The Portland Trail Blazers landed Josh Hart in the momentous CJ McCollum trade with the New Orleans Pelicans a couple of days before February’s trade deadline. While not on the same offensive talent level as McCollum, Hart is a versatile two-way player and a far better fit on this currently revamping Portland team.
The 6’5 Villanova alumnus’ ability to handle, facilitate, shoot, slash and defend positions one through four contrast with McCollum’s proclivity for isolation ball, volume shooting and high usage.
In 13 games with the Blazers, Hart averaged 19.9 points on 37 three point percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals on 25 percent usage. Considerably better than his career averages of 9.9 points on 34 percent three point shooting, 5.7 boards, 2.1 assists and 0.9 steals on 15 percent usage.
As a result, the Blazers are unlikely to waive Hart’s $12.9 million non-guaranteed money for 2022-23 by June 25, which means he’s playing in Portland colors next season. There’s always a chance he’s dealt for an impact player over the summer but the team appears pretty committed to him.
At this week’s exit interviews, Hart said he was looking forward to next season, with Coach Chauncey Billups and Interim General Manager Joe Cronin already cluing him in on his role for 2022-23.
“I’ll be here next year, barring something happening this offseason, I fully expect to be here, they’ve kind of given me that reassurance unless something drastic happens.”
“I talked to both Joe and Chauncey and it’s definitely going to be a little bit different to what I’m used to. I’m actually going to be more guard dominant, I guess, next year, in terms of playmaking I’m going to have the ball in my hands and doing that kind of thing, so that’s something I’m excited about.”
“If you look at my time in this league, last year and this year in New Orleans, I was the starting four, playing two through four. So now the role and the playmaking is going to be different but it’s something I’m excited about, it’s something I feel like I’m comfortable with and just looking forward to it.”
What’s he saying?
Let’s do the math. The Blazers are expected to field Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons as starting guards. If Hart is playing guard minutes he’s almost certainly coming off the bench.
You can also breathe a sigh of relief that Joe Cronin is in charge, because if Neil Olshey was hypothetically still in Portland and Hart had found his way onto this roster, he'd probably be playing small forward. According to these quotes, that’s not happening.
Hart’s versatility will allow him to play alongside both Lillard and Simons, opening opportunities for him to earn starter-like playing time, in the realm of 28, 29-minutes a night.
Why should we be overjoyed with this news?
And we should be. For too long, the Blazers have been undersized, most recently with McCollum at the two and Norman Powell at the three. Billups’ own frustrations with the situation shone through pre-game against the Toronto Raptors in November last year.
“We give up size every night. We are a small group, especially at 1, 2 and 3. They are all pretty much 6’3”.”
This predicament was the result of a roster with little option but to play 6’3 Norman Powell at small forward. The poor guy had to go up against 6’10 Michael Porter Jr. in last year’s first round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. He performed admirably but was severely disadvantaged from the get-go.
Hart, who is listed at 6’5, could also be considered too small to play the three. Yes, he did play some power forward for the Pelicans, but from the sounds of things, next season’s Portland team will be considerably bigger.
For the Blazers to match up defensively with the league’s heavy hitters, their chosen starting small forward should ideally be bigger and longer. They have to compete with the likes of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant.
Before suffering a left shoulder labral tear in January, 6’6 Nassir Little had cemented his place in the Blazers’ rotation, enjoying upticks in minutes and production. If he continues on that upward trajectory, Little could be the two-way small forward the Blazers have been looking for since trading Nicolas Batum away in 2015.
Alternatively, the trade exceptions, cap flexibility and picks created by Cronin at February’s trade deadline may allow the Blazers to bring in an above average three looking for a change in scenery.
Cronin’s vision of a bigger, faster, more athletic and defensively competent Portland team is currently under construction. The foundations appear to be solid with Lillard and Hart contracted and Simons and Jusuf Nurkic likely to return in free agency.
Gone are the days where three 6’3 or shorter guards are manning Portland’s point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, resulting in one of the league's worst defensive ratings.
Next season, subpar defender Damian Lillard at 6’1, average defender Anfernee Simons at 6’3, and potentially above average defender Nassir Little at 6’6 will present a tougher obstacle for opposing offenses. They’ll be supported by above average defender Josh Hart at 6’5 off the bench, who may find himself in the running for a Sixth Man of the Year nod.
With Jusuf Nurkic likely manning the middle and, from all reports, Jerami Grant arriving to take the starting power forward role, defense shouldn’t be too much of an issue. I’m not suggesting this is a world-beating defense but it’s a hell of a lot better than what the Blazers have been trotting out in recent years.