The Portland Trail Blazers will enter the 2022 NBA Free Agency streak with a roster already packed with veteran talent. They’ve managed to build an interesting roster around franchise superstar Damian Lillard, trying to make another run for relevance in the NBA’s Western Conference. As far as we currently know, the rotation will look like this:
Peak Guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernée Simons
shooting guard-Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson
Small Forward—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Greg Brown III
Forward power—Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford
Yesterday we speculated that the Blazers would need to find some extra help at center, not just to complete the roster aesthetically, but because injuries and fouls often conspire to keep Jusuf Nurkic on the bench. “Positionless Basketball” is all the rage right now, but you still need someone tall to defend and rebound against big opponents. Portland has Nurkic… and that’s about it.
The second problem with Portland’s growing roster is less obvious, but could be just as critical, particularly if they make another trade for a starter at small forward.
The Blazers will be well balanced in the starting lineup, with interlocking pieces coming off the bench. On paper, the whole rotation out of the center looks pretty solid, especially if everyone is playing to their maximum potential.
But can they?
Portland has a few high octane scorers in the backcourt. Lillard and Anfernee Simons are offensive powerhouses, capable of putting out 25 a night, capable of average 25 per night, as naturally as breathing.
The caveat: the duo never worked in tandem when Simons was at his full potential. He flourished last season in Lillard’s absence, feasting on every shot he wanted to take. As soon as Queen touches the ground again, the situation changes. In which hands will the ball be? Will all of that shooting and dribbling still be available to Simons? If not, how does this affect its production?
This is just the opening end. There is precedent for Lillard playing alongside a hugely scoring guard; CJ McCollum filled this role for years. Simons could slide seamlessly into the 1A scoring position. But what about the rest of the roster?
The Blazers don’t have to worry about minutes and shots per se. These things tend to work out. Instead, ask how many of Portland’s new and returning players are looking to thrive in a bigger role, especially offensively.
Lillard is immune to questions in this regard. He is an All-NBA guard, a multiple-time All-Star, and the face of the franchise. The team will be shaped around him, not the other way around. Whatever Damian Lillard wants or thinks is good for the team, he should get it. This is its role and its position.
Look at the rest of the lineup, though.
Simons blossomed last season. He won’t want to back down, and neither should he. Not only is he a magnificent attacking player, it’s his main role. Take away Simons’ goalscoring opportunities and there’s not as much reason to keep him on the floor.
At 27, Jerami Grant is just entering the prime of life. He’s found traction and will now earn a huge contract extension as the primary offensive option with the Detroit Pistons. He’s not the most efficient goalscorer in the universe. He plays better defense and has a more balanced game than his new backcourt teammates. That should keep him in the rotation no matter what. But he’s not looking to be a fourth option at Portland. He’ll start the season — on paper, at least — as no better than the third on the Blazers’ offense.
Jusuf Nurkic is on a similar timeline to Grant’s. He also has several tools, but the more he is present in the attack, the better he plays. Notably, he faded when pushed down the org chart for offensive options. He’s not at his best unless he gets hit. He’s not looking to be the fourth option either.
Josh Hart is probably the most selfless Portland veteran on the court. But his contract contains a player option after the season and he’s going to want a bigger salary, whether it’s from the Blazers or someone else. Plus, he scored 20 points per game as a first or second option in Portland last year when almost everyone was injured.
Shaedon Sharpe is a rookie and has little leverage to work his way up the scoring hierarchy. He was also a lottery pick, highly touted as a potential phenomenon in waiting. The basis for this assessment was – you guessed it – his ability to put the ball in the bucket. He’ll hang around the back of the line if necessary, but that’s not really why the Blazers got him.
Now… let’s imagine for a minute that another hot rumor this summer comes to fruition, and that the Blazers trade Hart and change to Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby. He plays well in defense and would be a great asset. But he leaves Toronto precisely because he is taken out of the attack by his teammates Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. He wouldn’t come to Portland to repeat that situation, with pressure from even more angles.
You can duplicate that paragraph for Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, though that move seems less likely after the Grant acquisition. Deandre Ayton would be more receptive to the defense/rebound role, at least initially, but the Blazers would pay him enough to warrant promotion to the scoring stratosphere.
In a way, that’s a good problem to have. Having too much goalscoring potential is a luxury. The Blazers will have no trouble finding second and third options besides Lillard. Their problem, if there is one, will come when someone has to be fourth and someone else fifth.
Also note that none of these players are shooting specialists, the kind who will defend hard, stand in the corner on offense, and hit 40% of their three-point attempts without ever dribbling the ball (and/or waiting for someone else shoots and chasing the offensive rebound to the exclusion of everything else). Portland’s lineup is full of plane makers, volume markers, or at least guys who like to fiddle with it a bit.
Addressing this issue without affecting the role, energy and contributions of players who find themselves on the outside will be key to Portland’s development and success this season. If they want to deal with this formation, everyone has to step up to a consistent high level. This will require sacrifices and synergy. These qualities will be one of the few keys in determining whether the Blazers look good on paper or on the pitch as well.
(PS Don’t be too surprised or disappointed if the Blazers end up acquiring players with less name value and volume scoring potential but more focused skills in the next NBA free agency period, in part to this reason.)