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Would Isaiah Thomas Trump Anfernee Simons in Portland?

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The Trail Blazers don’t look strong at reserve point, but Dave Deckard urges us to rethink that assessment for now.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If the Portland Trail Blazers have a weakness in their otherwise-solid roster, it might come at reserve point guard. Damian Lillard and Neil Olshey have both complimented the abilities of third-year guard Anfernee Simons, the incumbent at the position, but Portland fans remain restless. If the perceived gap were filled with just one more player, the roster would seem more complete.

That doesn’t appear to be Portland’s plan right now, however. And maybe that’s for good reason. We explore the issue in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hi Dave,

Man, it is nice to have some depth on the bench for a change!

My question is about the backup PG role, that so many people feel is a weak part of the roster.

If the coaching staff feels confident in our current roster to handle the backup PG role (Simons, CJ, Trent), why not take a flyer on Isaiah Thomas to fill out the roster and add a bit of ‘just in case’ insurance? There isn’t a ton of available information on his rehab, but what is available seems to be positive. Heck, bring him in for a workout and see how he looks. If he looks good, a ten-day or minimum contract would be a low risk with potential for high reward if he is anywhere close to his old self.

Tim

This is a great question, not just for the Anfernee Simons vs. Isaiah Thomas debate, but because it fleshes out several concepts that will be important to the Blazers this season (or at least to understanding them). A few of these either have been, or will be, covered in the new Dave and Dia Podcast, appearing every Thursday here on site. Check it out if you want to hear Dia Miller and I talk about these things more.

Before we crow about, or beg the Blazers to get more, depth, we need to define the word.

Most people gauge depth on a casual basis, running down the list of names and seeing how many talented players they recognize. I call this “theoretical depth”. A team needs some of it in order to survive, as talent at the mid-rotation positions is essential to reducing star minutes and maintaining margins when the starters are out. The Trail Blazers have seen firsthand what a lack of scoring off the bench does to an otherwise-stacked team. It wasn’t pretty.

But theoretical depth only goes so far. Its main purpose is to insure the team should injury strike a starter. Portland would probably fare better with Thomas replacing Damian Lillard than they would with Simons, should the superstar fall during the season. The benefit would be marginal, though.

  1. Portland already has players to fill that gap. CJ McCollum would likely slide over to the point while Gary Trent Jr. started at shooting guard in that scenario, leaving the Simons-Thomas decision on the back burner.
  2. Thomas doesn’t bring enough to the table to play with the first unit for long, particularly on defense.
  3. If Dame goes down, the season plunges downward no matter who fills that role.

Barring injuries, theoretical depth isn’t as important as functional depth. That’s not just a product of talent. It requires multi-dimensional players whose styles link together.

Let’s go back to 2017-18. Behind the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic the Blazers fielded Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Zach Collins, and Ed Davis. On paper, that’s a reasonable core backing up the powerhouse trio.

Reality didn’t match parchment that year, largely because Portland’s role players were two-dimensional, lacked critical skills, or didn’t mesh together. Aminu and Harkless defended decently but didn’t threaten on offense. Turner was a jack-of-all-trades but played best with the ball in his hands and couldn’t shoot threes. Vonleh didn’t get enough possessions to look good. Napier was a scorer at heart, though he played point guard. Collins was too inexperienced, Davis too lane-bound. Turner was the only one in the entire bunch with any chance to mesh with, or set up, the rest, but even when he succeeded, most of them weren’t “set-uppable”. Each player was good in their own way. None of them fit together seamlessly without cost.

Contrast that with the lineups the Blazers are likely to throw out this season. Robert Covington, Rodney Hood, and Gary Trent Jr. can all defend and shoot the three...Hood and Trent, Jr. excellently, Covington passably. They can also dish, dribble, and score. All of them play with their heads up, none of them has to have the ball on a given possession to perform. Take away the defense, add in isolation posts, and you have Carmelo Anthony. Take away the shooting, up the defense, and add high-flying and you get Derrick Jones, Jr. Enes Kanter rebounds, can score, and won’t dominate possessions. Harry Giles has fit in excellently so far on both ends of the floor. You don’t notice him until the exact minute you do, and then it’s devastating. That’s the recipe for a great back-up player.

