It was fascinating to read all the emotive and unambiguous comments. But unfortunately, none of them were enough to change my mind.
My stance was reinforced this week, when Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report noted the team might see an upgrade at center as its priority.
Over the past few days, I’ve had a think about the comments and why some might be laboring under misconceptions, overlooking three key points pertaining to the 23-year-old:
- The Blazers front office is not necessarily building for this season — there’s a bigger picture.
- Anfernee Simons is not CJ McCollum.
- Anfernee Simons, 23, has played fewer than 30 games starting alongside Damian Lillard.
I’ll touch on each of these points and why Simons needs to remain where he is for the time being.
Building for the long-term
With last February’s partial tear-down of Portland’s roster, a new timeline was put in place. Crucial to this debate, Norman Powell and CJ McCollum were traded away to “create a runway” for Simons to reach his potential.
The Blazers — in consultation with Damian Lillard (see below) — required time to properly re-tool this team, undoing questionable moves made by the previous front office, using their newfound assets and flexibility.
It was clear to most that there was little way Portland was going to be in a position to contend through 2022-23. There were trade exceptions to use, assets to develop, other stars to become disenchanted and draft picks to come to fruition. Shaedon Sharpe, Jabari Walker, Keon Johnson, Greg Brown III and Trendon Watford all needed time to develop.
As we stand here on January 7, 2023, the Blazers are not a finished product. Far from it. This is despite the fact that Lillard is 32, with the number of prime games in his back pocket, dwindling by the day.
Yes, the Blazers are living in two timelines. But anyone who thinks it’s 2022-23 or bust, needs to suppress the need for instant gratification, if it’s only for the sake of their own sanity.
Cronin has acknowledged the holes in this team. He is fully aware of the lack of height behind Jusuf Nurkic and no clear answer at starting small forward. It wasn’t done out of any negligence and I believe it wasn’t out of a lack of trying.
Of the many things that became increasingly frustrating living under Neil Olshey was the annual roster construction, using cheap parts that didn’t fit. It was a flawed strategy that prevented the team from progressing.
But let’s actually look at what Cronin told Danny Marang and Brandon Sprague on the Jacked Ramsay’s podcast in October.
“You know, we’re trying to build, this isn’t a win-now roster as far as, we haven’t pushed in all of our chips yet. We weren’t signing players based on position over talent. We’ve been choosing talent over need, basically throughout this whole process.”
“We knew there’d be some positional redundancies and some positional holes and we’re OK working through that because we’re trying to build our talent base, trying to build this culture we’ve been talking about. And also we haven’t pushed all of our chips in as far as, we haven’t made a big move yet, like using future draft capital or anything like that.”
“And this comes with a lot of discussion with Damian about trust in where we’re heading and trust in what Chauncey and I are telling him.”
Yes, he gave Nurkic a larg-ish contract last season — arguably more than he deserved. But, to me, the rationale for this was helping match salary once they had targeted the “push the chips” player they wanted when he becomes available.
Anfernee Simons is not CJ McCollum
A number of comments suggested that Simons was a carbon copy of CJ McCollum and would consequently yield the same results when paired with Lillard.
While it’s easy to label Simons as just another McCollum-like guard, it’s not entirely accurate. Before we get onto the pair as players, Simons' contract ($22,321,429 this season) is still considerably smaller than McCollum’s ($33,333,333 this season). This alone allows the team to improve the roster in ways that CJ never could.
Defense is the obvious concern with Simons’ game.
Let’s start with physical attributes. Wikipedia lists Simons at 6’3. He’s not, he’s openly said he’s not sure how tall he is now. I’d suggest he’s closer to 6’5.
Not convinced? Let’s see him next to 6’5 Josh Hart.
One more next to 6’3 McCollum. And this one is a little older, he might have shot up over the past few months. He’s also got an extra inch on McCollum when it comes to wingspan.
Athletically, Ant and CJ are in completely different ball parks. McCollum rarely gets to up for dunks, Simons is a Slam Dunk champion, helped along by a 41.5 inch vertical leap — McCollum’s was 38.5 inches.
Simons has the physical attributes to be a decent defender. At 23, he has at least another year or two of playing starter-level minutes to get there.
I’ll just point out something that caught my eye during last week’s win against the Detroit Pistons. While the Pistons are far from an offensive juggernaut, there was one defensive play where Simons stayed with and stopped a savvy veteran 6’7, 226lb Bojan Bogdanovic from getting to the rim, altering his shot. Simons, of course, has to do this on regular basis, but the ability is there.
