While Portland’s starting lineup heading into the season is all but locked up — save for an open competition for the small forward spot — which five players will primarily close games for the Blazers? In a recent article, Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey dove into the subject of crunch time lineups for every NBA team, controversially leaving budding star Anfernee Simons out of Portland’s “best closing lineup.”
Bailey’s reasoning for this notable omission? Defense, defense, defense. The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum got crushed on the defensive end for years, so despite Simons’ recent $100 million pay day, Bailey advocated for a different approach than closing the game with two offensive-minded guards. He said a lineup of Lillard, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic gives Portland great defensive chops, while still maintaining enough offensive firepower.
It may seem odd to omit the recently extended Anfernee Simons from this group, but we’ve never truly seen the “superstar and grit” model that won Dirk Nowitzki a championship deployed for Damian Lillard.
This lineup does that while still providing Lillard with some interesting offensive options.
Gary Payton II proved himself a devastating cutter and adequate corner three-point shooter for the Warriors last season.
After he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, Josh Hart averaged 19.9 points, 4.3 assists and 2.4 threes.
Jerami Grant averaged over 20 points in his two seasons with the Detroit Pistons, but he’s also shown an ability to thrive in a smaller role for the Thunder and Nuggets.
And assuming he’s healthy, Jusuf Nurkic should still be a bruising, old-school post player with some underrated passing ability.
At last Monday’s NBA Media Day, general manager Joe Cronin and others flaunted this team’s versatility and lineup flexibility. The Blazers can go small. They can go big. They can lean heavy on defense or lean heavy on offense. So more than in previous seasons, Portland may experiment with different closing lineups.
However, in that experimentation, my guess is the two primary constants will be Lillard and Simons. There are serious questions surrounding Simons’ defensive capabilities. Our own Dave Deckard wrote about that topic earlier today. In theory, Simons’ size and athletic explosiveness should make him a better defender than his predecessor, but he has to prove it. His defensive impact may determine if this roster retool is destined for the same ceiling as the futile tries of Lillard and McCollum.
But at the end of the day, regardless of the defensive success Simons achieves this season, giving a big contract to a player — one who is supposed to be the future of the franchise —and then not closing games with him is a near-sacrilegious act in the NBA. It’s horrible for optics, too. I expect Portland will be hellbent on making the Lillard-Simons combination work late in games and the team won’t deviate too much from that look.
I’m curious to hear the opinions of our readers. Is there any merit to Bailey’s idea about Portland’s best closing lineup not including Simons? Or is it ludicrous poppycock?