The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2022-23 season with some new faces and still a few unanswered questions. Those questions focus predominantly on the team’s lack of size and depth at the small forward position.
But despite these concerns, I have to acknowledge the work General Manager Joe Cronin has done over the past two months, bringing in defensive, versatile players, better able to complement and support Damian Lillard inch closer toward the promised land.
So far, the new General Manager has traded very little for Jerami Grant, drafted mystery kid Shaedon Sharpe and second round find Jabari Walker, re-signed Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks and stolen Gary Payton II away from the Golden State Warriors.
Oh, not to mention the two year Lillard extension, which will see him earn more in one year than any NBA player so far, at age 37 ... eek. Let’s not think about that right now.
Instead, let’s point out that Lillard, himself, is a massive addition to this roster. The six-time All Star will return to the court this autumn after finally addressing the abdominal injury that has plagued him for four and a half years.
And if the 32-year-old can return to the player we saw pre-injury, that’s a pretty hefty coup for this team, which appears to be as is for the time being.
Sure, Cronin could still worm the Blazers into a deal, as a third or fourth party, when and if Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Donovan Mitchell are eventually dealt.
But for the purposes of this piece, let’s assume this is it and Chauncey Billups is busily working out the best way to optimize this group, which was rounded out earlier this week with the signing of Jabari Walker.
Voila. Your 2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers.
Starters - Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic
Bench - Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Shaedon Sharpe, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford
Deep Bench - Keon Johnson, Didi Louzada, Greg Brown III, Jabari Walker, Drew Eubanks
2-way – Brandon Williams
Not great, but not too shabby either. So who plays and how much? Below is one way Billups might elect to go on opening night.
PG – Damian Lillard (28 minutes), Josh Hart (12), Anfernee Simons (8)
SG – Anfernee Simons (25), Gary Payton II (11), Josh Hart (6), Damian Lillard (6),
SF – Nassir Little (23), Gary Payton II (12), Josh Hart (7), Shaedon Sharpe (6)
PF – Jerami Grant (26), Justise Winslow (18), Trendon Watford (4)
C – Jusuf Nurkic (29), Trendon Watford (11), Jerami Grant (8)
Minutes summary - Damian Lillard (34), Jerami Grant, (34), Anfernee Simons (33), Jusuf Nurkic (29), Josh Hart (25), Nassir Little (23), Gary Payton II (23), Justise Winslow (18), Trendon Watford (15), Shaedon Sharpe (6)
Jerami Grant is not a small forward
Many have called for the Blazers to go out and get a starting power forward, moving Grant to the three. No. Don’t do that. Jerami Grant is a power forward, and, at a stretch, a suitable backup center for short periods.
You see, Grant is optimized when he’s played at the four, exemplified by the fact that he spent 95 percent of his time at that position last season and 79 percent throughout his eight-year career. While his rebounding numbers weren’t particularly high last season at 3.9, he did average more than 5 in his last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. And with likely minutes at the five when Nurkic sits, don’t be surprised if those numbers increase quite a bit.
Watford and Grant will get back up center minutes
Following on from the above point, one does worry about Jusuf Nurkic’s health and ability to stay out of foul trouble. Yes, when the big man is fit and firing, it doesn’t really matter who’s backing him up. But 'when' is definitely the operative word in that sentence.
With the lack of size behind the big Bosnian, the Blazers surely plan to go small with Nurkic’s likely center understudies being Watford and Grant, both standing 6’8. Yes, Eubanks is there but he’s 6’9 and you’d have to imagine he’s more a 'break glass in case of emergency' proposition.
Yet, if after all this the small ball experiment doesn’t work, don’t be surprised to see Cronin bring in another center via trade or through the buyout market.
Hart will be facilitating off the bench
In his end of season media interview, Hart said he’d already been told he’d be playing back up guard minutes with an emphasis on playmaking in 2022-23. I’ve penciled him in for 12 minutes at back-up point guard, but he’ll probably also spend time at the two wing positions.
Consequently, despite many a Blazers fan’s preference, Hart will not be starting at small forward. Thanks to his playmaking ability he’s the perfect facilitator, alongside one of Lillard and Simons, off the bench. A Josh-of-all-trades, if you like.
Payton II will get small forward minutes
As discussed last week, Payton II is one of the few NBA players who can play taller than his measurements might suggest. He can comfortably guard positions one-through-three — and in certain situations power forward — so don’t be surprised to see him playing alongside Lillard and Simons, perhaps in super small finishing lineups.
Personally, I can’t wait to see how he melds with this group, complementing Damian Lillard, like he did Steph Curry and co. last season.
Little will start at small forward
Nassir Little will start and get all his minutes at the small forward position. He’s still not big enough to play the four — already manned by Grant, Winslow and Watford — and won’t get a look in at shooting guard with the amount of talent in place on the perimeter.
If Little can stay healthy, he may finally be able to deliver on all the potential he’s shown over the past three years. And if the reports are true, and Little has been in the gym, it’ll be interesting to see him guard some of the bigger wings around the league and finish hard at the rim on offense.
Six minutes have been allocated to Sharpe but could go to Walker
Depending on how Sharpe recovers from his shoulder injury, there will be six extra minutes at small forward to fill. Cronin has already said Sharpe is ready to play next season but we’ll have to see whether his body is ready.
The franchise clearly wants to get the 19-year-old mystery kid as much time to acclimate to the NBA game as quickly as possible. The biggest question we ask now is whether Sharpe needs surgery on that shoulder. If he doesn’t, I have no doubt the seventh overall pick will be featured heavily during preseason to see how ready he is to go.
One caveat. Given his success during Summer League, there’s an outside chance we might see second round pick Jabari Walker, who is really more of a power forward, get some of Sharpe’s minutes, but I can’t imagine this happens in October and November.
I’m not going to get too bogged down in this because finishing lineups will almost surely be a game-to-game decision, dependent on matchup and foul trouble. But you’d have to imagine crunch time rotations will almost certainly include the trio of Lillard, Simons and Grant, with some combination of Hart, Nurkic, Little and Payton II.
Yes, we’re still in mid July, so the Blazers still have time to horn in on bigger trades involving the likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell. But if this is the roster the Blazers take into opening night, this team has flexibility and two-way talent, but not a hell of a lot of size.
Hey, talent is talent and the Blazers now have more of it potential contribution from two young talented draftees. I’m not saying it’s going to be a cakewalk for Billups but it’ll be fascinating to see what he’s able to do with a little more athleticism and defensive prowess this season.