Damian Lillard’s trade request to the Portland Trail Blazers over the Fourth of July Weekend, 2023 changed the landscape of Portland’s off-season, and obviously of the franchise itself. Before last Saturday, the Blazers were vowing left and right to build a contender around Lillard. Within an hour after the trade request, talk surrounding the Blazers had morphed to, “How much can they get for Dame?” and, “What the heck are they going to do now?”
No player on the roster stands closer to this momentous shift than shooting guard Anfernee Simons. As late as last week, he was a prime candidate for trade, tabbed as the main lever to move Lillard-compatible talent Portland’s way. With Lillard leaving, Simons stands in a new light, at least potentially. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
In the wake of THE trade request, what do you suppose is in store for the likes of Anfernee, Little, and Nurk?
You’re talking about three different players there. We can sum up two-thirds of them with these two assertions.
- Players the Blazers didn’t have an overt fondness for before the trade request, they still won’t have a fondness for. The other side of the coin also applies. They’re not going to trade someone just because Dame asked out. That would increase the outflow of desirable talent, not stem it.
- Timeline might affect value slightly more now than it did with Lillard at the core of the team. The Blazers won’t covet 30-year-olds for experience alone. Even so, they can’t field an entire 25-and-under roster. Keeping a handful of veterans around helps the growth process for the younger players.
Jusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant provide opposing examples of the forces at work.
Nurkic was widely rumored to be on the trade block before the off-season commenced. He’s now being mentioned as a possible throw-in with, or by-product of, proposed deals for Lillard. He’s 29 and, though he’s on a reasonable contract, he just doesn’t fit Portland’s plan. What held true before the trade holds true after. Centering the frontcourt around Nurk was precarious when he had Dame’s help. It’s not in the cards now, even though theoretically Nurkic would have more chance to strut his stuff than he ever has.
Grant is also 29, but the Blazers just re-signed him for $160 million. They’ll probably end up trading him before his five-year deal is through, but for now, they’re invested in him, comfortable with him manning the power forward spot until his time is up.
The Blazers had some, but presumable waning, affinity for Nurkic when Lillard was here. Now that Dame is leaving, Nurkic’s age and fit will work against him staying. The Blazers had great fondness for Grant. His age won’t matter. Neither will Lillard’s absence, except in the broadest sense of, “If we’re going to rebuild/lose between 2025 and 2027, no need to keep Jerami dangling.” Both are connected to Lillard, but the variables and relationships are too complex to draw a one-to-one correlation between Lillard staying and those other veterans remaining. They’ll serve or go on their own merits, mostly.
(Asterisks abound. The Blazers may end up trading Grant before they trade Nurkic. But if that’s true, it’ll almost certainly be because of market demand and return, not ideal intent.)
At 23, Nassir Little is a completely different case. He’s young, has upside, and currently plays at a position of need: small forward. The Blazers will be paying between $6.2 and $7.7 million for him over the next four years...a pittance.
When building around Lillard was the goal, there might have been an argument for throwing Little into trades for talent and salary ballast to bring back veterans. That’s not in the cards now. Little could still be moved if the Blazers think they could get a better player/package coming back in exchange for him, but his inherent qualities will be more prized with Dame gone, not less. Everyone on the roster will be auditioning and growing for the next three years, minimum. Little doing so alongside them won’t hurt a bit, and may prove beneficial if his promise turns into production. He’s a low-cost, high-potential, “room to grow” guy, right in the middle of their bell curve now.
That brings us to Simons himself. He’s a young, talented, athletic guard who’s blossomed into a high-level scorer while learning at least one and a half backcourt positions. The main complaints about him—lack of premium-grade defense and a tendency towards his own shot—were only detrimental because he played alongside Lillard. With Dame gone, Simons has a chance to become the player he was meant to be, without the burden of duplicating many of the functions of the team’s leader. Suddenly, the arguments against Simons leaving become the arguments for him staying.
Simons still has competition at both guard positions. The Blazers didn’t draft Scoot Henderson to sit him. Shaedon Sharpe is well behind the growth curve of most NBA players. He demonstrated a ceiling surpassing the orbit of Neptune last year, but apart from earning the “Dunk Master” trophy, he hasn’t ascended any of the upward stairs yet. He still loses contact in offensive plays. Don’t even talk about defense yet.
Starting a rookie next to a second-year guard is problematic under normal circumstances. With Sharpe essentially re-playing his rookie season under new conditions and Henderson learning the ropes, it might be disastrous. Short of Head Coach Chauncey Billups donning a uniform and taking the floor himself, there’s no support or infrastructure.
Simons is no Lillard in terms of experience, but compared to what the Blazers have got, the 24-year-old looks like the wise old guru on the mountain. If the Blazers want to field an actual team—with predictable plays, steady rotations, and any game plan besides turning Henderson and Sharpe out into the playground to fend for themselves—Simons will be key.
The Blazers may not be married to their three-man backcourt forever. Simons is still the most likely to be traded of the trio long-term. But for now, the Trail Blazers probably need to greet Simons with a, “He he”, some sharp tugging on their collar, and Rick Astley playing in the background:
“Sayyyy...you know all that trade talk before free agency? It was totally fabricated, a media creation. We’ve always loved you, my friend. Come on! Let’s sing the chorus together!”
Nobody knows exactly what the Blazers will do down the road. I suppose there’s a possibility they take back another guard in exchange for Lillard, in which case somebody has got to go. It’s also possible they decide to tank for the foreseeable future, turning over the keys to the kids and telling them to have fun. I don’t believe either course is wise, however. Absent that kind of radical course correction, Anfernee Simons should remain part of the roster for the next year, at least. Maybe beyond.
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