The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the NBA teams rumored to be making moves before the February 10 trade deadline. Interim General Manager Joe Cronin is, no doubt, working as we speak, trying to point the franchise in the right direction. But if a trade is the answer, in order to secure players and picks that will turn the team's fortunes around, the Blazers have to part with something valuable.
The potential names we’ve heard in trade rumors so far aren’t surprising: Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Larry Nance Jr. By dangling these assets, Cronin might be able to procure decent enough pieces to help better balance this roster. But will they yield difference makers?
What if the above veterans aren’t enough to bring in players and picks that vault this team back up the standings in 2022-23. Would he dare part with two young, and particularly valuable, assets to get the deal, or deals, over the line?
Of course we’re talking about Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little. Much has already been said about Simons’ meteoric rise and potential value, but what about Little?
With every passing game, Nassir Little looks more and more like a legitimate NBA player, not only a reliable source of energy and second-chance points but also composed and skillfully-executed basketball plays.
While it’s great to see deep first round picks hit, Little is still not the first, second, third, fourth or fifth best player on this roster, when everyone is fit. Why should Blazers fans care about holding on to the team’s sixth or seventh man, when more seasoned names up the pecking order are on the table, with no real objection?
There are three clear factors — age, money and skill set.
The soon-to-be 22-year-old is in the penultimate year of a rookie-scale contract earning a little more than $2.3 million this season and almost $4.2 million next season. Tha’s relative pennies when you think about the contracts of Lillard, McCollum, and Powell. And with Portland currently sitting above the luxury tax, rotation players on penny-like contracts are worth their weight in gold.
Regarding his age, this is Little’s first season where injuries and illness haven’t slowed his development. Imagine what he could do if he was able to string two or three injury-free seasons together?
Thanks to his size and skill set, Little has the potential to do for this team what no one has done since Nicolas Batum was sent to the Charlotte Hornets in 2015 or Gerald Wallace to the Brooklyn Nets three years earlier.
I’ve already contended that Little has all the ability to be Wallace with a better shot. Many forget that Wallace was an All Star the year before he arrived in Portland. Who’s to say that if Wallace had improved his 31 percent career three-point average, he wouldn’t have figured more frequently in the February showcase?
I’m not suggesting Little is a certainty to earn multiple All-Star nods, or even one. He has a long way to go before we can start doling out such plaudits. However, he does have the potential to be a major contributor on a good team.
As mentioned, Little has one more year before he hits restricted free agency. This season, he’s more than doubled his points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, playing more than 25 minutes a night.
He’s started more than half of his 40 games, but has dropped his three point shooting on 2020-21 from 35 percent to just under 32 percent. He is, however, taking a hell of a lot of more, in fact, 65 more than last season in eight fewer games.
Maybe I watch him through rose-colored glasses but I have complete faith that he’ll be able to get his percentage back above 35 percent, especially observing the improvements we’ve seen in his shot mechanics.
Aside from some minor ailments, including a minor knee knock suffered against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, Little looks to have put his injury-riddled first two NBA years in the rear-view mirror. Touch wood.
We’re actually starting to see why Little was so highly rated coming out of high school. The speed and strength he’s able to generate out of that that 6’7-plus frame — yes, he’s that tall — is explosive. And he’s still learning how to use it, knowing when to charge like a bull at a gate and when to finesse and glide his way around the court.
He’s also one of the best defenders on this squad, which becomes extra valuable when you consider the team hasn’t had an above average big wing defender in years. They’re a hot commodity in this league given that are so few that can go to work on both sides of the ball.
We’ve heard the Blazers may have their eye on the Detroit Pistons’ Jerami Grant, a player you’d hope Little eventually morphs into. If Cronin is able to snag Grant in a deal, then maybe the North Carolina product is a little more expendable. The Pistons are rumored to be in the market for young players and picks in an Grant deal.
But the Portland-born Grant is also six years older than Little and hits unrestricted free agency again in 18 months’ time.
Little might also be a key piece in a trade involving Myles Turner, another name the Blazers allegedly have interest in. It’s pretty obvious the Indiana Pacers are looking to get younger. Little might be a piece they’d be interested in. I’m not sure Cronin should be keeping Little off limits if it means snagging a rim-running, defending, blocking, three-point-shooting big like Turner.
In that deal, Portland’s bigger wing stocks would be diminished. Cronin would be walking a tightrope, doing everything he can to improve the team while ensuring the roster is appropriately balanced, particularly at the wing positions.
Like we discussed with Simons last week, no one should be untouchable unless your name is Damian Lillard. But I’ve got no doubt that Cronin will have to seriously consider including Little for the very facts discussed above.
With fewer than three weeks to go before the deadline, Blazers fans should be both nervous and excited to see what Joe Cronin is able to pull off as he works to build a contender around Damian Lillard in 10 months’ time.