The Portland Trail Blazers will go in 2022 NBA Free Agency The period brought with it a squad already stocked with veteran talent. They’ve managed to build an interesting roster around franchise superstar Damian Lillard, attempting another relevant run in the NBA’s Western Conference. As far as we know right now, the rotation should look something like this:
Point Guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons
Guard-Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson
Small progress-Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Greg Brown III
Power Forward—Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford
Yesterday we speculated that the Blazers will need to find more help in the center, not just to round out the squad aesthetically, but because injuries and fouling trouble often conspire to keep Jusuf Nurkic on the bench. “Basketball without a position” is all the rage right now, but you still need someone of your caliber to protect and recover from the big opposition. Portland has Nurkic…and that’s about it.
The second problem with Portland’s growing roster is less obvious, but could be equally important, especially if they make another swap for someone who starts at a small distance.
The Blazers will balance the starting lineup, with interlocking pieces from the bench. In theory, the whole spin outside the center should look pretty solid, especially if everyone plays to their full potential.
Can they, though?
Portland has a few high-octane scorers in the late game. Lillard and Anfernee Simons are offensive powers, capable of operating 25 a night — potentially averaged 25 a night — as natural as breathing.
Note: the duo never worked side-by-side while Simons reached his full potential. He was in full bloom last season in Lillard’s absence, feeding on any photo he wanted to take. As soon as Dame hits the floor again, the situation changes. Who will the ball go to? Will all those shots and dribbles still be for Simons? If not, how does that affect his production?
It was just the opening volley. There was precedent for Lillard playing next to a goal-scoring defender; CJ McCollum has been filling that role for years. Simons can seamlessly slide into the 1A recording position. But what about the rest of the list?
Blazers don’t have to worry about minutes and shots. Those things tend to resolve on their own. Instead, ask how many new and returning Portland players are looking to develop in a larger role, particularly in attack.
Lillard has no doubt on the matter. He’s been a multiple-time All-NBA, All-Star defender and the face of the franchise. The team will shape itself around him, not vice versa. Whatever Damian Lillard wants – or thinks is good for the team – he should get. That is his role and position.
However, let’s look at the rest of the lineup.
Simons bloomed last season. He wouldn’t want to take a step back, and neither should he. He’s not just a great attacking player, that’s his main role. Take away Simons’ scoring chance and there’s not much of a reason to keep him in the ring.
At the age of 27, Jerami Grant was just entering his prime. He has found traction and will now earn a hefty contract extension, as a primary offensive option with Detroit Pistons. He’s not the most efficient scorer in the universe. He played better defensively and had a better game than his new teammates. That should keep him in rotation no matter what. But he doesn’t want to be the fourth pick in Portland. He will start the season – on paper at least – no better than third in attack on the Blazers.
Jusuf Nurkic shares the same timeline as Grant. He also has a lot of tools, but the more he stands out in attack, the better he plays. Notably, he withered away when he was pushed down the flowchart for attacking options. He’s not at his best unless touched. He also doesn’t want to be the fourth choice.
Josh Hart is perhaps the most unselfish of Portland’s veterans on the field. But his contract has a player’s option after the season and he will want a higher salary day, whether from the Blazers or someone else. Also, he scored 20 points per game as first or second pick in Portland last year, when nearly everyone else was injured.
Shaedon Sharpe is a rookie and has little leverage to move into the scoring hierarchy. He’s also a draw, highly rated as a potential guy waiting. The basis of that assessment was – you guessed it – his ability to put the ball in the bucket. He will stand at the end of the line if required, 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 the Blazers trade Hart and trade for it. Toronto Raptors forwarding OG Anunoby. He plays well defensively and will be a great player. But he left Toronto precisely because he was pushed out of the offense by Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. He’s not going to Portland to repeat that situation, with pressure from more angles.
You can copy that passage for Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, though that move seems less likely after the Grant acquisition. At the very least, Deandre Ayton would be better suited to a defensive/recovery role, but the Blazers will pay him enough to justify promotion into the scoring stratosphere.
In a way, this is a good problem to have. Exploiting too much scoring potential is a luxury. The Blazers should have no trouble finding second and third picks apart from Lillard. Their problems, if any, come when someone has to be fourth and someone else has to be fifth.
Please also note that none of these players are expert shooters, the type who would defend firmly, stay in the corner when fouled, and hit 40% of their three-point effort without ever dribbling ( and/or wait for someone else to shoot and pursue an offensive rebound to the exclusion of everything else). Portland’s lineup is full of shotmakers, volume recorders, or at least people who like to handle it a bit.
Addressing this issue without compromising the roles, energy and contributions of the final players outside will be key to Portland’s growth and success this season. If they are going to face this lineup, everyone has to work at a high level and be consistent. That will require sacrifice and synergy. Those qualities will be one of the few keys that determine whether the Blazer looks good on paper or on the court.
(P.S.: Don’t be too surprised or disappointed, if the Blazers end up picking up players with lower name value and more scoring potential but a more targeted skill set during the agency phase. NBA’s upcoming free, in part for this reason.)