Yes, it’s clear that Simons isn’t a good defender at the moment. But he’s shown glimpses of ability and length that McCollum never could. He’s 23 — a year older than McCollum was when he entered the league, but a year younger than McCollum was when he started playing starter-level minutes in 2015-16.
Obviously, we’re dealing with a guy in his tenth year vs. a guy in his fifth so this is not an exact science, but ...
Simons is not the ball stopper McCollum is. I don’t begrudge McCollum for this; it's worked for a long time. But during his Portland tenure, the ball rarely left CJ’s hands unless he was shooting. Simons is a willing passer. If you don’t believe me, hear it from Lillard himself on Media Day.
With me and CJ, we could score a lot of points, CJ, he’d get the ball, he’s crafty with the ball, you knew you could count on CJ to get 20-25.
I think because he (Simons) was so young and he was watching it every game for his first couple of years in the league, I think kind of he adopted that mentality as an NBA player. He’s already that kind of person that is unselfish, he sees the game the right way and I think because of that, because of who he is, because of him being my rook and him developing as my teammate, it’ll be like two of us out there basically. He can get to spots, he can score really well but Ant is going to make the right play and if he gets going, he’s going to get going but I know that he’s going to have the same type of mentality that I have so it will allow me to be on the ball sometimes, him to be on the ball sometimes, but it won’t look like my turn, his turn. It’ll be more movement, more action, the ball will hop around more so I think that’ll be the difference.”
This is also probably a factor in the team’s high turnover rate through the early part of this season. But if they can work these kinks out, the team looks markedly better.
Despite McCollum sharing the court with Zion Williamson, and for lesser periods Brandon Ingram, he’s still getting about 18 shots a game — the same as Simons. However, the younger guard is registering 22.2 points over McCollum’ 20.0 points.
Simons shoots more from three. Through 36 games, the 23-year-old takes 44 percent, or 8.0 attempts, from two, hitting 51 percent of them. From beyond the arc, he’s attempting 56 percent or 10.1 shots, which is pretty impressive, given he’s still making 38 percent of them, despite experiencing some relatively ordinary nights thus far.
For McCollum this season, the majority of shots come from within the arc at 60 percent or 10.7 attempts, with 44 percent dropping. From long-range, of his 40 percent, or 7.2 attempts, McCollum is logging a decent 39 percent.
But despite McCollum’s penchant for two-pointers, Simons is still getting closer to the rim more, taking 3.0 shots within three feet, compared to McCollum’s 2.5.
Simons’ more versatile bag of athletic tricks also poses trickier questions to opposing defenses, and with those superior physical gifts can wind his way and contort his body into a wider range of positions, particularly as he increases his attempts at the rim.
Simons and Lillard need time
Like my first point, fans need to slow down and not expect instant gratification. The recent losses have been incredibly frustrating, but I'm not too concerned about this team, this season.
If they make the playoffs, great. But I’d much rather the Blazers use the assets they now have to build and maintain flexibility in the hope of building a squad that actually has a chance in the playoffs.
Simons and Lillard have started fewer than 30 games together. And while some of you might say, “So what, they’ve been teammates for more than four years”, I’d say this team looks decently different to previous seasons. The starting backcourt needs to be given the same time to mesh as its predecessor had.
Yes, Lillard is 32, but the team has already been more conservative with his workload, preserving his body. Dame is playing a career-low 35.4 minutes a game. He’s suffered two relatively minor calf injuries, which have kept him out for a dozen games and reportedly, the team sat him a little longer than they would have previously.
Why? Because the guy is earning $63 million four years from now and they want him to stay on the court, so he and Simons can get the best out of each other for as long as possible.
I’ll repeat the above, Simons is 23, a year younger than McCollum was when he was thrust into a starting role next to Lillard. The pair need time to acclimate and work out each other’s rhythms. If there are still issues 12 months from now, then we can start to worry.
This team moved CJ McCollum and Norman Powell to make way for Anfernee Simons. Why, oh why, would you move him three months into his first season as a starter, with all the potential he brings to the table?
Jusuf Nurkic, 28, has been in Portland six years and while there’ve been many highs, there’s been a heck of a lot of frustration as well. Simons is just scratching the surface of both his basketball and athletic gifts. But he also needs time with Lillard, he needs time for Cronin to improve this roster and he needs time to continue proving he’s not just another CJ McCollum.