It appears Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operation Neil Olshey is almost done shaping this roster with only one further vet minimum signing likely to come. No offense to Cody Zeller, Ben McLemore and Tony Snell, but I'm not filled with confidence that Damian Lillard is filled with confidence.
Lillard has made his concerns about last year’s roster crystal clear: it wasn’t good enough. Even with the retention of Norman Powell, the hiring of rookie coach Chauncey Billups, and the addition of three vet minimum players, this team does not look set to improve on last season’s first-round playoff loss.
But let’s push on. The roster is currently made up of 13 players and one two-way contract with the Blazers still required to fill one more regular roster spot.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume Olshey signs one of Michael Beasley or Kenneth Faried from the Summer League squad. It won’t be Emmanuel Mudiay, Antonio Blakeney, or Kobi Simmons given the glut of guards and wings already suiting up for the Blazers next season.
Without an unlikely trade, we can safely assume that the starting lineup will be Lillard, CJ McCollum, Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic.
I’m predicting the first three off the bench will be Nassir Little, Anfernee Simons and Zeller, with Snell and Derrick Jones Jr. rounding out the rotation.
The deep bench is CJ Elleby, McLemore, Greg Brown, Trendon Watford (two-way contract) with either Beasley or Faried rounding out the squad.
No one knows how Billups will arrange this playing group but if we had to take a guess, let’s disperse the minutes as follows.
Lillard and McCollum are almost certain to average around 34 minutes at both guard positions, Powell will get close to this at small forward and shooting guard, so let’s say 33. Covington will own the majority of power forward minutes with some spot time at center, I’ll say 30 minutes. And given Nurkic’s body size and injury history, he’s unlikely to break the half-hour mark so we’ll put him down for 28 minutes.
Simons and Little are positioned to get the most bench minutes with 23 each, Simons playing both guard spots and perhaps a smidge at small forward while Little will get time at both forward positions.
Zeller will get roughly 17 minutes, but more if Nurkic gets into early foul trouble or, perish the thought, again succumbs to injury.
Snell and Jones Jr. will split the remaining 18 minutes at the backup forward positions.
So, drum roll, the Blazers look something like the below.
PG – Lillard (28 minutes), McCollum (12), Simons (8)
SG – McCollum (22), Simons (11), Powell (9), Lillard (6)
SF – Powell (24), Little (11), Snell (9), Simons (4)
PF – Covington (27), Little (12), Jones Jr. (9)
C – Nurkic (28), Zeller (17), Covington (3)
As discussed last week, given that the Blazers only have three rotation players standing taller than 6’6 (Nurkic, Zeller and Covington), Jones Jr. will have to play up a position to get minutes.
Similarly for Powell, the fact that McCollum remains on the roster means he plays the lion’s share of his minutes out of position at small forward.
I’m anticipating Little to be the first player to walk over to the scorer’s table, replacing McCollum and allowing Powell to drop down to his more natural position at shooting guard. Simons and Zeller will follow with Snell and Jones Jr. brought in towards the end of the first quarter or start of the second.
Similar to Stotts, there will always be at least a Lillard or McCollum on the court with at least one of Powell and Simons joining them. I’d be curious to see how much Billups has all four guards on the court at the same time, joined by a Covington, Nurkic or Zeller. And don’t be surprised if either Simons or Little get minutes at the end of games.
One outlier might be Olshey’s plans for Jones Jr. If the front office hopes to trade the rangy forward before the trade deadline, Billups might be pressed to play him a little more in the hope his value rises.
Simons and Little
I know I’ve said this before, but cometh the hour, cometh the man, or men, in this case. Simons and Little are going to get their chance to play this year, but they’re also going to deal with a lot of responsibility, fast.
Simons, now in his fourth year, and Little, in his third, are going to be leaned on to provide almost 50 minutes a night and perform on both sides of the ball.
I’m not sure this is entirely fair but given how the front office has constructed this payroll, natural growth from players already on the roster seems to be the only way forward.
Simons was able to manage consistent production during the latter part of last season and, as a result, should have an easier transition into a larger role. Little is the mystery. Aside from a breakout performance against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in February, Little’s potential, is just that, potential. He has all the physical tools and the skillset to do it, but executing is a different story.
Clearly the team has plans for the North Carolina product who was last week pulled out of Summer League to focus on the regular season. And there are now plenty of backup forward minutes to fill with the departure of Carmelo Anthony this offseason.
End of the bench
McLemore and the eventual victor of Beasley and Faried are likely to get spot minutes when required, or in the case of injury. But from what we’ve seen from Elleby, Brown, and Watford in Summer League, they’re still not ready for regular season rotation appearances. Interestingly, out of the three of them, it’s probably Watford, the two-way player, who seems the most ready for real minutes.
I’m not sure whether this team is better than last season, as it’s possibly the same or even slightly worse. Olshey better hope that he was right about the Blazers’ first round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets, as “not a product of the roster”.
Because if he’s wrong, this team is no more than a play-in team and Damian Lillard is as good as gone. It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point and that the Blazers have been timid in swinging the obvious CJ McCollum trade.
While Olshey might believe the Blazers have one of the best starting units in the league, it’s players like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little who are going to have a big hand in how good this team really is. I think it’s a little unfair to rest the hopes of retaining arguably the franchise’s greatest ever player on two guys still on their rookie-scale contracts, but let’s see what happens.