The Portland Trail Blazers will exit the 2022-23 NBA season with more head scratches than high-fives. Damian Lillard had a standout year. Almost nothing else went right for Portland. Sometimes they were great, other times awful. It added up to a heaping helping of, “I don’t know?” Expectations heading into the year were higher than that. Not only did the Blazers fail to meet them, they exit the season with more questions than answers, seemingly no closer to a path forward than they were last September.
Yesterday we talked about the ambiguity and questions facing Blazers management and ownership. Today we’re going to chat about the actual roster issues.
Going against conventional wisdom—and just about every other article out there on Portland’s summer—we’re going to leave out the big issue: whether Damian Lillard stays. That dilemma will hover over the franchise every off-season until they take huge steps forward or he departs. But the Blazers have no control over Lillard’s mindset or requests. Dame will do what Dame will do.
Instead the Blazers will need to address questions creating a fog around Lillard, making the path forward more difficult to discern. Those include:
Is Jerami Grant Worth $30 Million?
Portland’s new starting power forward registered an impressive first season with the team, scoring 20.5 points on 47.5% shooting, 40.1% from the three-point arc over 63 appearances.
Impending free agency is one of the reasons a 20-point scorer with reasonable defense was available for a first-round pick and a clutch of seconds last spring. The Blazers got him because he’s expecting to get paid this summer. He wasn’t going to stay in Detroit, nor did he fit their rebuilding plans. The investment wouldn’t have made sense for them. Does it make sense for Portland?
On the surface, this is an easy yes, not just because of the stats, but because of sunk cost. Portland didn’t make this deal to lose Grant after a year.
Slight cracks showed up in the shell of certainty as the season progressed, though. When the roster around him got injured, Grant was asked to step up into a secondary, sometimes primary, scoring role...spots usually occupied by Lillard and Anfernee Simons. He wasn’t able to carry the team the same way the guards did.
That’s not unexpected, but it does remind us that Grant is part of a puzzle, requiring pieces around him. He’s not a one-man solution. In particular, the Blazers will want a couple strong scorers ahead of him in the pecking order in order to free up his one-on-one opportunities or open looks from three.
Grant isn’t a rebounder either. He never has been. It’s not likely he’ll become one in his prime. That puts an extra burden on Portland’s centers and wings, who must produce above their heads to keep the team from getting obliterated on the glass. The Blazers can’t slot anyone into the five or three positions (maybe not even into the two) who can’t rebound.
None of these things are a problem inherently. Few players are perfect. But the whole conundrum becomes more interesting when you consider the near-$30 million price tag Grant is likely to command in July. That’s not superstar money, but it is “core player forever” land.
The cost would be a no-brainer if the Blazers were in contention. They’re not even close. They weren’t showing great promise even with a healthy lineup. As soon as things started to crumble, they collapsed. Now they’re left praying for lottery luck or a huge trade in the off-season, just like all the other non-contending teams out there.
Under those conditions, does it make sense to lock down an expensive player who, though clearly talented, amounts to one of the best complementary pieces in the league rather than a bona fide star? What, exactly, is Grant complementing?
For those curious, the Blazers will have no cap space this summer unless they divest themselves of a half-dozen incumbent free agents, including Grant. Were they to do so, they could clear around $20 million in space. That’s a healthy chunk, but not enough to sign a Grant-level player, let alone backfill for everyone else they’d lose. From that perspective, re-signing Grant is the obvious move.
Even so, that $30 million is going to push them past the cap and towards the luxury tax stage. They can probably fit in Grant without exceeding the tax for now. Unless they divest, this will be the last year they can manage it, as Lillard’s salary and those of other veterans—including Grant—will increase year to year. It’ll also impair their ability to add salary during the season without exceeding the tax threshold.
Dubbing re-signing Grant as an all-in move would be overstating. It’s not hyperbole to say it’s going as far in as the Blazers can possibly go for now, riding their current train. Whether that’s a smart move at that price remains to be seen. They’re going to do it to preserve trade possibilities and because they’d be openly rebuilding if they didn’t. But that doesn’t make this the solution. If that contract doesn’t end up tradeable in the future, the move might not look so good in two years.
Is Anfernee Simons the Right Guard?
Like Grant, Anfernee Simons had a fine season, scoring 21.1 points per game over 62 appearances for the Blazers. As with Grant, that production didn’t translate into victories, despite franchise superstar Damian Lillard posting the best statistical year of his career.
Before the season started, some were wondering if Lillard and Simons could produce victories any better than Lillard and CJ McCollum did for most of a decade. Simons is slightly more athletic than McCollum was, but his defense still remains to be proven and he’s not an inherently better scorer yet.
Despite Simons’ points, the synergy between him and Lillard wasn’t seamless. They’d often take turns scoring rather than flowing together. The team didn’t fare any better defensively with this starting backcourt either.
The Blazers have Simons locked into a $25 million per year deal. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, should they re-sign Grant, they’ll be pushing $100 million for just three players next year, exceeding it after.
