The Portland Trail Blazers will head into the 2022 NBA Free Agency period carrying a roster already stocked with veteran talent. They’ve managed to build an interesting roster around franchise superstar Damian Lillard, trying to make another run at relevance in the NBA’s Western Conference. As far as we know right now, the rotation will look something like this:
Point Guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons
Shooting Guard—Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson
Small Forward—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Greg Brown III
Power Forward—Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford
Yesterday we speculated that the Blazers will need to find extra help at center, not just to round out the roster aesthetically, but because injury and foul trouble often conspire to keep Jusuf Nurkic on the bench. “Positionless Basketball” is all the rage right now, but you still need someone with size to defend and rebound against opposing bigs. Portland has Nurkic... and that’s about it.
The second issue with Portland’s growing roster is less obvious, but might be just as critical, particularly if they make another trade for a starter at small forward.
The Blazers will be well-balanced in the starting lineup, with interlocking pieces coming off the bench. On paper, the whole rotation outside of center looks pretty solid, especially if everyone plays to their maximum potential.
Will they be able to, though?
Portland has a couple of high-octane scorers in the backcourt. Lillard and Anfernee Simons are offensive powerhouses, capable of putting up 25 a night—capable of averaging 25 a night—as naturally as breathing.
The caveat: the duo has never worked in tandem while Simons was at full potential. He blossomed last season in Lillard’s absence, feasting on whatever shots he cared to take. As soon as Dame hits the floor again, the situation changes. Whose hands will the ball be in? Will all of those shots, and dribbles, be available for Simons still? If not, how does that affect his production?
That’s only the opening volley. There’s precedent for Lillard playing alongside a huge-scoring guard; CJ McCollum filled that role for years. Simons might slide seamlessly into the 1A scoring position. But what about the rest of the roster?
The Blazers don’t have to be worried about number of minutes and shots, per se. Those things tend to work themselves out. Instead, ask how many of Portland’s new and returning players are looking to flourish in a bigger role, particularly offensively.
Lillard is immune to questioning in this regard. He’s an All-NBA guard, a multi-time All-Star, and the face of the franchise. The team will shape itself around him, not vice versa. Whatever Damian Lillard wants—or thinks is good for the team—he should get. That’s his role and position.
Look at the rest of the lineup, though.
Simons blossomed last season. He’s not going to want to take a step back, nor should he. Not only is he a magnificent offensive player, that’s his main role. Take away Simons’ scoring opportunities and there’s not nearly as much reason to keep him on the floor.
At 27 years of age, Jerami Grant is just entering his prime. He found traction, and now will earn a huge contract extension, as a primary offensive option with the Detroit Pistons. He’s not the most efficient scorer in the universe. He plays better defense and has a more well-rounded game than his new backcourt teammates. That should keep him in the rotation no matter what. But he’s not looking to be a fourth option in Portland. He’ll start the season—on paper, at least—as no better than the third in the Blazers offense.
Jusuf Nurkic is on a similar timeline as Grant. He also has multiple tools, but the more he’s featured in the offense, the better he plays. Notably, he has wilted when pushed down the flow chart for offensive options. He’s not at his best unless he gets touches. He’s not looking to be the fourth option either.
Josh Hart is probably the most unselfish of Portland’s veterans on the court. But his contract contains a player’s option after the season and he’s going to want a bigger payday, whether from the Blazers or someone else. Also, he scored 20 points per game as the first or second option in Portland last year, when nearly everybody else was injured.
Shaedon Sharpe is a rookie and has little leverage to elbow his way into the scoring hierarchy. He was also a lottery pick, highly touted as a potential phenom-in-waiting. The basis of that assessment was—you guessed it—his ability to put the ball in the bucket. He’ll stand in the back of the line if required, but that’s not really why the Blazers got him.
Now...let’s imagine for a minute that another hot rumor this summer comes to fruition, and the Blazers trade Hart and change for Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby. He plays defense well and would be a great get. But he’s leaving Toronto precisely because he’s getting pushed out of the offense by fellow forward Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. He wouldn’t come to Portland to repeat that situation, with pressure from even more angles.
You could duplicate that paragraph for Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, though that move seems less likely after the Grant acquisition. Deandre Ayton would be more amenable to the defense/rebounding role, at least at first, but the Blazers would be paying him enough to justify a promotion into the scoring stratosphere.
In a way, this is a good problem to have. Fielding too much scoring potential is a luxury. The Blazers will have no trouble finding second and third options besides Lillard. Their problem, if any, will come when somebody has to be fourth and somebody else fifth.
Note also that none of these players are shooting specialists, the kind who will defend hard, stand in the corner on offense, and hit 40% of their three-point attempts without ever dribbling the ball (and/or wait for someone else to shoot and pursue the offensive rebound to the exclusion of everything else). Portland’s lineup is full of shot creators, volume scorers, or at least guys who like to handle it a little.
Resolving this issue without impacting the role, energy, and contributions of the players who end up on the outside will be a key to Portland’s development, and success, this season. If they’re going to contend with this lineup, everyone has to pitch in at a consistent, high level. That’s going to take sacrifice and synergy. Those qualities will be one of a small handful of keys determining whether the Blazers look good on paper, or on the court as well.
(P.S. Don’t be too surprised, or disappointed, if the Blazers end up acquiring players with less name value and volume-scoring potential but more targeted skill sets in the upcoming NBA free agency period, in part for this reason.)