Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum isn’t the kind of player who makes excuses. In fact, the 6-4 guard out of Lehigh is perhaps his most vicious critic, often times pointing out his own mistakes first when discussing team performances, particularly in losses. He holds himself to a high standard, and when he fails to meet that standard, he’s not afraid to admit it.
So it wasn’t surprising to hear McCollum take responsibility for the one-game suspension levied by the NBA for leaving the bench during at altercation between Trail Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan and Suns center Alex Len during the fourth quarter of Portland’s 113-104 preseason victory in Phoenix on October 11. But he certainly wasn’t satisfied with the ruling either, which will keep the starting two guard out of Portland’s season opener versus the Suns on October 18 and cost him roughly $164,000 in lost salary.
“I was disappointed,” said McCollum of the decision. “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. There’s nothing I can do about it now but more forward and learn from it.”
While McCollum did violate the most literal interpretation of the rule, which states players can be fined and/or suspended for leaving the bench and entering the court during an altercation, one could argue McCollum didn’t violate the spirit, as he made no contact with another player and looked as though he was more interested in alleviating the situation than exacerbating it.
“Obviously I wasn’t trying to escalate the situation, I was trying to look out for a teammate, but they decided to suspend me,” said McCollum. “I should have known that they were going to suspend me but with it being preseason and me not being involved in the actual event and me just trying to help my teammate — he might clear a million before taxes but not after taxes, so I was thinking about looking out for him. It cost me a lot of money and the first game of the season. I should have known better with my history of violence on the court that I would be suspended.”
McCollum’s teammates echoed the sentiment that while they realize a rule was broken, perhaps there were other ways to deal with what was ultimately a benign action committed in the fourth quarter of a preseason contest by a player with no “history of violence” during his four season in the NBA.
“I comprehend a rule is a rule, but I feel like everything is different somewhat,” said Evan Turner, who is one of the favorites to start in McCollum’s place. “I guess they’re being fair with the rule with everybody, but CJ didn’t go on the court in a negative manner. It was a preseason game, he had a towel in his hand, he wasn’t aggressive, you know what I’m saying? He wasn’t volatile, he wasn’t keeping the situation going. It’s tough. Obviously rules are rules so I comprehend you’re not allowed to do that. When you break it down, obviously we make a decent amount of money but for that type of situation, to lose any type of thing and most importantly lose one of our go-to guys to start on the road, that’s pretty crazy.”
Multiple players noted that making up for McCollum’s absence, specifically on the offensive end, wouldn’t be easy. But while not having a player of McCollum’s quality is never a good thing, at least in this case, they’ve got a couple of days to figure out how they’ll make due.
“Obviously our level of focus has to be up,” said Damian Lillard. “I’m sure that’s going to give Phoenix some energy knowing that we a man down and one of our main guys who has an impact on every game that we play. We’ve got to come together, the effort has to be collective. We’ve just got to go get it done. It’s one game and we’ve got to go out and get it done for him.”
While it is just one game, it’s very possible the suspension will have a lasting effect in terms of the way McCollum views his relationship with the NBA. In the past, McCollum has taken pride in serving as an ambassador for the league, whether it was taking time out of his offseason to participate in the NBA Africa game in Johannesburg this summer, cutting his All-Star Break short to participate in the 2017 Three-Point Shooting contest or joining various NBA TV and ESPN shows as a guest analyst. But after being suspended for a minor mistake in preseason play, McCollum just might rethink his willingness to participate in that capacity going forward.
“They could have suspended me for the preseason game, they could have fined me more money and allowed me to play in a regular season game,” said McCollum. “It’s the intent and it’s usually up to them, it’s to their discretion, so they had a choice. They didn’t have to suspend me… I’m like an elephant, I don’t forget things.”