he said. “Everybody has gotten better in the Western Conference, especially in our division. There aren’t going to be any easy nights.”