Another season, another list of injuries plaguing the Portland Trail Blazers. But unlike previous years, the Blazers have managed to keep their heads above water, despite losing their second and third most important players for the same six-to-eight week period.
I’m not going to argue about whether he’s more important than Jusuf Nurkic, but CJ McCollum was playing like an All-Star before Clint Capela devastatingly stepped on his left foot on Jan. 16.
As we heard earlier this week, McCollum is one step closer to returning, losing his moon boot and potentially only two weeks away from possibly/maybe taking the court again. While promising, McCollum’s return poses serious questions for Coach Terry Stotts and President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey.
Just so we’re clear, these questions are being posed by Gary Trent Jr.
The third-year guard has continued his stellar Bubble form, stepping into Portland’s starting shooting guard role seamlessly while adding a defensive string to the Blazers’ backcourt bow.
Over the past nine games, Trent Jr. has averaged almost 21 points, shooting 48 percent from beyond the three-point demarcation – that’s right, 48 percent. He’s also developed a handy midrange game and has shown signs of being able to pull up off the bounce.
Sorry, back to the questions. Firstly, to Terry Stotts. What happens when McCollum reclaims his role in the starting lineup, relieving Trent Jr. of his temp job as the Blazers’ starting shooting guard.
Will he go back to the bench or could he start at small forward — a job currently owned by Derrick Jones Jr.?
As far as physical features, Jones Jr. and Trent Jr. both stand six foot five. Jones Jr. wins the wingspan game, reaching seven foot to Trent Jr.’s six foot eight and a half. Jones Jr. offers a rangy and defensively minded approach to the game.
Jones Jr. also trumps Trent Jr. athletically and defensively, though the latter is only marginal, depending on who you talk to. This season, Jones Jr. has the advantage in blocks, 0.9 a game compared to Trent Jr.’s 0.2 but when it comes to steals they’re almost identical with Jones Jr. averaging 0.8 and Trent Jr. averaging 0.7.
On the other side of the ball Trent Jr. is currently the team’s second most important offensive asset, scoring in a range of ways and complementing Lillard, similarly to the way Wesley Matthew Jr. did six years ago.
Comparing the pair on offense, this season Trent Jr. is averaging 15.3 points on 43 percent three-point shooting along with 2.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists over 26 games. Jones Jr. is averaging 7.6 points on 27 percent three-point shooting along with 4.7 rebounds and 0.7 assists over 24 games.
In this day of “positionless” basketball, one could argue that Trent Jr. playing the three is not the craziest of ideas. I’ll also add that just last week, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz spoke glowingly about Trent Jr.’s ability to play the small forward position, touting his size.
As a result, I propose the juniors swap — start Trent Jr. and play Jones Jr. with the reserves. This would achieve two goals. First, it would add another offensive threat to the starting lineup while sacrificing only a small amount of defense and athleticism. Second, Jones Jr.’s defense would also reinforce the second unit and counteract the liabilities of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter on that end of the floor.
This would result in a starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Trent Jr, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic — once healthy — supported by a bench unit of Anfernee Simons, Rodney Hood, Jones Jr, Anthony and Kanter.
The only caveat would be in cases where the Blazers face larger wings, the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, Jones Jr. might be thrust back into a starting role to handle the heavier load.
This move also allows the Blazers to have a better look at Trent Jr. at the three – he did spend some time there during last year’s Bubble — giving them a better idea of how they handle the future of the shooting guard position.
And from here, we pose our important but yet unanswerable questions to Neil Olshey. What are you going to do in the offseason when Trent Jr., as a restricted free agent and flanked by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, starts fielding offers from teams eager for his services?
Are the Blazers prepared to pay $80-plus million for three guards? Lillard and McCollum will collect $39 million and $30 million, respectively, in 2021-22.
Perhaps the Blazers trade one of McCollum or Trent Jr. at next month’s trade deadline. If so, which one and for whom?
The Blazers owe it to themselves to give the Trent Jr. at small forward option a chance before they spend 80 percent of their salary cap on two positions this offseason.
If it doesn’t pan out the team has opportunities to make moves in the offseason, whether it be keeping both, trading McCollum, re-signing Trent Jr., matching a Trent Jr. offer sheet or signing and trading Trent Jr. for something equivalent in value.