Many a national pundit has already written off the Portland Trail Blazers this coming season, suggesting they may even struggle to reach the Play-In tournament. The predictions might be fair. But there’s a still plenty of talent on this roster, led by six-time All Star Damian Lillard who, after recovering from abdominal surgery, could be poised to return to the February showcase.
Not since LaMarcus Aldridge donned the pinwheel has Lillard been joined be familiar company at the Sunday event. A lonely Blazer. But assuming Lillard makes his return this season, is there anyone else currently using a Moda Center locker who makes the trip to Salt Lake City in February?
If history has taught us anything, it’s that the sure-fire way for franchises to send multiple representatives to All Star games is winning. The Blazers need to start well and strong. As a result and despite the franchise’s tough first two-month schedule, I’m suggesting Portland would have to be sitting comfortably above 500 by Christmas.
The Blazers appeared to have eyed athletic, two-way forward Jerami Grant ever since he and Lillard bonded while representing Team USA. The Blazers turned infatuation into reality this summer, securing Grant's services for a distant Milwaukee Bucks first round pick.
Taken out of Syracuse with the 39th pick in the 2014 draft, Grant has represented the Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Detroit Pistons, recording career numbers of 11.4 points on 35 percent shooting, 3.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 blocks. The 28-year-old is considered an above-average defender, arguably able to match it with opponents playing positions one-through-five, while also able to facilitate and score at all three levels. He’s far and away the best power forward the franchise has paid and played since Aldridge.
During his two seasons in Detroit, Grant carried a 27.2 percent usage while shooting 43 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. I have no doubt with less responsibility as the second or third option behind Lillard and Simons (on offense), Grant will be able to increase his efficiency, perhaps back to his three Oklahoma City Thunder seasons, which included 50 percent from the field and 37 percent from three.
I’ll also suggest that while Grant probably sustained real injuries during his Pistons tenure, you’d have to suspect there was a whole lot of resting and holding him out of games in order to improve the Michigan franchise’s draft odds.
He played a total of 101 games across two seasons. I’m going to be optimistic here and suggest that if the former Syracuse standout played more for Detroit, he may have already earned an Eastern Conference All Star nod.
Western Conference Frontcourt
Grant’s frontcourt competition is pretty lofty. The likes of Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Andrew Wiggins (Golden State Warriors), Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert (Minnesota Timberwolves), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans), Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers), Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns) and Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings) will all compete for selections.
If the above names manage to avoid injury, it’s going to be hard. But Grant might have an edge over some. Unless the Timberwolves hold a top four spot, it’s going to be hard for both Towns and Gobert to get a nod — with Anthony Edwards in contention in the backcourt. Ingram has to shine next to Zion Williamson, Sabonis is at the mercy of his perennially disappointing Kings teammates and with the ongoing unrest in Arizona, Ayton’s chances might be dwindling by the day.
Others like Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies) and Williamson (Pelicans) are at the mercy of their own unpredictable bodies. Jackson Jr. in particular might not actually play until Christmas, all but ruling out his chances.
This leaves James, Davis, Jokic, Towns and Leonard as frontcourt frontrunners, potentially leaving the door open for Grant.
Simons got paid this summer and deservedly so. The starting shooting guard broke out last season, filling an injured Damian Lillard’s shoes impressively. So well, in fact, that he “succumbed to injury” missing the last 19 games of the season as the Blazers worked their way down the standings to eventually snare Shaedon Sharpe at the draft.
At the tender age of 23, Simons has waited long and hard for his opportunity to play after being drafted 24th by the Blazers in 2018 out of IMG Academy, barely seeing the court through his first three years. However, the 2021-22 season finally allowed him to get his minutes played average up to 29 minutes a night and much more than that after Lillard underwent surgery in early January. As a result, his initially anemic career numbers soared to 17.3 points on a staggering 39 percent three point shooting, 1.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists by the end of last season.
Simons is obviously no stranger to All Star weekend, collecting the Slam Dunk title in 2021, but that’s a far cry from being named as one of the best 30 players in the game.
His defensive liabilities are less than ideal but not terminal. Simons stands close to 6’5 now with athletic prowess that far outreaches that of his shooting guard predecessor CJ McCollum. I’m not for a moment, suggesting that five minutes of a preseason game has confirmed that Simons is solid defender, but he managed to stand his ground against the much larger Kawhi Leonard during early play at Climate Pledge Arena on Monday.
Yes, Lillard has made six All Star games on a poor defensive reputation, but I’m extremely doubtful that voters would pick two defenseless guards for an All Star appearance, regardless of how good they might be on the offensive end.
The Blazers have cleared a path for Simons to succeed by trading away McCollum and Norman Powell. And unlike the former, Simons is more inclined to pass the ball, likely lifting his assists number far higher than any of the heights McCollum reached. He’s a better shooter, facilitator and potentially a better defender than the New Orleans Pelicans guard who is yet to earn an All Star selection so you’d have to suggest his chances are better in the long run.
Western Conference Backcourt
Despite Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson and Dejounte Murray all heading east, the competition is still brutal for Simons. Outside Lillard, Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors), Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies), Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks), Chris Paul, Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns), Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers), McCollum (Pelicans) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder) are all strong chances to be noticed.
But like the Western Conference frontcourt, some candidates hold more weaknesses than others. Surely, only one of Paul or Booker are likely to get through if the Suns start slow. As discussed, McCollum was unable to earn a spot through eight and a half years in Portland, not sure his Pelicans jersey will make a difference while Gilgeous-Alexander actually needs to play.
There’s also Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets) and Klay Thompson (Warriors), carrying pretty serious injury histories. As well as first timers Desmond Bane (Grizzlies), Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves), Jordan Poole (Warriors) and Jalen Green (Houston Rockets) who probably have similar chances to Simons.
Consequently, you’d have to imagine the only backcourt certainties, failing injury, are Curry, Morant, Doncic with a growing list of contenders coming from almost all 15 teams.
If Damian Lillard returns to be two-thirds of the player he was prior to the surgery, he’s an extremely good chance to All Star play. But if there’s any chance of the two earning spots, Portland also has to get off to a roaring start against teams carrying arguably better talent, ensuring the entire squad stands out before national media.
It is true that both Grant and Simons are central to the Blazers' fortunes this season. But Grant seems better placed to represent the franchise at the next February showcase through his ability to play both sides of the ball, offering Portland balance it hasn’t seen for the better part of a decade.
You could also argue he has less competition in the frontcourt West, but I’m willing to be proven wrong on this. I’m still supremely confident that Simons makes an All Star game, however with him only just earning his first starting role, it’s going to be a little more difficult for him to show enough before voting and selections are made ahead of a laundry list of competitors.