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.
We started the series yesterday with a look at Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers backcourt. Now we’ll move to the most dynamic positions in the current roster revamp: the forwards.
The Blazers created a stir last spring when they parlayed a 2025 first-round draft pick into Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant. Grant, an eight-year veteran, averaged 19.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 31.9 minutes per game for the Pistons last season. He’s not only a legit starter, he’s capable of scoring 20 points on any given evening. Best of all, Grant is a good defender, tabbed as a motor guy not just in Detroit, but in Denver, Oklahoma City, and Philadelphia.
Grant is easily the most talented power forward the Blazers have fielded since LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015. As one of a suite of acquisitions, he made perfect sense.
The gray area in this picture comes when you consider Grant wasn’t just an acquisition, he was THE acquisition. The Blazers also picked up reserve guard Gary Payton II via free agency and rookie Shaedon Sharpe in the 2022 NBA Draft, but neither is a starter and combined, they’ll probably equal half of Grant’s minutes, tops. If the Blazers are going to see a revolution of any kind—better defense, more balanced scoring, remarkable frontcourt in any way—Grant is going to have to lead them there.
But Grant may be more of a complementary player than revolutionary. His shooting percentages plummeted when he became the focal point of Detroit’s offense. His rebounding (never a strong point) stayed flat. He wasn’t able to carry the Pistons to great defense by himself either.
Grant needs to connect to other players like a puzzle piece in order to prosper. Portland’s entire non-Lillard lineup is murky, both individually and as a whole. They’re laboring under an inexperienced head coach with a system that hasn’t yet been implemented successfully. The puzzle pieces might be on the table, but the gaps between them are obvious.
Grant may not be able to prosper in a situation like this. The Blazers need him to, desperately. If he’s not the answer to their question, they probably won’t get one.
Josh Hart was a mid-season trade bonus last year, bought in return for moving CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans. The sixth-year wing scored 19.9 points in 13 games for the Blazers last year, shooting over 50% from the field, adding 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
That gaudy stat line shows exactly who Hart is. He’s good at everything: passing, cutting, rebounding, court awareness. He’s a decent defender. His weak point is probably three-point shooting, but he still averaged 37.3% from the arc for the Blazers.
From a traffic jam of potential starting small forwards, Hart emerged as the clear victor during the preseason. He declared his intention to win the starting job at Media Day, 2022. He attacked the exhibition season with energy. He pushed tempo while teammates floundered, trying to figure out what to do.
There’s nothing wrong with Josh Hart, period.
The thing is, he’s not really a small forward.
Hart stands 6’5. He’s spent most of his career at shooting guard. The Pelicans had him playing small forward, but they were experimenting with huge bigs alongside him, and even for them, it was a compromise. Defensively, Hart isn’t tall enough to bother most threes. On offense, he isn’t suited to waiting in the corner for a catch-and-shoot or baseline drive.
As is true of Grant, Hart is the most talented player the Blazers have suited up at the three-spot since the early 2010’s. As is also true of Grant, how he’ll fit in ultimately is a question mark. Portland doesn’t have room for Hart to start at shooting guard. He may see some reserve minutes there. Until then, he’ll just have to carve a spot for himself the same way he did in preseason and hope it makes a difference.
Riding veteran talent at the starting positions, the Blazers have gone with a youth movement off the bench in their frontcourt. They boast five up-and-coming players, all with unique assets, none proven.
Nassir Little is one of the more advanced of the group. Drafted by the Blazers in 2019, the 25-year-old North Carolina product is an aggressive defender. He sees the angles and has a nose for the big play. His team defense has been evolving. His offense is still catching up. Opponents often left him open for three-pointers last season. He hit only 33.1% of his attempts. Any defense that can sag in on Portland will disrupt passes and cuts and will destroy the Blazers on the glass. Confidence in his shot would work wonders for Little, who otherwise would be battling for a starting position.
Like Little, Justise Winslow brings energy and defensive chops to the table. He can also rebound, a huge gift to this impoverished lineup. He’s an even worse shooter than Little, though, and his offensive game is catch as catch can.
Trendon Watford, Jabari Walker, and Greg Brown III fill out the lower ranks of the forward brigade. Watford earned a position with steady, eager play during last year’s roster breakdown. He hustled, played smart, and kept his offense within personal limits. Walker, a second-round pick in this year’s draft, appears to be of similar make. They’re reliable, smart players, perfect for plugging lineup holes without worry.
Brown takes the opposite tack. He can jump out of the gym and always seems to be walking a tightrope. 5% of the time, he’s the most spectacular player on the floor. The other 95% still needs work.
Collectively, the Blazers have a serviceable, if somewhat inexperienced, group of forwards off the bench. None of them approach the versatility of the starters, but they should be suitable—and have room to grow—in limited minutes.
The Blazers will face three interesting questions with this batch of forwards, besides the obvious (and already mentioned) how the starters will adapt.
First, can this group rebound enough? Grant is not a strong board man. Hart does well for a 6’5 player, but making an indent will be rough for him. Winslow, Watford, and Walker are all natural rebounders, but they won’t play big minutes. The Blazers are hanging out Jusuf Nurkic in about 32 ways with this lineup, but none more pronounced than him being the only capable rebound-snagger among the starters. If Grant and Hart don’t help him much, the Blazers are going to get slaughtered on the glass.
Second, can the Blazers sustain an injury to Hart or Grant? Little and Winslow can both start, but does that limit the effectiveness—and more importantly the ceiling—of the lineup?
Third, here’s a dirty little secret of this group: Grant’s contract expires at the end of the year. Hart has an opt-out that he’ll almost certainly exercise. Neither one is guaranteed to be with the Blazers next season. Neither one will be happy fading into the background in the meantime either. Contract status doesn’t automatically invalidate their contributions, of course, but the gray area surrounding the forward corps doesn’t stop with talent and fit. Agenda and future status are also up in the air.
Instead of asking what’s shaky about this group of forwards, it might be easier to ask what’s solid. Hart and Grant are talented and versatile. The bench players are workers and have the right approach. Beyond that, Portland’s forwards are mostly potential and guesswork. They’re going to need to resolve some of their questions early, lest not knowing that they have in October morphs into not knowing where they’re going in February.
Stay with us today and tomorrow as we continue to preview the season in anticipation of Wednesday night’s opening game!