Nassir Little looks to have claimed the Portland Trail Blazers’ ninth rotation spot with energetic and effective contributions during the first week and a half of play.
Chatter during the preseason pitted the third-year wing against veteran free agent signing Tony Snell for the rights to that ninth and likely last rotation spot. But with Snell missing the early part of the season through a foot sprain, Little has been able to make the most of his opportunities both off the bench and in the starting unit.
As we stand, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller and Little are Coach Chauncey Billups’ nine preferred players.
Dennis Smith Jr., the winner of Portland’s preseason battle for the team’s 14th roster spot, has also contributed through this young season. However, the majority of his playing time has come at the expense of Powell who was left on the injury list for two and a half games battling knee tendinopathy.
The question now: what happens when Snell comes back and the roster remains healthy? While Snell did sign a veteran minimum contract in Portland this offseason, I’ve no doubt he had other suitors. Which means he was assured, or perhaps even promised, playing time. But with Smith Jr.’s stellar preseason and regular season start, the University of New Mexico standout might have to fight to get onto the court.
A 10-man rotation is not unusual. The only caution against going that deep is that introducing that extra player can be prohibitive, taking minutes away from more impactful players. Consequently, you want to try and avoid putting another player out there for the sake of putting another player out there.
However, in certain situations and matchups, a tenth body might be called upon to address a particularly temporary need.
He’s the epitome of a 3-and-D wing, dipping below 40 percent from three just once over the past five seasons, culminating in an astonishing 57 percent last season. Amazingly, he also hasn’t missed a free throw since the season the Blazers went to the Western Conference Finals. That’s right, he has been perfect from the charity stripe since March 12, 2019 when Snell, as a Buck, took on the New Orleans Pelicans.
Owning an almost seven foot wingspan, Snell is also an athletic defender, capable of staying on some of the better wings across the league. Importantly, sturdy and strong wing defense is something this team desperately needs to counter for this team’s dearth in size at the small forward position.
Long story short, you can never have enough long defensive wings who can shoot.
Dennis Smith Jr.
The man who’s worked hardest to earn a spot on this roster has been one of the more pleasant surprises of this young season. A smallish point guard with impressive athleticism, Smith Jr. has been a steady ball handler off the bench, offering a veteran presence to a group of young players and Ben McLemore during junk time. He’s also seen some real rotation minutes while Powell convalesced from his injury.
Smith Jr. was selected ninth by the Dallas Mavericks in 2017 and uniquely hit peak production his rookie year with 15.2 points, 5.2 assists and 3 rebounds — but we can probably thank Luka Doncic’s arrival the following season for that initial drop off.
He’s since been meh, spending time with the New York Knicks and Pistons and was consequently left fighting for a veteran minimum deal at the end of his rookie contract.
A revitalized Smith Jr. relieves Simons of some of that facilitating load, purely for the fact that he’s probably the purest point guard on this roster. He’s not awful on defense and can be called upon to take point of attack duties. He has the ability to score in multiple ways; however, it hasn’t quite translated to the box score. As we’ve said before, this season in Portland allows Smith Jr. to rehabilitate his career and show the potential he’s teased since coming out of North Carolina State.
If this team can stay healthy, there are 11 players — possibly 12 if you include McLemore — who are worthy of NBA minutes.
But no team goes 12 deep, as it dilutes time for the real difference makers. An 11-man rotation is almost as rare.
Billups has coached a grand total of five games so we don’t really know much about his game-management preferences or tendencies.
Little has earned the right to a rotation spot for at least a couple of weeks, through his energy, defense, and fearlessness on the offensive end. He’s shown he can look competent as a starter during Powell’s absence and it’s pretty obvious Billups sees something in him.
But an 82-game season is a marathon. Fluctuations in form will happen and changes to the rotation and possibly the roster will take place. Not to mention injuries.
Portland fans haven’t seen Snell yet but we know what he can do, and there will not be surprises. Smith Jr. offers real facilitating and freedom for Simons, and he can throw lobs, so watch for the smile on Larry Nance Jr.’s face.
Honestly, I think Billups will predominantly stick with the nine-man rotation, even when Snell is ready to return. But when the matchup calls for it, one of Snell and Smith Jr. will be called on to ply their skills.
Which one? I hear you ask.
Well, sorry for the non-answer but honestly it’ll depend on what the team needs and who they’re lining up against.
To combat some of bigger teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Snell might be brought in to matchup against some of their bigger wings. Smith Jr. will be used when Simons needs to be freed up and McCollum can’t handle all the ball handling duties with the second unit.
It’ll be interesting to see how this rotation evolves over the next six months and, fingers crossed, how Billups plans to shorten it come playoffs.