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Anfernee Simons Brings Frustrating Uniqueness to the Trail Blazers

Sometimes the ball-dominant option really is the best one.

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Anfernee Simons has only been able to play 8 games for the Portland Trail Blazers so far this season. He’s made a radical difference nonetheless, scoring 25.4 points per game and sending Portland’s offense into the stratosphere. Without him it had been hovering barely off the ground.

But the Blazers aren’t winning more games with Simons than they did when he was injured. Their defense isn’t as effective and their playing style isn’t as dynamic either. Add in a few isolation attempts and you have the makings of a disgruntled fan base despite Simons’ gaudy stat lines. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dear Dave,

Ant is back and suddenly it looks like we’re sliding back into the same old ball dominating offense from one guard. I don’t like the effect he has. Every time he jacks up a shot against a strong defender after a whole lot of dribbling I cringe. I felt like I was watching a real team and now I’m watching Dame Jr but without the success. Do you think Simons belongs anymore? Can we do without him? What would you trade him for? I’m ready to move on because he feels like last year’s experiment at this point.

Dale

I think you’re underrating him pretty severely. Simons is the only true three-level, off-the-dribbler scorer the Blazers have. Jerami Grant can score in volume from range or on the inside, but he doesn’t have the same handles or explosive potential Simons has. He’s more of a catch-and-shoot perimeter player. He’s not the same complex, multi-directional threat that Simons is.

Simons creates room for other offensive players with his ever-present three-point threat and his ability to drive. You can see the defensive floor spacing change when he takes the floor. Teammates are wider open when he has the ball. A lack of reciprocity is keeping you from seeing the full potential of the synergy. He isn’t surrounded by dead-eye shooters, or even great scorers. Ant’s colleagues aren’t creating the same space for him that he creates for them.

Nor are they converting his passes into points. He’s Portland’s leading assist-per-game man, second among regular rotation players in assists per minute. He’d have a bunch more assists if his teammates could make shots.

Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, and Grant don’t do the same things for the offense that Simons does. That’s why he’s getting so many minutes and plenty of shots besides. Those isolation attempts you’re witnessing happen because that’s what the defense (or Portland’s own offensive ineptitude) leaves available. Often Ant is the best option at that moment.

During the stretch Simons was out, the Blazers scored 110 points or more in non-overtime games only 5 times in 18 tries. With Simons, they’ve topped 110 in 6 of 8 outings. That’s indicative of the impact he has on the offense.

Defensively, Simons isn’t fantastic, at least not individually. But he’s no worse than Portland’s other non-Matisse-Thybulle guards. He’s not hurting the defense the same way he was when he got exposed playing next to other non-defenders in past years. Simons is fitting in, neither helping nor harming. For a high-scoring guard, that’s probably fine.

Running contrary to that assertion: the Blazers allowed 110 points in 7 of 18 non-overtime outings when Simons sat out. They’ve allowed 110 or more in 7 of the 8 games he’s played.

Be that as it may, you’re misidentifying one part of the equation, I think. At least right now, the choice doesn’t seem to be between Simons and Scoot Henderson, but Simons and Sharpe. At the end of the day, Henderson is a natural point guard. Neither of the other two are. And nobody’s game is dipping more since Simons’ return than Sharpe’s has.

The Blazers didn’t spend a third overall pick on Scoot Henderson to trade him. The question is which off-guard plays beside him.

Ant can catch-and-shoot, but he’s far more comfortable and dominant with the ball in his hands. That’s always going to create issues with Henderson, who is not an off-ball player and is not likely to become one.

Shaedon Sharpe is probably less of an off-ball player than Ant right now, but he still has room to grow in that department. He brings a non-paralleled rim attack. He’s also 6’6 instead of 6’3 like Scoot and Simons and he’s a better natural defender than Ant.

This isn’t trivial. We haven’t gotten a big enough sample size to make definitive statements yet, but Henderson and Sharpe appear to have the makings of a devastating defensive pairing. They can cover space, disrupt dribbles, and at least in Sharpe’s case, block shots. There’s a burgeoning magic between them, not developed yet, but under the surface.

Henderson and Simons seem to get stuck in isolation set-ups in which they both get burned. Yes, they can switch interchangeably, as they’re of similar heights, but neither one is threatening the offensive player that strongly. Nor does either provide intimidation in help situations the way Sharpe does.

Anfernee Simons is a better offensive partner for Scoot Henderson, or any point guard, right now. But Sharpe is far more likely to develop the three-point range and off-ball savvy necessary to play beside Scoot than Simons is to develop defense (or, obviously, height). If it’s a contest between the two long-term, I’m going with Sharpe paired with Henderson over Simons.

That’s down the road, though. Sharpe and Scoot need another couple seasons before we see them full-flowered. In the meantime, Simons gives them someone to learn from—passing, scoring, and playing off-ball—while keeping defenders from swarming the young guards as they learn.

Defenses already pack the paint against Portland as it is. If you trade away Simons now, leaving Scoot and Sharpe as your primary guards, opponents are going to keep everybody within 20 feet of the rim, ignoring Portland’s pick and rolls, shutting down all guard penetration, crowding all interior offense from Deandre Ayton or Jerami Grant, and inhibiting Portland’s ability to grab offensive rebounds.

Scoot and Sharpe may be the backcourt of the future, but they aren’t ready to support each other, the offense, or their teammates’ scoring ability yet. For right now, that’s Anfernee Simons’ role. And he’s pretty good at it, all things considered. Whether they like his game or not, Blazers fans had better get used to it, because they can’t live without him anytime in the near future.

Thanks for the question! You can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer them as the season unfolds!