The Portland Trail Blazers came across a major problem in their last game before the All-Star Break.
Anfernee Simons sprained his ankle and is out indefinitely.
Simons has started 56 of 58 games for the Blazers this season and has averaged 21.4 points in those games. That is a massive amount of scoring numbers that the Blazers need to make up, either on offense or defense. Head coach Chauncey Billups has yet to announce what he plans to do with the starting lineup in Simons’ absence, but there are a few options he has at his disposal.
There seems to be four players vying for two spots. The small forward position which has been vacated by a Josh Hart trade, and the shooting guard spot until the return of Simons. Any two of Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, Matisse Thybulle, and Shaedon Sharpe seem about as likely. That makes six possible lineup combinations if the assumption is that Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, and Drew Eubanks (or Jusuf Nurkic when he returns) have their spots guaranteed.
Here are the lineups, ranked by personal preference, and the pros and cons of each possibility:
6. Nassir Little and Cam Reddish — The Catch-and-Shoot Threats
The first lineup, and my personal least favorite, would have Nassir Little start at the two and Cam Reddish at the three. This lineup allows for a lot of shooting around the center with Little shooting 39.6% from three this season and Reddish shooting 41.2% so far with the Blazers. The two combine for 14.7 points this year and can both serve as a great release valve on a Lillard drive and kick or a spot up threat from the corner after a pick and roll.
However, where this lineup falls short is on defense. Little has shown a lot of flashes on defense, but has struggled this year more than he has in the past. The Blazers as a whole have struggled defensively, so defensive rating is an unreliable stat to use, but Nassir Little’s 117.6 defensive rating comes in last for all Blazers that have played more than 15 minutes per game. Reddish this year has a 115.3 defensive rating which puts him near the middle of the Blazers at 7th out of 11 eligible players.
This two-man group has a lot of merits, but serves better as a mid-game tandem than a starting one. Bringing one or both of Reddish or Little off the bench provides the bench with a lot of shooting. Overall, this starting lineup puts a lot of defensive pressure on both Jerami Grant and whichever center is playing. If these two players start together, the chances of the Blazers falling behind early increases due to the lack of a great defender at the point of attack.
5. Matisse Thybulle and Nassir Little — The Bulky Wings
The defensive potential of this pairing is very intriguing. Little serves much better as a third defender than a second defender. Allowing Grant and Thybulle to attack on the perimeter allows a lot more freedom for Little to be able to disrupt on defense without being relied on too heavily. Thybulle leads the Blazers in defensive rating this season and is 9th in the league of players averaging 12 or more minutes. His defensive chops will take a lot of pressure off of the backline.
The offensive side of the ball is where things get a little muddied with this lineup. Thybulle does not bring much on offense. He is a below-average spot-up threat, but adds less everywhere else. He has not shown enough to be respected by defenses from three yet, despite hitting 4/6 from deep in his Blazers debut. Nassir Little does not have enough off-ball gravity to make up for that, and has been sagged off of by defenders when more pressing scoring threats are active. Having both in the starting lineup could see a lot of defensive pressure come Lillard’s way, especially with a non shooting big in the middle. Nurkic is slightly better than Eubanks in that regard and could pose a bit more of a threat on the pick and pop, but also doesn’t demand much gravity.
Being able to bring both Reddish and Sharpe off the bench provides a lot of scoring, but the lack of offense coming from the starters mitigates that advantage.
4. Shaedon Sharpe and Cam Reddish — See What You Have
The former No. 10 overall pick out of Duke pairing with the number seven pick in this last draft makes this lineup an intriguing option to assess the potential of players on the roster. Sharpe and Reddish have been good as starters this year as they combine for 18.7 points as starters in 16 total games between them. That number would likely increase due to the number of shots up for grabs without Simons in the lineup for the foreseeable future. This allows for both offensive weapons to try and prove that they can take their game to the next level and contribute to winning. A hyper athletic duo could lead to a lot of electrifying offensive possessions. Both are also potent shooting threats and can create their own shot off the dribble to help take pressure off of the rest of the starters.
