The Portland Trail Blazers are winding down training camp in Santa Barbara, California this week in their annual preseason ritual. Optimism reigns as the start of a new year approaches, with a new lineup and new potential configurations breathing life into what had become a fairly stale roster.
That same sense of newness also opens up questions for the Blazers that simply didn’t exist for the last decade when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained pillars of constancy.
Over the next couple weeks, we’re going to examine some of those questions, particularly ones highlighted as important by Blazer’s Edge staff and readers.
In our inaugural post, we asked how Lillard would fare following abdominal surgery and his 32nd birthday. Yesterday we talked about the arrival of starting power forward Jerami Grant, who operates in the territory between good and great, seemingly with a long-term lease. Today we look at the third player—really second—in Portland’s Big 3: burgeoning star-in-waiting Anfernee Simons.
Simons has been creating buzz since the Blazers drafted him 24th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft. His game was raw after a single year at IMG Academy in Florida, but from his first Summer League appearances, observers speculated he had something special. He played in only 20 games his rookie year, but became a solid part of Portland’s rotation the season after, appearing 70 times, averaging 20.7 minutes per game. He remained a hot sub in 2020-21, winning the Slam Dunk contest at the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. During that same period, he became famous for a lightning-quick three-point release, taken without remorse, resulting in a 42.6% success rate beyond the arc that season, good for 14th in the league. “Something special” manifested in the flesh.
Everything came together for Simons in the 2021-22 season, when injuries, trades, and the franchise seeking lottery picks like otters seek abalone left the field wide open for Simons to take the floor as not only a starter, but the best player actively in uniform.
Simons averaged 17.3 points and 3.9 assists per game in 57 appearances last season, playing 29.5 minutes per. But in 30 games as a starter at 35.4 minutes per game, he averaged 23.4 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 45.6% from the floor and 42.3% from the arc. Those are All-Star-level numbers.
Simons’ prowess was such that the Blazers trading long-time backcourt star CJ McCollum mid-season occasioned a certain amount of eyebrow raising, but little angst. If the Lillard-McCollum backcourt wasn’t working, Portland had a ready-made understudy in the wings.
The team confirmed Simons’ talent, and their own commitment, by inking him for a four-year, $100 million contract extension this summer. For that unproven kid out of IMG, those numbers would have been insane. For what Simons projects to become—including his massive physical skills and hyper-accurate shooting touch—the deal may prove a bargain.
Perspective: The Lillard-McCollum Era comprised the last decade of Blazers Basketball, holding the franchise in a seemingly-unbreakable headlock. Few have thought about it, but if things go right, there’s a chance that two years from now, Portland will begin the Simons-Sharpe Era—pairing Anfernee with as-yet-untested lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe—in a duo with every bit as much potential to reign supreme as their predecessors.
We’re not there yet, however. And this is where the questions come in.
The buzz in Media Day, 2022 and training camp has centered around Lillard’s return from abdominal injury and the open question of whether he can lead a team into contention. The first part of Portland’s 2022-23 campaign will be spent re-establishing their superstar and team leader. If Lillard doesn’t look right, nothing is going to work.
The Blazers also have a newly-acquired and/or re-signed frontcourt pairing of Grant and Jusuf Nurkic, one of whom was a first option on his old team, the other of whom has been flirting with a promotion for a long time.
Now Simons steps into this dynamically-changing starting lineup, clearly not in a place to usurp the throne—unless Lillard is benevolent and grants it—but not able to step back without losing the things that got him there. If asked to pick pregame warm-up music, Ant could be forgiven for bringing out Stealer’s Wheel, except there’s nobody he’s stuck in the middle with in quite the same way.
One, gold-standard quality could resolve the conundrum for Simons instantly. If he can defend well, Portland’s starting lineup solidifies. Lillard has never been known for his prowess on that end, but surrounded by four capable defenders, Dame has done well enough. One additional hole in the defense has been enough to scuttle the whole thing, no matter who else manned the other three positions.
If Simons is no better of a defender than McCollum was, his scoring will need to go into overdrive to make up for it and to justify his minutes (presuming winning, and not just scoring, is the standard). The problem is, McCollum averaged around 22 per game in his last three seasons in Portland. How much could Simons exceed that? And what happens to everybody else in the lineup if he tries?
If Simons improves Portland’s defense, though, his scoring becomes 1A to his defensive 1B. If he averages 17 or 19 instead of 23, the Blazers will still be ahead. Opportunities open up for teammates to be rewarded for their efforts instead of the Ant and Dame show trying to carry Portland to 125-point victories.
Normally we’d be asking whether Simons can keep up his scoring average and shooting rate given more responsibility. That’s the typical ask for young players moving into the starting lineup. Simons has shown enough skills and consistency that asking whether he can continue what he’s already demonstrated seems trite.
Defense will be the single biggest question facing Simons. Quietly, his ability in this department could be a major factor, determining whether this new experiment in Portland succeeds. If you want to know the story of Ant and the Blazers this year, ultimately, it’s going to be told at the opposite end of the floor from the one you’re used to.