This past offseason, Neil Olshey handed the keys to the second unit over to the precocious youngster Anfernee Simons. After Simons shone in Summer League, Olshey told NBC Sports Northwest, “For me, he was the best player in the gym in Las Vegas, and I don’t even know if it was that close. We need to empower him. Our guys need to look and know we’re gonna play through bumps and bruises with him, the ebbs and flows, but that’s our guy.”
Olshey reinforced his belief in Simons when he opted not to sign a backup point guard after Seth Curry departed for Dallas. The whole organization—from the front office to the coaching staff to the players—communicated the same message all summer long: Anfernee was ready to shoulder a larger burden and the team was ready to give it to him.
Similar to Happy Gilmore’s hockey career, though, there’s just one problem: Simons hasn’t been any good. Ebbs and flows are one thing, but right now his play could more accurately be described as a red tide, contaminating everything it touches.
Now let me be clear: I don’t consider Simons a bust. I’m still super high on his future with the team. He scored 17 points on Patrick Beverly seven months before he could legally order a beer. Simons has shown an undeniable level of talent that should have Blazers fans salivating at his potential.
That said, Simons appears unready to lead an NBA offense, even as a backup. While his traditional counting stats depict a player still adjusting to life in the pros (7.1 ppg on 42 percent shooting), they fail to capture the degree to which he has negatively impacted the team this season. The future remains bright, but the present looks scary and dark.
Whenever Simons takes the court, the Blazers are demonstrably worse. He currently holds the lowest on/off numbers on the team at -5.1 points. For context, that’s twice as bad as Mario Hezonja at -2.5 and puts Simons in the bottom nine percent league wide. No Blazer has recorded on/off numbers that bad since Earl Barron in 2011. If you can’t remember Earl Barron, that’s because he played a total of 36 terrible minutes in Portland. You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find an actual rotation player with a worse net impact (that team somehow had five).
Perhaps most troubling, Simon’s on/off numbers are trending downwards despite the overall team performance picking up. Through eight games in December, the Blazers are a ghastly -8.1 in Simon’s 21.5 minutes. That ranks 401 out of the 416 players who suited up during that span. His struggles were on full display Wednesday night when he finished with zero points and four fouls against the Golden State Warriors.
To contextualize a player’s net impact, you need to factor in their teammates. Playing behind a maestro like Damian Lillard can sink your net rating through no fault of your own. But that’s not the case with Simons. Out of the 20 two-man combinations the Blazers have trotted out this year, six have negative points differentials. Five of them include Simons. Regardless of who they surround him with, the Blazers hemorrhage points when Anfernee plays. Lillard has a positive net rating with every single Blazer except Simons.
This is in large part due to Simons inability to create quality looks for his teammates. He assists on 11 percent of his team’s baskets when he plays, a shockingly low number for a player who logs over half his time at point guard. Austin Rivers has a similar assist percentage despite playing off-ball with James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two of highest-usage players in NBA history. If Simons can’t create baskets for his teammates at a higher rate than Rivers, he’ll never become a floor general the Blazers can rely on.
Simons can consistently beat his defender off the dribble and gets into the paint, but he hasn’t generated assists out of those situations. He has a bad habit of leaving his feet before he knows exactly what he wants to do next. Rather than force the help defense to commit before finding the open player, he jumps and eliminates all his options. Opportunities for kickout assists become turnovers, resulting in his almost-even assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5 to 1.0).
At the end of the day, the fact remains that Simons is still only 20 years old and playing one of the toughest positions in professional sports. In a couple years, this season could look like what Olshey prepared us for: growing pains. If his play continues to drag the team down, though, it’s fair to wonder why there wasn’t a backup plan.