The Portland Trail Blazers entered the preseason with one main question looming over the team: Who will earn the starting small forward spot? The competition was between Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, and Nassir Little. On Sunday, Hart won out.
The veteran wing fits alongside the rest of the starters nicely, but that isn’t to say that Winslow or Little do not. In fact, beginning the season as a starter does not guarantee that one will finish that way, and head coach Chauncey Billups has indicated that the starting SF will sometimes be matchup dependent.
But regardless of playing from tip-off or the first sub-in, Winslow is ready to compete at a high level. Prior to Billups’ decision to go with Hart, Winslow averaged 7.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 steals in preseason play. He is going to carry that productivity into the regular season no matter his role (H/T Casey Holdahl):
“I wouldn’t say I was upset, but I wanted to start. Coach is the leader of this team and that’s what he thinks is best right now, so I’m going to buy into my role and be all-in,” said Winslow, who learned of the importance of being a team player under Udonis Haslem in Miami, one of the NBA’s most respected veterans. “But just continue to try to build. Nothing is really concrete, ever, in the NBA. Just staying with it. You’ve got to buy-in during the season, you’ve got to sacrifice.”
Winslow has started 117 of his 315 career games and is accustomed to making those sacrifices. This will be the veteran forward’s eighth NBA season.
Little, who is just entering his fourth and coming off of shoulder and abdominal surgery, also took the news that he would be playing off the bench well.
“I understand. Honestly, I agreed with (Billups),” said Little. “I told him, ‘The Nas that I was in January, I’m not him right now.’ If I was that, it’s probably a different conversation, but I told him I think he made the right decision. There was no ill will.”
Each will have the opportunity to be impactful in their given role and, frankly, it is a coaching luxury to have two could-be starters ready to go when their names are called. This could be especially important after the February trade deadline, as the roster makeup is fluid and Hart’s name is most often mentioned as a piece Portland could move.
For the foreseeable future, though, Hart has the job. This is a good thing. The way he pushes the tempo in transition creates open looks for his teammates, and his energy on defense cannot be discounted. The relief, here, comes from knowing that not only do the Blazers have some lineup stability moving forward, but that no one felt spurned by the process.