The Portland Trail Blazers made a big free agency splash late last summer. And when I say splash, I’m of course referring to the modest three year, $26 million deal offered and accepted by the then recently-anointed champion Gary Payton II.
While it was the first time Payton II had signed an NBA contract worth more than the minimum salary, it was well and truly deserved. The relatively diminutive, but crazy long and athletic, defender spent the 2021-22 season proving his place in the league with a very good Golden State Warriors team.
He did this by leaning on his ability as a defensive specialist while fundamentally playing to his limited strengths on the offensive side of the ball.
The son of the Glove was an ideal complement for the championship Warriors who already had Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins scoring more than enough points.
It was on the defensive end that Payton II really contributed, taking the slack off offense-first teammates, namely Curry and Poole.
I’m sure it was this thinking that then newly made ongoing General Manager Joe Cronin followed in the hope it would do similar wonders for Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons.
And so, with no surprise on July 1, The Athletic’s Shams Charania announced the Blazers were stealing Payton II from the Warriors who were up to their eyelids in luxury tax payments.
The amount of money Portland offered, including the third-year player option, were clearly factors. After years battling in the G-League to enjoy only rare NBA air with the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards and Warriors, financial security was no doubt the goal.
But perhaps there was also the two years he played at Oregon State, the training camp with the Blazers in 2018. Perhaps, it was the fact that his dad was Pacific Northwest basketball royalty with the years spent leading the Seattle Supersonics.
Now a Blazer, Payton II had to get his body right. He seemed to have recovered from that elbow fracture suffered during the 2022 Conference Semifinals. But now it was an abdominal issue that required surgery. These things really do come in threes with both Damian Lillard and Nassir Little undergoing similar procedures during the offseason.
Fast forward to October and despite suggestions the 30-year-old might be ready for the start of the regular season, it didn’t happen.
In more positive news, a December 13 Payton II injury update had no reference to Payton II being “evaluated or re-evaluated”. He was actually targeting his debut date, again courtesy of Charania.
Trail Blazers guard Gary Payton II is targeting his season debut in the next one to two weeks, sources said. Payton, who signed a three-year, $28 million deal to join the Trail Blazers in July, has been sidelined due to offseason surgery on a core muscle injury. Payton was a key rotation player for the Warriors‘ 2022 championship team and should assume a similar do-it-all role for the 14-12 Trail Blazers.
Position, Minutes, Role
Right, so if the report is accurate, Payton II will make his debut before the calendar turns to 2023. But what does this mean for this Portland roster, currently performing above expectation, despite yesterday’s ugly loss to the Dallas Mavericks?
As we’ve discussed before, while Payton II is actually listed as a point guard, he’s not really a one. The 2022 champion can better be described as a wing, more comfortable at the shooting guard and small forward positions.
But, that’s not strictly true either.
To truly define the 6’3 Payton II, you need to first ask what side of the ball he’s playing.
On offense, he isn’t really a facilitator. His career per 36 assist numbers are a modest 2.6. More accurately, when he and his teammates have the ball, Payton II is best placed in one of the corners, where he’s helped build up his three point percentage to almost 36 percent.
Understanding and playing to his strengths has helped Payton II finally find a place in the league.
Which leads me to my next point. Despite his lack of shooting versatility, Payton II has decent hops and on a number of occasions last season was able to slip into the dunker spot, playing a unlikely quasi-center role.
Now to his real impact on this team. Payton II’s defense is as elite as they come, particularly at the point of attack, something this team has been without for far too long.
I have absolutely no issues with him guarding almost any player that steps onto a basketball court, except for maybe Joel Embiid, Deandre Ayton, and Nikola Jokic. But even the latter is not out of the realms of possibility as we saw during the playoffs.
This team started the season as a defensive juggernaut, but it has reverted back to the mean. Payton II has the ability to lead the Blazers back to respectability on the defensive end.
Who makes way?
Payton is almost certainly going to be ramped up gradually over the next few weeks, but let’s say he gets about 23 minutes a game off the bench once he’s up to speed.
Let’s start with the starters. Payton II will almost certainly take minutes away from Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Don’t be concerned, this is a good thing.
This season, Lillard is averaging more than 35 minutes and Simons is playing a couple of seconds short of 37 minutes — taking the pair to more than 70.
Lillard needs more rest, for the purposes of ensuring longevity through age 36, where he’s earning north of $63 million. He’s already twice sat with calf complaints this season. Simons, 23, needs to reduce minutes because we can’t have him burning out before he turns 25.
Just to be clear, there will always be one of Lillard and Simons on the floor at the same time, however, Payton II has the potential to help them get more rest and reduce their respective court times to around 33 minutes a night.
That’s six minutes saved.
Shaedon Sharpe has been one of the more pleasing aspects of the season. From relative obscurity to averaging 20 minutes a night, he’s contributing and entertaining us all.
I want Sharpe to keep getting court time, but he also plays the same two positions as the veteran Payton II. Sharpe can still get the development and exposure he needs in 16 minutes, giving four to Payton II.
There are now a total of 10 minutes free.
Justise Winslow is playing 28 minutes a night. For a guy whose battled through injury carrying a largish frame, he’s probably playing more than he should. Payton II should have no problem taking five minutes off Winslow.
That’s 15 minutes available.
Finally, the man who is likely on another roster after February 9, Josh Hart. Just like Damian Lillard, I love Josh Hart but the man is playing on bad ankles, sacrificing rest and recuperation. And he’s this best team’s chance at upgrade at a position of need.
The former Pelican is averaging a whopping 35 minutes a night. Why? Because he does all the little things that make this team go, the hustle, the rebounds and the dogged defense. You know who else can do this? That’s right Payton II, so let’s lighten Hart’s load by eight minutes, taking him to 27.
Voila, there are 23 minutes freed up without too much impact to the existing rotation.
Obviously, injuries happen but a guard, wing, minutes allocation of Lillard (33), Simons (33), Hart (27), Payton II, (23), Winslow (23) and Sharpe (16) works for me.
Lillard, Simons, Winslow and Hart get minutes at point guard. Those four plus Payton II and Sharpe get shooting guard minutes and Hart, Payton II, Winslow and Sharpe get time at small forward.
Final note on Nassir Little. It makes me sad to see the 23-year-old succumb to injury again. The guy just has very little luck. And unfortunately, with Payton II set to make his Blazers debut, it’s going to be even harder for Little once his body hopefully returns to full strength in the new year.
You don’t sign a player to an $8 million-a-year contract and don’t play him. And Payton II fills too much of a void for this team on the defensive end.
His minutes won’t be stolen from one particular teammate. A combination of court time offered by Lillard, Simons, Hart, Winslow and Sharpe will no doubt reduce the impact his introduction has on the rotation.
Unfortunately, the only real victim of Payton II’s addition to the lineup will be Nassir Little who isn’t expected to return to the court until the new year.
I know we’ve all been waiting for Payton II, but it looks as if that wait has come to an end. I’ve no doubt Chauncey Billups knows how to get the reigning champion onto the court, we’re all curious to see how it gets done.