The Portland Trail Blazers’ biggest strength is their guard play. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — a two-time All-Star and a Most Improved Player, respectively — demand many of the backcourt minutes. When one sits, the other slides in as the clear-cut No. 1 guy. Given this, Portland backups always find their ceilings capped. Shabazz Napier joins a long line of recent No. 3 or No. 4 point guards, many of whom have never stayed long enough to earn a second thought.
This was the case for Napier last season, coming to his third team in as many years, relegated to waving towels with Pat Connaughton on the bench. Things have shifted this season.
Napier is now part of a killer three-guard lineup with Lillard and McCollum, and he’s seen late-game opportunities as one of Portland’s closers. Head coach Terry Stotts has even engineered stretches with neither of his stars out there, letting Napier and the bench mob throw off opposing defenses on their own. Given the usual role of Blazers backup point guards, this qualifies as significant.
Here’s the list of Portland point guards, by season.
2012-13: Lillard Takes the Stage
-Damian Lillard: 19 ppg, 6.5 apg (82 games)
-Nolan Smith: 2.8 ppg, 0.9 apg (40 games)
-Ronnie Price: 2.7 ppg, 1.9 apg (39 games) *Waived at trade deadline
-Eric Maynor: 6.9 ppg, 4 apg (27 games) *Acquired at trade deadline
2013-14: A Mentor and a Scorer Join the Crew
-Damian Lillard: 20.7 ppg, 5.6 apg (82 games)
-Mo Williams: 9.7 ppg, 4.3 apg (74 games)
-Earl Watson: 0.5 ppg, 1.2 apg (24 games)
2014-15: The Return of Steve Blake
-Damian Lillard: 21 ppg, 6.2 apg (82 games)
-Steve Blake: 4.3 ppg, 3.6 apg (81 games)
-Tim Frazier: 4.6 ppg, 3.4 apg (5 games) *Signed in March and would become the only Lillard-era backup to move on with team into the following season
2015-16: CJ McCollum’s Arrival
-Damian Lillard: 25.1 ppg, 6.8 apg (75 games)
-CJ McCollum: 20.8 ppg, 4.3 apg (80 games)
-Tim Frazier: 1.5 ppg, 1.2 apg (35 games) *Waived at trade deadline
-Brian Roberts: 2.9 ppg, 0.8 apg (21 games) *Acquired at trade deadline
2016-Present: The Shabazz Years
Napier arrived in 2016-17 as a “take a flyer” player from the Orlando Magic. He failed to catch on with the Heat or Magic, and his first season in Portland proved much the same, typified by low minutes (9.7 mpg) and low scoring (4.1 ppg). Napier entered 2017-18 with similarly low expectations, behind Lillard, McCollum, and even Evan Turner.
Napier recorded 22 minutes in the season-opener, contributing 10 points and three assists. A string of stinky performances followed, however, and he endured three straight DNP-Coach’s Decision games. Following that, he began to play like the star he was in college at the University of Connecticut.
In Portland’s last 10 games Napier has notched scoring performances of 19, 16, 13, 12 and 11 (x2). He’s played 20+ minutes in seven of those games. He’s earned late-game minutes, contributing an and-1 in the dwindling moments of Portland’s win against the Nets.
For the season, Shabazz is posting a career high in points (7.4 ppg) and field goal percentages (.494 from the field, .517 from deep) while averaging 16.3 minutes per game. In a season that’s seen occasional lackluster efforts, Napier plays hard every night.
Napier is making a case to remain in Rip City, but there’s a catch. The better he plays, the more teams will notice, and the more he’ll be sought after in free agency. Blazer’s Edge editor Eric Griffith noted this a week ago:
Sad reality: The better Napier plays the harder it is for the Blazers to keep him next year.— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) November 21, 2017
As well as he’s playing, we could be watching Napier auditioning for opposing teams right now. This isn’t disastrous. Lillard has survived before without strong backups, especially with McCollum’s rise and Turner’s arrival. The Blazers are in dire need of a strong wing, not a strong backup point guard. But contemplating Napier’s departure hurts more now than it did two months ago.
Napier’s excellent play may be smoke, an intoxicating mix of blistering confidence and lucky shooting nights, exaggerated by small sample size. Or he may be re-defining our assumptions about potential for reserves in a star-laden backcourt. Do the Blazers need him, or will he become the latest in a long list of former Blazers who succeed outside of Portland?
We’ll know more in a couple months, but what do you say for now? Has Napier shown enough to merit “must keep him” status or do you find him as expendable as Portland’s other reserve point guards have been? Debate in the comment section.