Once again, however, defense becomes an issue. Neither Reddish nor Sharpe has proven much more than a potential for being above average on defense. A lot of pressure falls once again on the shoulders of Jerami Grant to stop the best perimeter player on any team the Blazers face. Both Reddish and Sharpe are long and can be disruptive, so maybe this trial by fire is a good way to get the best out of them defensively.
Overall, there is a lot of good that comes from giving the two highest potential pieces on the team a lot of opportunity. However, that doesn’t always equate to winning games right away. If the goal is to win this year, then this lineup may not be the best answer, but it would be fun to watch.
3. Shaedon Sharpe and Nassir Little — The Homegrown Talent
There is a good track record of NBA teams trying to win with their draftees. Allowing Little and Sharpe to start together puts the two most recent Blazers first round picks in the spotlight together. This approach puts two incredibly potent catch and shoot threats around Damian Lillard, and has the benefit of these both being guys well adjusted to Dame’s play style. So far this year, 96.5 percent of Sharpe’s threes and 94.7 percent of Little’s threes have been assisted on. They both shoot above league average on threes and demand respect from deep off of the ball. Being able to space the floor around Lillard has always been a winning strategy, especially when it comes to the pick and roll with a good screener like Eubanks or Nurkic.
Defensively there is a bit to be desired, but the potential with both players is there. Neither player is tall enough to be considered a big small forward, but both are long and versatile. Neither would be the worst defender on the court at any time with this Blazers team and are both capable enough to take pressure off of the other guys for stretches. The ability to drop in Thybulle off the bench at any point is also a good way to make up for any defensive worry that could arise.
Overall, the Blazers have done a very good job finding quality players in the draft, and showcasing two of their recent ones is a great way to show that off while still being able to win.
2. Matisse Thybulle and Cam Reddish — The New Guys
This tandem has started every game they have played for the Blazers so far, and slotting in Grant for Simons is about as good of a defensive upgrade you can get on this Blazers team. They have the benefit of already logging a decent amount of minutes on the court together, which is important when talking about guys that joined the team just over a week ago. Thybulle is an oversize two guard that brings a lot on the defensive end. Thybulle would be the biggest starting shooting guard in a Blazers uniform since the Westley Matthews days. That kind of defensive versatility flanking Lillard would open up a world of possibility on that side of the ball.
There isn’t much of an offensive drop off either, as Reddish is pretty well equipped to hide Thybulle’s deficiencies on that end. Thybulle would be the only player on the perimeter that defenses would be able to sag off of, and that would allow for a lot of offensive space for shot creators like Lillard, Grant, and Reddish to operate. Reddish is also big enough and long enough to be a decent defender, especially when tasked with guarding a third option.
The starting lineup of Lillard, Thybulle, Reddish, Grant, and Nurkic would scare a lot of teams thinking that the Blazers are the same defensive pushover that they have been the last few years.
1. Shaedon Sharpe and Matisse Thybulle — Mixing Offense with Defense
The two and three combination of Shaedon Sharpe and Matisse Thybulle mixes offense with defense in a way that should bring out the best in both players. Sharpe has been enjoying a great February so far, averaging 9.5 points per game in his eight games this month. He seems to be trending up on offense and has been trending up for a while. He has not started a game since back in November, but he has cemented himself as one of the first guys off the bench averaging 21.6 minutes per game in 2023. The only really big knock on him thus far has been his defense. Sharpe has the tools to be a good defender in the NBA, he just has yet to put it together, and that is where Thybulle comes in. Having Thybulle at the three puts a second great perimeter defender in the starting lineup to pair with Jerami Grant. The ability to have Sharpe as a third defender means he will rarely be guarding a star, and will instead be often slotted against more of a role player.
On offense, the two compliment each other extremely well. Sharpe is enough of a threat to create for himself that it allows Thybulle’s weakness in that department to hide easier. Off the ball, Sharpe has a lot of gravity, which would allow for easy looks from Lillard with a more spaced out defense. Thybulle has shown to be a willing shooter, and if defenses help off of him, he can occasionally make them pay. If Thybulle progresses to become even an average shooter, this lineup becomes a massive offensive threat.
This lineup allowing for both Little and Reddish to be plug and play shooters off the bench is a massive benefit as well. If there is ever a lull on offense, one or both of those guys could easily fill that gap.