When Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a buzzer-beater to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, he not only spoiled Damian Lillard achieving the franchise scoring record, he soured the mood of plenty of Blazers fans. In the aftermath, the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag was full of lamenting, much of which centered around Portland’s guards. Anfernee Simons was the main target, but Lillard got a bit of criticism too, despite his accolades.
A representative sample makes our Blazer’s Edge Mailbag today, in anticipation of Portland’s rematch with the Thunder tonight.
I’m getting sick of this. SGA pulled up over Justice Winslow because he was too slow. He was too slow because we don’t have a guard capable of playing defense. Now we’re seeing the cost of that again. I understand keeping Dame for all the reasons everybody says but then they have to get rid of Simons. I don’t know how many more losses it’ll take until I can’t stand it anymore.
Can we pump the brakes a little?
Let’s talk about the guards first.
Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons are not perfect in every aspect of the game. We know this. We know about the defense. We know about the meshing, occasionally lack thereof. If you push me, I’m not going to argue that the two should be paired forever. If you’ll recall, I’m one of the people who said, preseason, that Josh Hart might make a better starting guard beside Lillard, especially if the Blazers could leverage Simons into a really good starting small forward. Having seen Simons play, my take is more nuanced now, but I wouldn’t abandon it completely. It’s perfectly possible that’s correct, long-term.
But short-term, if you’re looking for a big problem with the Blazers, Lillard and Simons aren’t it. Lillard’s averaging 28.3 points per game, Simons 23.2. Both hover near 40% from the three-point arc on double-digit attempts per game. That’s insane.
Opponents never get a rest against this backcourt. If they overplay one side of the floor, the other is vulnerable. The Blazers keep one or the other on the court during all competitive minutes, and either can drop a dozen in a blink.
Simons has played 29 games this season. He’s scored 19 or more in 22 of them. On a bad night he’s scoring 15, on a bleh night he’s at 20. His “meh” is someone else’s game they call their mom about.
Do not even start with Lillard this season. He’s played 19 times, scoring 19+ all but once.
Does Simons get shunted into difficult attempts sometimes? Yup. Who doesn’t?
Has Lillard lost some escape ability, particularly on the drive? Probably. He still messed up Luguentz Dort something awful in the fourth period Monday night. He just has to save it for special occasions instead of throwing on the afterburners constantly like he used to.
On their off nights, this backcourt achieves what many wish they could do, period. Do not sneeze at that, especially with Jusuf Nurkic somewhat inconsistent and Jerami Grant cooling down a bit as the season winds along. Those starting guards are the most bankable asset the Blazers have.
Now let’s talk about the team. Lillard and Simons are taking criticism less for their own play than for the expectations that trailed the Blazers after their ultra-hot start.
It’s a little bit too early in the season to lean on team aggregate stats, but not so soon that we can’t reference them. The Blazers have a +0.5 margin of victory over 31 games this season. That places them 8th in the Western Conference, 14th in the league overall. They’ve been good. They haven’t been special.
Memories of that special start still linger, though. A 10-4 record makes wins seem ordinary, losses painful. Going 7-10 since has provided frequent pain...not harsh, not unreasonable, just repeated, like poking at the spot where you just got a flu shot. No single poke is bad. Two or three might even be a practical joke. By the seventh, you’re annoyed as heck. That’s what losses feel like to Blazers fans right now.
But let’s get real. The Blazers play close games like gambling addicts throw dice. Early in the season, they got on a hot streak. Last-second shots seemed like Portland’s birthright. They’re still tumbling the cubes across the felt on a near-nightly basis, but averages are catching up with them. They’ve lost a few close ones—games they were winning earlier on—making the poky spot sting even more.
That’s the way close games work in the NBA. Reduce the fate of the game to three possessions, let alone one shot, and you’ll discover that everyone on the floor stands among the best basketball players in the universe. There’s no safeguard against the opponent’s success over one minute or a single play. You listen to the scouts and coach, play hard, and see what happens.
Nonetheless, when the ball doesn’t bound your way, there must be “A Reason”. The less-redeeming qualities of the guards are the current vogue explanation in Portland. Fair. If Lillard and Simons were elite defenders, the Blazers might be elite too. When has that ever been a possibility, though? And what team has that combinations of all-world scoring and all-world defense at both guard positions?
Lillard and Simons are probably part of the reason the Blazers have lost 14. Maybe a game or two go to their debit. They’re nearly ALL the reason that Portland has been in position to win 17.
With the West bunched up like it is, it’s far more important to snag the sure 17 than to try to gamble and turn 14 into 11. Sub out one of those two guards and the defense might get better, but if everything else remains equal, the record won’t. The opposite, in fact.
If a deal comes through that makes the Blazers better on defense while keeping up the scoring potential, I’m still for it. It’s increasingly clear that said deal better be GREAT, or the Blazers are going to have to wait until the off-season—having a hard think about their future—to execute it. Until then, Lillard and Simons are worth celebrating, as is the winning record.
Forget 10-4. That was a mirage. Right now, settle for Portland staying in the thick of things and let’s see what happens over the next 30. Lillard and Simons might not be the perfect backcourt for a World Championship team—technically, we don’t know yet—but they’re a heck of a duo for a very young 17-14 squad still growing into themselves. And that’s what the Blazers are right now.
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