The Portland Trail Blazers are not expected to turn too many heads this season. Veterans Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, Matisse Thybulle and maybe Jusuf Nurkic will lead a group of kids finding their way in the league.
I noticed Bleacher Report projected the Oregon franchise to finish 2023-24 with a league-worst 14-68 record. Yeesh. But a horrible team record won’t necessarily preclude individual Blazers from excelling. Below I’ve set out some of the major individual honors and the Blazer or Blazers with a chance of attaining said award.
The discussion is based on the assumption Damian Lillard is moved before the start of the NBA season.
Unfortunately, for Grant, All Star nods are one of those individual honors reflective of team success. If the Blazers are as bad as the pundits are projecting, a 2023-24 All-Star from Portland is unlikely.
Grant is an above-average two-way forward who contributes in almost every aspect on the court, despite anemic rebounding numbers. If the 29-year-old can improve that rebounding rate, maintain his 40-plus percent three point shooting on high usage and present stingy defense across multiple positions, he’s a chance.
Grant’s probably the franchise’s best chance at an All Star nod, particularly given the lesser All-Star frontcourt competition in the wild Western Conference.
Simons has a chance to at least be mentioned in discussions if he starts well and boosts his point average closer to 30. The 24-year-old will be given ample time, usage and shot attempts to excel with team expectations being relatively low.
If he can show anything on defense, it’ll be a plus.
But if Simons is even going to sniff an All Star mention, the Blazers need to be at least in the Play-In picture, especially given how rare it is for lowly teams to get one honoree, let alone two.
Rookie of the Year
Likelihood: Very Significant Chance
The Blazers’ best chance at an individual award. Of his closest competitors — Victor Wembanyama, Chet Holmgren, Brandon Miller and Amen Thompson — Henderson will likely play more games and get more minutes.
The former G-League Igniter has been playing with and against adults for two years and is probably one of the more NBA-ready prospects to come through the draft in recent years.
Can’t wait to see him ply his trade in an actual NBA game.
Likelihood: Infinitesimally Minuscule
Congratulations to Murray, and twin brother Keegan, who turn 23 today.
The young forward is relatively NBA ready thanks to his four years at Iowa. If he can have a similar impact to what Keegan had with the Sacramento Kings last season, I wouldn’t completely dismiss him.
Murray’s ability to play both forward positions will likely give him ample opportunity to show off his offensive and defensive prowess. Unfortunately, there are far too many names in front of Murray for him to really figure.
Most Improved Player
Given Simons finished 2022-23 with impressive averages of 21.1 points on 37 percent three point shooting and 4.1 assists, he’s going to have to explode to come close. One assisting factor will be the rise in usage, but he can’t allow those extra touches to compromise that scoring efficiency.
Simons’ biggest hindrance will be the likely poor play of his teammates and the fact that his 2022-23 stats are already pretty impressive.
Likelihood: Very Small Still, but Present
Monta Ellis was the last sophomore player to snare this prize, all the way back in 2007. It’s a rare feat but not impossible and I’ve got no doubt Sharpe will be given every opportunity to build on his 9.9 points, 3.0 boards and 1.2 assists last season.
If Sharpe can replicate the form he showed through the last 10 games of the 2022-23 season — 23.2 points on 37.8 three point shooting, 6.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 0.9 steals — he may have to be mentioned in discussions.
Sixth Man of the Year
Likelihood: Very Small
If the initial projections are true, Sharpe will play back up to Anfernee Simons at shooting guard and Matisse Thybulle at small forward.
He could also play himself into a starting role come midseason, which is great for the Blazers but it dashes any hope of him taking home said award.
The Blazers probably don’t win enough games for Sharpe to really figure in Sixth Man discussions, but of all the names currently on the roster, he’s probably the closest to it.
Defensive Player of the Year
In the past 35 years, only six non-power forward or center players have taken home Defensive Player of the Year.
But the 26-year-old has natural defensive gifts — length, speed and instincts — that elevate him above other players at his size. In the 22 games he played with the Blazers, Thybulle ranked fourth in both blocks and steals among wings.
Whether he’s the best defensive player in the league is another question but he has the attributes to do. In no way am I trying to offend the new Grizzly, but if Marcus Smart can win the award, Thybulle should, at the very least, be a consideration.
All Defensive Team
Thybulle has already made two All Defensive teams. The first of which he earned as a 23-year-old, averaging a meager 20 minutes a night, starting only eight of his 65 games for the Philadelphia 76ers.
With a larger role in Portland next season, the Australian national representative has a decent enough chance to make his third. If he’s in the discussion for best defender in the league, I’m pretty sure he can crack the top 10 again.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict Grant will make either an All Defense or All Star team before his five-year deal is done. It probably doesn’t happen this year and there’s a good chance it doesn’t happen with the Blazers. But his length, instincts and intensity on the defensive end, give him the edge over most.
Last season, among forwards, he was 17th in blocks and 21st in defending without fouling. If he’s able to increase his defensive rebound rate, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Perhaps that contract combined with his elder statesman status could instil the confidence he needs to get to that next level.
Side note: MVP - Damian Lillard
If he’s not on the Blazers and on a contender, this is probably Lillard’s last real chance to go for the big one. In this scenario it’s also likely he scores his eighth All-Star nod.
Once Damian Lillard is moved on, a new era will dawn for the young Blazers. A handful of players will have moments this season, some more consistently than than others. Henderson has to be, at the very least, a second favorite behind Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year. Thybulle, depending on the amount of time he sees, could be up for a Defensive Team mention.
Any other award won by a Blazer in 2023-24 will be contingent on how well the team performs as a whole. Unfortunately, my hopes aren’t high.