Twitter has recently been rife with half-baked and sometimes nonsensical expressions of outrage and panic pertaining to the Portland Trail Blazers’ current woes.
Yes, the team sits outside the 2023 NBA Play-In picture following a series of losses eventuating after comfortable Portland leads — last Sunday's Los Angeles Lakers game comes to mind. But let's take a deep breath and remind ourselves where this roster has come just 12 months after it was pretty dramatically altered.
Further improvement could be just around the corner with the NBA trade deadline less than two weeks away and the team reportedly looking to be buyers. The Blazers post-February 9 rotation could look markedly different, particularly following reports yesterday that starters Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic are on the table.
Dealing either would obviously spell the end of the Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic starting lineup. That group has played the league's second most minutes this season at 523, while carrying a total plus minus of -2.
The quintet sits behind only the Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, Harrison Barnes and Domantas Sabonis at 534 minutes, a group that boasts a +101 plus minus.
By now Coach Chauncey Billups and General Manager Joe Cronin should have enough to go on when evaluating what this group offers. Today we discuss a potential change that might help improve the effectiveness of the team moving forward.
Yep, that’s right, a Nassir Little for Josh Hart swap. Not because Hart isn’t a starting-level NBA talent, it’s because in this team he makes more sense with the reserve unit.
And while a Lillard, Simons, Little, Grant and Nurkic lineup has only played a meager 9 minutes — all against the Utah Jazz with Lillard putting up 60 points — there’s enough to suggest that it’s a more optimum collection of talent.
Disclaimer: I’d intended to write about a Little promotion before discussion of a potential Josh Hart trade and the injury sustained against the Jazz on Wednesday. So, despite it now potentially happening by default, I still believe it’s the best way forward.
Why Little Makes Sense
It’s obvious to most that Lillard, Simons, and Grant will remain starters. Add in Nurkic, because as much as we love Drew Eubanks, he’s not starting. Sure, the big Bosnian could be gone before or at the deadline, but for now he’s this team’s only answer.
Hart is one of the league’s best rebounders for his size — this season Hart is in the 99th percentile for wings grabbing 18.6 percent of available defensive rebounds.
But he’s inches shorter and pounds lighter than Little, which has been exposed when the former Pelican guards bigger wings. I’m not saying he doesn’t work his tail off, but sometimes the other guy is just too big.
The way the current starting lineup is configured, ball handling and facilitating — two of Hart’s prime assets — are not lacking. Lillard and Simons—and, to a lesser extent, Nurkic and Grant—have already shown an aptitude for this.
Hart isn’t able to maximize his skillset with his contribution drowned out by teammates. The Blazers need a complementary player at small forward, someone who, ideally, doesn’t need the ball and is willing to hit open threes.
Last week, I wrote about Hart’s reticence to take long range shots. Sure, there’s been a marginal increase in his three point attempts over the past week, but Hart appears more comfortable taking the ball to the rim and consequently negatively impacts spacing for Lillard and Simons.
Conversely, through 27 games this season, Little has shot 47 percent of his shots from the three — considered the 49th percentile for forwards. He’s hitting 45 percent of them (not including heaves), which is good enough for the 96th percentile among forwards.
In fact, he and Grant have been this team’s best three point shooters this season — the only two hitting more than 40 percent on at least 11 attempts. Surely, the Blazers would benefit from its two starting forwards being able to knock down shots from long range at a regular rate.
As we discussed with Hart last week, he is shooting 27 percent of his shots from three— the 10th percentile for wings. And he’s making 33 percent, the 28th percentile among wings.
Little also offers as much defensive ability and intensity and with his 6’6 height and 7’1 wingspan he also has a better chance at guarding some of those larger, more dominant wings — compared to 6’5 Hart who owns a 6’8 wingspan.
Prior to the season, it was suggested that the starting small forward spot was up for grabs with Hart, Justise Winslow, and Little all in contention. At the time, Little was still recuperating from abdominal surgery and was no way near ready to compete at his fullest.
I wrote at the time that I preferred Winslow for the role. Winslow has similar ball handling and facilitating chops to Hart. But given his slightly taller and bulkier frame, Winslow provided more defensive versatility, able to guard positions one-through-five.
Unfortunately, Little, now in his fourth year out of North Carolina, has had some of the rawest luck when it comes to injury. The 22-year-old has lined up in only 27 games this season thanks to his recovery from the abdominal procedure and a hip injury that side-lined him through December and January. The Blazers went 9-12 in his absence.
Unfortunately, injuries have interrupted a good portion of the former 25th pick’s career. He’s not appeared in more than 48 games in a season since entering the league in 2019. But nothing in those injuries suggests he’ll never be able to remain fully healthy.
Contract wise, Little surprised everyone in the hours before the start of the season, signing an extremely team-friendly, four-year, $28 million extension, which kicks in for the 2023-24 season. If he can stay healthy through his 20’s it’s a downright bargain for someone able to fill a starting role.
Hart’s Bench Bonus
At the end of the 2021-22 season, Hart spoke on the role he was expected to play this season. He clearly spoke to playing with the ball in his hands a lot more. And he should. Hart posses a nice handle and has decent enough court vision.
“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.”
There is absolutely no way Hart was going to get the touches he thought he was going to get playing alongside Lillard, Simons, Nurkic and Grant.
Coming off the bench, Hart can still get his 26-28 minutes a night, can share the ball handling load with one of (not both) Lillard and Simons. He’s able to make better use of his skills, which, let’s be honest get drowned out when he’s starting.
Hart can also play to his more natural position at shooting guard with more flexibility in the configuration of the second unit.
This discussion might be moot, given Hart’s injury and a potential pending trade elsewhere. Either way, I think if Little had been fit and ready in October he would have won the starting small forward spot then.
Little not only brings a bigger physical profile to the small forward position, he’s also a willing three-point shooter, which this team definitely needs in this starting lineup. The Blazers also don’t need another starter who needs the ball in his hands, they ultimately need someone to stretch and keep the floor stretched to open up the lanes for its two offense-focused guards.
This is no reflection on Hart. More a commentary on his skillset, which is much better applied to the second unit as a second facilitator than as a starter in this lineup.