Every one of those players does at least 2-3 things well. More importantly, each of them can link to the others in some way. Nobody but Carmelo needs the ball in order to be effective, That’s a huge bonus.

This isn’t just theoretical depth. You can slide Hood, Covington, Trent, Jr., Jones, and Giles in with anybody and they’re probably going to work out. Portland’s bench isn’t just holding space anymore. Every lineup permutation the Blazers have threatens the opponent. Every player in those lineups fits the spot by skill and disposition.

We have not mentioned Anfernee Simons yet, because he doesn’t quite fit. He lacks experience. His defense needs work. He plays best with the ball in his hands, having unlimited time and license to create. He sticks out. This is part of why analysts don’t quite trust him yet. Fair enough. If the Blazers were to replace Simons in the rotation, they’d do so not just because of talent, but because they wanted someone who fit better.

As great as he once was, as promising as he still might be, Isaiah Thomas is not that guy. He’d provide theoretical depth, but not functional.

We remember Thomas from his 20-point (in 2016-17 nearly 30-point) seasons in Boston. His name is on the tip of our tongues because he was a scorer.

Everybody can use scoring off the bench, but this year, the Blazers have that covered at multiple positions: Hood and Trent at the wings, Anthony and Kanter in the frontcourt. Thomas might provide more, but if the team is healthy, how many more minutes and shots can he occupy that Simons wouldn’t have? When you pare his role down to those reserve, “Simons” minutes, what’s the net increase at the position? And at what cost?

Last season, with the Washington Wizards, Thomas shot a remarkable 41.3% from the three-point arc. That was a clear career-high. It came off of 10.7 field goal attempts, 4.7 from range, in 23.1 minutes per game. That equates to more attempts per minute than any Blazers player last season save the starting guards. It’s nearly double the attempts per game that Simons got.

Thomas’ best seasons came when his usage rate—the number of possessions he took over—hovered around 30%...an enormous figure. By comparison, Simons hovers around 20%.

Simons may not be a good defender, but Thomas really isn’t a good defender.

Keeping the ball, shooting a bunch, and not defending well might be acceptable in 30-point-per-game starting guard. It’s not the job description of a third-stringer, particularly one who figures to play alongside shooters and defenders who actually have a chance to be good as a unit.

Players do adapt, and it’s possible that Thomas would settle into a reserve slot in Portland. But when the things you like about a player are the exact things he’d need to change in order to fit into the role, that’s not a promising match.

The cost of signing Thomas wouldn’t limited to the floor, either. The Blazers are carrying 14 players with a combined salary of $130.75 million. The luxury tax threshold stands at $132.62 million. The minimum salary for a 10-year veteran is $2.5 million. Signing Thomas would put the Blazers over the tax threshold, should they keep the team intact until the end of the season. They’re likely to make a consolidation trade somewhere during the year, but if they didn’t, there’s no way they’d risk repeater-tax designation for a reserve point guard when they have another, fairly-acceptable one on the roster already.

Financial reality and contract length dictate that this team will not remain together, as-is, past this season. Given that reality, who do the Blazers want to invest in, another minimum-contract veteran who will soon depart, or a young point guard who may well be with the team for the next 4-5 years? They’re not looking at third-string guard minutes as critical for this season as much as the future. The experience they give Simons this year might pay dividends down the road. Thomas won’t.

I wouldn’t put it past Portland to acquire another veteran. (see also: the consolidation trade mentioned above) It just doesn’t make sense to do it for Thomas, nor to acquire a player at their position of greatest strength, with the fewest impact minutes to give. It’s more sensible to give Simons a chance to grow, then see what the needs are as the second half of the season approaches.

Thanks for the question, Tim! Anybody who wishes can send one along to blazersub@gmail.com.

—Dave (blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)