The Portland Trail Blazers are currently paying four guards under 6’4”, all of which earn or are likely to earn annual salaries of more than $16 million next season.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons are all, at the very least, above average basketball players. But unfortunately for the Blazers, all four play the same two positions.
In what has become a stealth tank thanks to injury, COVID and generally poor play, the Blazers look to have their sights set on 2022-23. So, over the next few months, Interim General Manager Joe Cronin will have to figure out how this roster will grow and build beyond next season.
Balancing the roster should be his main priority with Lillard, McCollum and Powell set to collectively earn more than $90 million next season. Add Simons who is rumored to be in line for a deal at around the $20 million mark, that’s a prohibitively wealthy backcourt.
Let’s discuss each member of the quartet and their current contract status.
2022-23 salary: $42,492,492
Contracted years after this season: Three
2021-22 stats: 24 points, 32% 3pt, 4.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 36.4 minutes
Lillard is the ultimate alpha, the leader of this team. Unfortunately, his body is starting to let him down, so shutting him down for an extended period was most definitely the prudent move. A fit and rejuvenated Lillard can still be a difference maker at age 32, which he’ll be by the start of the 2022-23 season. And there’s a reason teams are clamoring for his services. He’s a top 75 player all time, someone who has carried this team to heights it probably shouldn’t have reached, considering the players he’s had around him.
2022-23 salary: $33,333,333
Contracted years after this season: Two
2021-22 stats: 20.6 points, 39% 3pt, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 35.3 minutes
Since becoming Wes Matthews’ successor in 2015, McCollum has been Robin to Lillard’s Batman. He shares a similar skillset to Lillard, he’s just not quite as good, can’t get to the rim and is yet to really put a team on his back. Some have hypothesized that McCollum needs to come out from under Lillard’s shadow and be given a team of his own to really showcase his skills. It appears that time has come with all indicators suggesting he’s as good as gone. The only real barrier for Cronin is the size of McCollum’s contract but we’ll wait see how and when a deal eventuates.
2022-23 salary: $16,758,621
Contracted years after this season: Four
2021-22 stats: 18.6 points, 39% 3pt, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 32.9 minutes
Powell was brought to Portland in return for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood 10 months ago. Powell has, up until recently, been playing out of position at small forward. The 28-year-old has a smooth three-point shot and a natural ability to get to the rim and finish with power. Unlike the other three names mentioned here, he’s an above-average defender, able to compete against opponents playing positions one, two and sometimes three, thanks to a 6’11 wingspan.
2022-23 salary: $???
Contracted years after this season: Restricted free agent
2021-22 stats: 14.1 points, 39% 3pt, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 26 minutes
The man who has taken the NBA by storm over the past two weeks. Simons has been able to channel Lillard’s scoring prowess, finishing at all three levels with a little more athleticism and defense. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no way near the player Lillard is, yet. But he’s able to operate in a similar way, hitting long-range shots with relative ease. Over the past five games, Simons has averaged 27.8 points, on 44.6 percent three point shooting, 3.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists in 36.8 minutes, also finishing as a nominee in last week’s Western Conference Player of the Week honors.
As long as he wants to be in Portland, Damian Lillard stays. Give another relative a two-way contract to keep him here, for all I care. He’s not only the franchise star on the court but a decent human being, a role model and and pillar of the community.
The other obvious one. CJ McCollum will almost certainly be elsewhere come the start of the 2022-23 season. We’ve had six and a half seasons of evidence to prove that a Lillard-McCollum backcourt isn’t helping this team win a championship. McCollum is a great player, he’s just overpaid and, like Lillard, needs to be paired with a more defensively minded backcourt mate.
The most difficult decision is Norman Powell or Anfernee Simons. I labored over this one for hours.
I might hear you suggest the Blazers play Lillard at the one, Simons at the two and Powell at the three. No, Powell is a shooting guard, the past eight months have proved this, he’s just too small to play small forward and Billups has essentially said as much.
Others might contend, “well, just have Simons come off the bench”. If Simons earns that circa $20 million contract, he’s not going to want to come off the bench and honestly, it’s a waste of both money and ability doing this.
Unless, unless. There is some sort of discussion with Simons before free agency, suggesting he will likely take over the team when Lillard retires or if he moves on. There might be too many “whens” and “ifs” in that sentence but it is something to think about.
The real issue here is Simons’ current trade value vs. his projected potential. The former IMG Academy product is a special player, someone who could eventually become a real contributor on a really good team. The problem for Cronin is he needs to find a trade partner prepared to offer players and picks that equate with the 22-year-old’s prospective peak. There can’t be too many franchises willing to give up real assets unless they were certain of a young player, like Simons’, potential. But you really only need one.
I’m talking about Simons being the centerpiece of a trade that yields the Blazers a player in the realm of a Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam or Domantas Sabonis. Anything less than this kind of return means the Blazers are almost certainly selling low on Simons’ ability.
Alternatively, we know what Powell is and that’s still a very good player. He’s an above-average defender, a decent three-point shooter and someone who is almost unstoppable when charging towards the rim. It’s fair to say Powell’s market is a little more predictable given he’s in his prime with a number of teams chasing his services last summer.
The removal of Powell maintains the Blazers’ reputation as one of the more offensively-minded and explosive backcourts in the league. My only reservation is that Lillard and Simons might present similar issues to what Lillard and McCollum posed? A lot of offense but close to woeful defense.
We know Lillard, Powell and Simons can’t remain on the same roster longterm, something has to give. The only issue is what the most optimum return for players like Powell and Simons are. Personally, if the Blazers can get the desired return for Simons, he has to be the one to go.
Powell is a much better complement to Lillard, where Simons often needs the ball in his hands, Powell is the stereotypical off guard, able to move without the ball and, more importantly, plays competent defense.
But, also, we still don’t know how good Simons could be and I’m not sure we’ll ever be happy with the return the Blazers get for him, if he reaches his potential. I think I’m still torn.
I don’t envy Cronin. Decisions made over the next six months will potentially decide where this franchise is in three-to-four years time. And for a guy who is trying to prove that he deserves the role fulltime, I can only imagine the pressure he may be feeling, especially with Lillard edging closer to his mid 30s.
A number of factors are at play. If the right Simons trade can get done, the Blazers should turn to Damian Lillard and Norman Powell. If the right Simons deal doesn’t materialize, it might be time to say goodbye to Powell.
As clear as mud, right?