The Portland Trail Blazers will open their 2022-23 regular season schedule this week, taking on the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, their opening night. Before we get to Game 1, we’re going to preview the new year, including updating you on all the things that have changed since the Blazers last took the floor, completing a 27-win season.
In this post, we’ll take a look at Portland’s revamped backcourt. Who’s manning the guard positions and how do the Blazers expect to evolve this season?
The most exciting new part of Portland’s lineup this year may be the least “new” part of all. Franchise legend Damian Lillard will return for an 11th season, but it won’t be the same Damian Lillard you’ve been used to seeing.
Portland’s All Star missed most of 2021-22 recovering from surgery to correct a chronic abdominal strain. A few factors contributed to the decision. First, it had been nagging him for multiple seasons. He reported learning to live with the pain, but not conquering it completely. Second, it was evident the Blazers were going nowhere significant. Both these points got underlined by Lillard’s 24.0 ppg average—the lowest since 2014-15—accompanied by career-low shooting percentages of 40.2% from the field and 32.4% from the three-point arc. The point guard looked slow, unable to finish in the lane. Even his legendary buzzer-beating three-point shot deserted him.
Throughout the summer of 2022, Lillard declared that he feels fit, as healthy as he’s been in years, and that he’s back. Preseason returns seem to confirm the assessment. Lillard didn’t try to dominate during the exhibition schedule; a player of his status doesn’t need to and his team had other priorities. But his lateral movement, quickness, and verticality seem as spry and loose as we’ve seen since 2019.
Lillard is 32 now. Blazers fans aren’t going to see a return to his 25-year-old form. But the subtle erosion that has plagued his late-prime years appears to have reversed, at least for the moment.
Even with an influx of talent, this team is crying for a leader and a central hub. As long as Lillard wears the uniform, that role cannot, and will not, be filled by anybody else. Dame doesn’t have to average 30 for the Blazers to succeed. That might be counterproductive, in fact. But a return to the days when his offense was feared, instead of tolerated, would go a long way towards sparking the team.
23-year-old Anfernee Simons is getting his first opportunity as a regular starter alongside Lillard as the season begins. Simons did start 30 games for the Blazers last year, but the lineup was a shell of itself for most of his run. He became the central point of the offense, free to run and regulate as he saw fit. Responding with 17 ppg, shooting over 40% from the three-point arc, verified his talent and made the Blazers feel easier about trading guard CJ McCollum mid-season.
Optimism is running high for Portland’s new high-octane backcourt, but Simons still needs to show that his old production can transfer to this new situation. The fit between Simons and Lillard was stilted in the preseason. The offense became a game of, “Your turn, then my turn,” lacking synergy. Simons catching and shooting off of Lillard drives should be a natural, but Dame doesn’t always drive and Simons seems to feel more comfortable with a few dribbles under his belt before shooting nowadays. Opposing defenses has a relatively easy time keying in on this, leaving Simons attempting fade-away jumpers as often as open threes.
For all the questions surrounding Portland’s backcourt over the last few years, McCollum was a 22-24 ppg scorer. Simons will assume McCollum’s second-option role behind Lillard. If he can’t make up a large portion of CJ’s scoring, the defense will feel more pressure to keep opponents contained to keep up.
The situation won’t be helped if Simons does score big, but he shoots inefficiently or Portland’s offense stalls into isolation sets as he does so. Other players are waiting in line for their turn at the ball too. Lillard will operate above and apart from anything Simons manages, but everyone after him will suffer if the flow bottlenecks with his production.
This season, Portland could feature a deeper guard rotation than we’ve seen since Lillard’s earliest days. The three names to watch are Gary Payton II, Shaedon Sharpe, and Keon Johnson.
Payton is the veteran, acquired from the World Champion Golden State Warriors in the off-season. He’s not a scorer. He’s ok as a distributer. Defensive tenacity is his calling card. He’s able to guard all three smaller positions. He never gives up and seldom makes a bad play. He’ll add some of the hard-nosed, spark-infused swagger the Blazers have been missing, spelling Lillard as a ball-handler or teaming in nearly any lineup combination to bolster the defense.
Sharpe was Portland’s prized lottery pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. He came into the draft as a virtual unknown, having never played a minute of college ball. He played only two minutes in Summer League, 2022 before injuring his shoulder. His preseason performance was inconsistent, but he grew in confidence as the games progressed. All of this muted praise is the setup for the real revelation: this guy is an athlete the likes of which has not been seen since Clyde Drexler roamed the court. He runs with ease, displaying buttery-smooth changes of direction. His vertical is nonsensical. His timing is good, considering his lack of experience. And he plays defense.
Sharpe won’t get major minutes early, as the Blazers will be trying to win, not develop talent. He’ll be expected to grow nonetheless. It’ll be a shock if he doesn’t carve out minutes in the rotation by mid-season. If the season stalls, look for Sharpe to become the main focus of Portland’s efforts.
Rookie Keon Johnson played 22 games for Portland last season, coming over in the trade that sent Norman Powell and Robert Covington to the Los Angeles Clippers. His production was unremarkable, his minutes inflated by the desperate situation unfolding around him. But Johnson has great anticipation, a nose for defense, and does everything pretty well. He’s only 20, a second-year player on a squad dominated by veterans. He has room to grow. He’s also the player that people whisper about as an unexpected bonus, a diamond in the rough. He’ll battle Sharpe for rotation minutes, providing a bar for the rookie to clear. Don’t be surprised if Johnson gets some run early in the season.
Three questions will chase the Blazers’ backcourt into the opening weeks of the season.
First, the one we already mentioned: can Lillard and Simons play together productively?
Second, are Portland’s young guards as good as advertised and ready to earn court time without blowing the game?
And finally, the huge one... Will Portland’s defense be any better in this configuration that it was during the Lillard-McCollum days?
Watching the preseason, that last question remains open. Simons did not look good. Lillard and Simons together often left impossible tasks for their frontcourt comrades to deal with. Center Jusuf Nurkic, in particular, got hung out to dry by the guards’ inability to stop penetration. When the team sagged towards the lane to compensate, opponents rained threes like Halloween candy.
All three of Portland’s reserve guards can defend, but Lillard and Simons are slated to take the vast majority of the minutes. If their defense doesn’t tighten up quickly, the entire rebuilding process may amount to more of the same mediocrity with new names on the back of the uniforms.
Stay tuned between now and Wednesday as we continue to preview the season in anticipation of Game 1 of the new year!