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Trail Blazers Face a Puzzle at Small Forward

Resolving the issue of the starting three, or even a bench rotation, may take a village.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are knee deep in their preseason exhibition schedule as the journey towards the start of the 2022-23 regular season progresses apace. Optimism reigns at the start of a new year, 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. Next 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, and explored the single gift Anfernee Simons needs to bring to the table in order to make a difference. We wondered whether the Blazers would ever find a stable, workable role for center Jusuf Nurkic.

Today we’re going to tackle the question that many observers would have put first on the list, but in actuality probably ranks no better than fourth, perhaps fifth: Who will the Blazers start at small forward?

Four of Portland’s five starting positions are sewn up by the players mentioned above. The three-spot remains in question, though. The Blazers have plenty of candidates to fill the role, but none stands head-and-shoulders above the others. How will they settle the matter?

Josh Hart is the most experienced of Portland’s small forward options. He started during the Blazers’ first exhibition game, versus the Los Angeles Clippers. He came out blazing, shooting well, making moves with the ball, dishing assists, and rebounding. This is typical of Hart: he comes prepared, does not mess around, and provides a little of everything.

Hart also has the advantage of wanting the spot badly. He’s started before, regularly. He’s in a contract option year and has a personal interest in excelling. He’s clearly the most well-rounded and capable of the lot.

Hart is not a natural small forward, however. He’s more of a shooting guard. The difference shows up on the defensive end. Opponents can overpower Hart. Some can simply shoot over him.

The same contract status that impels Hart to excel may also give the Blazers incentive to develop other players. Simply put, he probably won’t return to the team next season. If the Blazers vault into contention, riding the veteran would make sense. If they’re fiddling around trying to find answers, he won’t be one long-term.

Fourth-year forward Nassir Little also got starter’s reps before going down with an injury last season. Little brings the requisite size and length, plus a strong blend of defense and athleticism to the position. He’s not shy about going for the big block. He’ll take the open shot when he has it. But Little doesn’t have enough overall experience to be reliable. His shooting is streaky; his decision-making sometimes fails. Little may be the future at the three, but he’s a bigger gamble in the present.

Justise Winslow provides a wildcard option. He started Portland’s second preseason game versus the Utah Jazz. He has more experience than Little and his defense is just as good. Winslow also brings size. He does not have Hart’s shooting or all-around game, He’s also slid out of every important role he’s been put into in his NBA career. This one may be focused and bounded enough to give him purchase, but that’s up in the air.

Adding to the complication, Gary Payton II—Portland’s other key summer acquisition alongside Grant—can also play small forward. He’s small for the position but his defense is tenacious. He has championship experience with the Golden State Warriors and would provide another ball-handler on the floor, clearly the best dribbler and playmaker of the four players mentioned here.

With no obvious, perfect small forward in sight, the Blazers likely will spend the first part of the season experimenting. Hart is likely to be Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ favored candidate, as coaches prize talent and reliability over most other considerations. If opponents exploit that matchup on the defensive end, Billups could opt for Winslow or hope Little fast-tracks his way into relevance.

It’s just as possible that the Blazers keep rotating forwards based on nightly matchups. Even though the three-spot gives them more variables than any other position, it might not be the most crucial question to resolve. All four forwards mentioned here have something in common: they’re used to having to work for a living. They don’t get plays run for them. Scrapping and creating opportunities is how they earn cash.

Given the identities and needs of the other four starters, that’s not going to change no matter who gets the nod at small forward. Lillard will have permission to exert himself wherever he sees fit. He’ll carry the team. Resolving the status (and production) of Simons is next on the list of priorities. After that, both Nurkic and Grant have precedence over any of the players mentioned above, even Hart. Whomever occupies the position—and everyone who comes after off the bench—will have to hustle, scheme, and play lights out before they can begin to make demands impinging on the territory of their starting teammates.

Unless it’s resolved by a trade, the answer to Portland’s small forward question will probably boil down to the player who goes hardest, defends best, and makes the fewest mistakes getting most of the minutes. If Portland can get those qualities out of all their potential forwards, they’ll end up ahead no matter what. If that doesn’t happen, it almost doesn’t matter who they put into the starting role.