The Portland Trail Blazers already have 80 percent of their starting lineup under contract next for next season, but a quick exit from the 2021 postseason could lead to significant roster changes in the offseason. It is clear that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey needs to surround star Damian Lillard with a team capable of competing for a title, a reality that could lead to significant shifts.
We’ve speculated on the game-changing moves, but until we see a Tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski or The Athletic’s Shams Charania, it’s just hope and speculation. There are, however, decisions that can be made that aren’t likely to be influenced by a needle-moving trade or free agency announcement.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was drafted and traded by the Blazers on draft night in 2015 and has now reached journeyman status after spending his first five seasons with the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. After a brief late-season stint with the Blazers, Hollis-Jefferson is once again headed to the open market.
Initially signed to the Blazers via consecutive 10-day contracts in April, the 26-year-old appeared in 11 regular season games, averaging 9.7 minutes. He then suited up in five of the Blazers’ six playoff games against the Denver Nuggets, earning spot minutes to reinforce the rotation when foul trouble popped or a defense-first presence was needed. And for good cause, Hollis-Jefferson can pretty much guard every position when called upon.
Unfortunately, the box score doesn’t do justice to Hollis-Jefferson’s contributions. Instead, when trying to understand his impact, it’s all in the eye test. Here he passes with flying colors by delivering hustle and energy that leads to loose balls and offensive rebounds that open the window to second-chance points.
Hollis-Jefferson is not a natural shooter, recording career averages of 45 percent from the field, 21 percent from three and 73 percent from the free throw line. And that’s fine. He is a versatile defender and with a 7’2 wingspan.
Due to the concentration of elite forwards on top-tier teams, decent wing defenders are essential for contending teams. Outside of Robert Covington and Norman Powell, reliable wing defenders were scarce for the Blazers this season. Yes, Derrick Jones Jr. and Nassir Little were there, but the former’s offensive limitations were costly and the latter is still finding his way in the NBA. There was clearly a lack of trusted and experienced veteran defenders on Portland’s roster.
If the Blazers are going to make the leap next season, they are going to need multiple players capable of defending big Western Conference wings like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., Harrison Barnes, Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Ingram.
You need size, length and a lot of defensive savvy to competently guard those types of players. Hollis-Jefferson ticks all the boxes. To be clear, if Olshey does his job, a Hollis-Jefferson return would not see him starting or playing serious rotation minutes next season. However he could provide respite to whoever Billups leads with.
I’m not the only one coveting Hollis-Jefferson’s skillset though. When he landed in Portland in April, Sports Illustrated’s Jack Winter highlighted the wing’s defensive credentials.
Hollis-Jefferson can guard five positions against many teams without being exploited. He has the base to hold up in the post against all but basketball’s best behemoths, as well as the feet to switch onto quick ball handlers. Other than Derrick Jones Jr., Hollis-Jefferson might be Portland’s most viable point-of-attack defender of superstar wings. He also way out-rebounds his size.
But the fewer defenders opposing superstars feel comfortable targeting against a switching defense the better, and Hollis-Jefferson gives the Blazers another wing the likes of LeBron will avoid when they go matchup hunting. That he has the handle and court sense to make smart passing decisions in space is an underrated bonus.
It’s Hollis-Jefferson’s proven utility playing small-ball center, though, that makes his addition a bit more intriguing – and potentially valuable in specific matchups and certain situations come the postseason.
Hollis-Jefferson is also a glue guy, exuding camaraderie and leadership on the Blazers’ bench. Nothin’ But Nets’ Dylan Brattain agrees with me, highlighting Hollis-Jefferson’s importance to then young Nets roster in 2018.
What’s Hollis-Jefferson’s ceiling though? He isn’t gonna be the next LeBron, but he certainly can become a decent starter if he gets the “stretch” title next to his 4 position. At worse he’s a bench leader and glue guy, something that is just as important as stars.
The Athletic’s John Hollinger was also pretty unimpressed when the Minnesota Timberwolves cut Hollis-Jefferson before a ball was bounced last season.
This is a mistake and another tream should claim him. https://t.co/70XAG6BMu9— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) December 19, 2020
When it comes to price, the former Arizona Wildcat should not demand anything more than a veteran minimum deal. Anything higher and the Blazers need to walk away.
If Olshey pulls together a roster capable of going on a deep postseason run, Hollis-Jefferson won’t be the first, second or third off the bench. But when it comes time to clamp down on opposing wings, I’d much rather see a player of Hollis-Jefferson’s skillset thrust into action.
I’d go a little further to suggest that if the Blazers had Hollis-Jefferson during the team’s first round bout with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Orlando Bubble, the team might have had a better chance of stopping the likes of James and Anthony Davis. I’m not suggesting the Blazers win the series, but better wing defense would have made it tighter.
The Blazers should take risks this offseason to ensure Lillard has capable talent around him for games played in April, May and June. But Olshey can’t forget prudent moves that reinforce the roster with players like Hollis-Jefferson on veteran minimum contracts to consolidate the team’s currently-shallow wing core.