The Portland Trail Blazers will again be rich at the two guard positions this coming season. Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson, Shaedon Sharpe, Didi Louzada and Brandon Williams are all capable of playing at least one of the positions — some much more competently than others.
But it appears that General Manager Joe Cronin has already established the pecking order at the two smaller positions. The franchise has consciously “created a runway” for Anfernee Simons, giving him a four year, $100 million contract after trading away former Portland guards CJ McCollum and Norman Powell in February.
The 23-year-old enters the 2022-23 season without the excuse of being on a rookie-scale contract or being hindered by older, more experienced teammates. Despite this very clear direction, there seems to be a not-so-silent group of Blazers fans calling for the former IMG Academy standout to come off the bench, making way for Josh Hart who offers more of a defensive presence. I think I even saw someone trying to start a #starthart hashtag earlier this week. Good luck with that.
Simons has spent the past 12 months introducing himself to the NBA stage, taking his biggest steps after Damian Lillard put an end to his own season in early January to address an ongoing abdominal complaint. In his first non-Lillard appearance against the Atlanta Hawks, Simons went off for 43 points on 9 of 16 from three before averaging 23.4 assists, 5.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds through his remaining 26 games while taking the lion share of the offensive load. You’d hope that with defenses having to begrudgingly pay attention to Lillard again this season, Simons will be a little freer to, at least, maintain the above production.
Right now, he’s not a good defender. But Simons does have time and the physical attributes to develop them.
After stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, Hart has become a veteran with very clear strengths and a couple of limitations. Through his size, basketball IQ and skillset, the 27-year-old is able to play up a position or two.
While the Milwaukee Bucks 2025 first rounder and trade exception appeared to be the main prizes in the CJ McCollum deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, Hart has far and away been the best player. A bigger wing in his prime able to do a whole lot to help any franchise paying his checks.
At 6’5, Hart can score, handle, facilitate, defend, rebound and has shown the ability to hit the long ball, enjoying career averages of 9.9 points on nearly 35 percent three point shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks.
Out of fairness to the #starthart brigade, I can understand why you’d want a Lillard and Hart backcourt. Perhaps it harkens back to the days when the much younger and defensively competent Wes Matthews shared the backcourt with Lillard, enjoying a briefly successful run cut short by injury.
But it won’t happen because ...
And this is the big one. Simons just got paid big time. There is no way you’d hand out that kind of money to someone you’re going to play off the bench, regardless of how many minutes they might be playing. Being an NBA starter is more than just standing on the court as the ball is jumped, it’s a status that almost all NBA players strive for. I seriously doubt Simons would have signed with Portland just minutes after free agency started if he was under the impression he was coming back for a bench role.
If I were Simons and Cronin had presented me with a bench role, I would have almost certainly have tested the waters to see what other teams were offering. Sure, the Blazers would have matched almost any contract, but I doubt Simons signs with such enthusiasm (I’m equating enthusiasm with the speed in which the deal was done) if the starter role wasn’t agreed to back when he sat the remainder of the regular season. Simons will average $25 million a year over the next four years. That, in and of itself, is enough proof that he was always going to own that starting shooting guard position.
The runway was created and has been in place for a while now.
Hart’s exit interview
I’ve referred to this on multiple occasions, but after last season ended, Hart was only one of two or three players to hang around to speak to the media, saying:
“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.”
There’s absolutely no way he’s doing this starting next to Damian Lillard. Sure, he may facilitate for periods when Lillard is on the floor but not as a starter. Those wishing for a Lillard-Hart tandem need to understand that this was decided four months ago and, short of something miraculous happening, nothing is likely to change.
Starters don’t play 48 minutes
We’ve already touched on this but despite starters owning a certain status, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for Lillard and Hart to play together. I imagine closing lineups might involve see the trio (including Simons) playing together. Hart is going to be called upon to play on this team, a lot, potentially battling Payton II for sixth man bragging rights.
One more thing, for those citing Manu Ginobili as a situation where running the better player off the bench worked. Come on guys, I challenge anyone to come up with another example. This is arguably not a sustainable recipe for success.
Simons is not just another McCollum
This one really irks me. Simons is bigger, more athletic, boasting a larger skillset. He’s also not paid as much as the New Orleans guard.CJ McCollum, as impactful as he’s been, is a ball stopper, most comfortable playing iso basketball. Simons has already shown a willingness to pass and put teammates into scoring positions.
Simons can also play off the ball. Sure he had it more in his hands when Lillard was convalescing but he’s shown an ability to move off the ball and hit a ridiculously high number of catch and shoot opportunities.
The Florida-born guard can also get to the rim and draw contact with ease. McCollum always struggled to do this. The only real commonality they share is the substandard defense and as we’ve discussed, Simons still has the time and the physical capabilities to address this.
Hart may be moved at the deadline
Last week, we discussed deadline deals the Blazers may pursue, using Justise Winslow and Hart’s (Player Option) expiring deals to bring back a player at a position of need. If the Blazers were able to secure a player of consequence in February, Hart earning $12.9 million would be one of the Blazers’ few available assets that would be of interest to other teams while potentially being expendable (yes, I’m using that word) given the glut of guard already on this roster.
I genuinely enjoy what he brings to the table and, from what we’ve heard, is also a pretty good dude, but the ultimate goal here should be to win a championship. And to get closer to that, Cronin needs to be able to fill gaps at the center and, more importantly, small forward positions.
Trading 101: In order to get something you need, you have to give up something that someone else wants.
I know it’s August and there’s little to talk about, but the push for Simons’ demotion to a bench role is a foolhardy pursuit. All indications suggest the Blazers see Simons as someone they can build the franchise around when Damian Lillard hangs his shoes up. They’re going to give Simons as much burn as they can before he enters his prime, which could still be four or five years away.
I know offense-only players tend to be suited to roles off the bench — see Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson and Jamal Crawford. But Simons is yet to prove or disprove that he fits in this category. I’m not delusional, the early defensive signs aren’t particularly great. But with offensive potential as clear as this, we can neither discount any defensive prowess or place a ceiling on where he could go scoring and passing the ball. The young man must start.