Under these conditions, it’s easy to speculate on Simons trades. But he’s young—just approaching 24—with a quick-release shot that’s the envy of the league and plenty of athleticism besides. If he wasn’t playing beside Lillard, Simons would be considered a nearly-untouchable bright spot. Plus, as we just said, Grant needs someone like Simons to play off of, making Simons’ scoring an important bridge in the offense.
If the Blazers could trade Simons in a package for a true superstar, they’d get better. Absent that deal, the options aren’t so pretty. If they move him for less, they get worse. If they trade Lillard and let Anfernee slide into the #1 option role, they get worse, at least in the short term. If they simply keep him as-is, they probably don’t get better.
Under those conditions, we’re not just asking whether Simons is the right guard for Portland, but what the definition of “right” is. The Blazers don’t have all the answers about their young shooting guard individually. They seem to have fewer about how he’ll fit into a cohesive, contending unit.
Can Jusuf Nurkic Be Consistent?
Most of Portland’s best stretches of basketball over the past seven years—the times when they looked like contenders—came when Jusuf Nurkic was firing on all cylinders. When he’s on, Nurkic provides a defensive anchor in the frontcourt and versatile scoring on the other end, coupled with all the rebounds you can eat.
The problem is, Nurkic isn’t always on. He played just 52 games this season, down from 56 last year. He’s exceeded 60 games in only 4 of his 9 NBA seasons, none since 2018-19.
Even when he’s physically on the floor, Nurkic’s contributions appear to wax and wane. Some weeks he plays like a Top 5 center. Other weeks he’s a complete non-factor. At some point in the season it’s nearly guaranteed that Nurkic will look slow and heavy, plodding down the floor at the tail end of everyone else. At other points he’ll look trim and spry, moving with deceptive speed to block shots or grab boards.
Nurkic can be a phenomenon on offense or a turnover machine. His post game ranges between stilted and graceful. His three-point shot is either dialed in or nowhere near the mark. Sometimes he’s the hub of the offense. At other times he barely touches the ball.
The Blazers have tried to coax the best out of Nurk for several seasons now. They’ve never gotten it for more than a few weeks at a time. Eventually it feels like they give up, letting Nurk do Nurk things and counting it to the good when he prospers.
Portland is in a similar situation with Nurkic as they are with Simons: not prospering living with him, can’t live without him. He provides the only size the Blazers can boast of. They need 11-12 rebounds from him per night just to survive. Having a conduit for the offense in the middle of the floor (as opposed to an endpoint or a non-factor) helps open the court for shooters and cutters. If the Blazers were to dump Nurkic, they’d be worse off. Keeping him, they’re getting no better.
Through all of this, we still don’t have the answer to whether Nurkic is a really good NBA center, an average one, or just a frustrating one. And that’s after seven years with the organization. He’s the walking definition of Portland’s puzzlement rather than a solution for it.
Is There Anybody Else?
The rest of Portland’s roster is a hodgepodge.
Shaedon Sharpe is the great future hope. He’ll need another season of seasoning before we can gauge his full game. At the same time, he’s the most-mentioned trade asset from analysts outside of Portland save Lillard himself. If the Blazers are going to make a huge move to build around Lillard this summer, Sharpe may have to be part of the deal. Does Portland risk that? It would depend on how high Sharpe’s ceiling is. At this point, we don’t know.
Matisse Thybulle is a solid player, the most bankable among Portland’s reserve. There’s little ambiguity around him. Everybody else is a huge crapshoot. Cam Reddish, Justise Winslow, Nassir Little, Kevin Knox II...the entire middle of Portland’s roster is filled with forwards carrying question marks. Three-quarters of them are free agents too, adding an extra layer of confusion to the process. Who knows if they’ll even be here, let alone what they’ll do.
Summing up, we know Damian Lillard is a superstar. We know Matisse Thybulle can defend and, at least in Portland, appears to be hitting three-pointers. After those two, serious questions surround every significant member of the Blazers’ roster, starting with whether they’ll be here, continuing through how much they’ll cost, and concluding with whether they’re really the right fit anyway, though Portland doesn’t have a ton of clear options besides.
Record aside, this is one of the major reasons that the Blazers are hoping for random chance in the lottery to bail them out. Or, failing, that, angling for a dream trade that resolves all this ambiguity by its mere existence.
It’s a little like buying a Powerball ticket hoping that it’ll hit, allowing you to buy a new house and leave the one you’re in already. If it doesn’t, you know you’re going to have to go back home and face the chaotic mess in the basement, and attic, and kitchen, all of which have to be cleaned up at some point, and there’s only you to do it.
Doom and gloom isn’t merited yet. The Blazers still have assets and potential. But it’s scary just how many unknowns and decision points they’re facing right now, right alongside all the ambiguity in management, also alongside the pressing clock on Lillard’s career and his requests to actually win soon.
This is no trivial matter. The Blazers aren’t just banking on one or two things going right. They’re going to need resolution to important questions up and down the roster.
If they don’t get them, they’re probably going to need to make moves that reduce the ambiguity itself. Every team faces a limited number of decision points and flaws. A cascade of them, particularly in the face of a mandate to win, becomes its own enemy. That’s a battle the Blazers can’t continue fighting if they’re going to succeed.