Trailblazers need to establish a rating hierarchy to be successful


Trailblazers need to establish a rating hierarchy to be successful

The Portland Trail Blazers will enter the 2022 NBA Free Agency period with a roster already filled with experienced talent. They’ve managed to build an interesting roster around franchise superstar Damian Lillard and try to make another run of relevance in the NBA’s Western Conference. As far as we know now, the rotation will look something like this:

point guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons

Shooting Guard—Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson

Little Striker—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Greg Brown III

power forward—Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford

Center-Yusuf Nurkic

Yesterday we speculated that the Blazers will need extra help down the middle, not only to round out the squad aesthetically but also because injuries and fouls often mean Jusuf Nurkic remains on the bench. Positionless basketball is all the rage right now, but you still need someone with size to defend and rebound against opposing bigs. Portland has Nurkic… and that’s about it.

The second problem with Portland’s growing roster is less obvious but could be just as critical, especially if they trade another starter at the small forward.

The Blazers will be well balanced on the starting lineup, with interlocking pieces coming off the bench. On paper, the overall off-center rotation looks pretty solid, especially when everyone is working to their maximum potential.

Will they still be able to?

Portland has a couple of high profile scorers in the backcourt. Lillard and Anfernee Simons are offensive powerhouses capable of putting up 25 a night – capable of it averaging 25 a night – as natural as breathing.

The caveat: The duo have never worked together while Simons was at his full potential. He thrived in Lillard’s absence last season and enjoyed whatever shots he wanted to make. As soon as Dame hits the ground again, the situation changes. In whose hands will the ball be? Will all that shooting and dribbling still be available for Simons? If not, how does that affect its production?

That’s just the opening salvo. There is precedent for Lillard playing alongside a top scorer; CJ McCollum filled that role for years. Simons could slip seamlessly into the 1A scoring position. But what about the rest of the list?

The Blazers don’t have to worry about minutes and shots themselves. These things tend to work themselves out. Instead, ask how many of Portland’s new and returning players want to thrive in a bigger role, especially offensively.

Lillard is immune to questions about this. He’s an All-NBA Guard, a multiple All-Star, and the face of the franchise. The team will form around him, not the other way around. Whatever Damian Lillard wants – or thinks it’s good for the team – he should get. That is his role and position.

However, check out the rest of the lineup.

Simons thrived last season. He won’t want to take a step back, nor should he. He’s not just a great attacking player, that’s his main job. Take away from Simon’s scoring chances and there aren’t nearly as many reasons to keep him grounded.

At 27, Jerami Grant is just entering his prime. He found traction and will now receive a huge contract extension as the primary offensive option with the Detroit Pistons. He’s not the most efficient scorer in the universe. He plays better defense and has a more rounded game than his new backcourt teammates. That should definitely keep him in rotation. But he’s not looking for a fourth option in Portland. He’ll start the season — at least on paper — no better than the Blazers’ third on offense.

Jusuf Nurkic is on a similar timeline as Grant. He also has multiple tools, but the more he has on offense, the better he plays. In particular, he withered when pushing down the offensive options flowchart. He’s not at his best when he’s not being touched. He also doesn’t want to be the fourth option.

Josh Hart is quite possibly the most selfless Portland veteran on the court. But his contract includes a post-season player option and he’ll want a bigger payday, whether from the Blazers or someone else. He also scored 20 points a game as a first or second option at Portland last year when almost everyone else was injured.

Shaedon Sharpe is a newcomer and has little leverage to work his way up the points hierarchy. He was also a lottery winner, touted as a potential phenomenon on hold. The basis of that assessment was – you guessed it – his ability to put the ball in the bucket. He’ll be at the back of the line if needed, but that’s not really why the Blazers got him.

Well…let’s imagine for a minute that another hot rumor comes to fruition this summer and the Blazers trade Hart for Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby. He plays well in defense and would be a great win. But he’s leaving Toronto precisely because he’s being pushed off offense by fellow forwards Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. He wasn’t going to come to Portland to repeat that situation, with pressure from more quarters.

You could duplicate that paragraph for Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, although that move seems less likely after the Grant acquisition. Deandre Ayton would be more amenable to the defensive/rebound role, at least initially, but the Blazers would pay him enough to warrant a rise to the goalscoring stratosphere.

In a way, this is a good problem. Creating too many chances is a luxury. The Blazers will have no trouble finding second and third options alongside Lillard. Your problem, if any, will come when someone has to finish fourth and someone else has to finish fifth.

Also note that none of these players are shooting specialists, the kind that defend hard, stand in the corner on offense, and hit 40% of their three-point attempts without ever dribbling the ball (and/or waiting for someone else to shoot and track offensive rebound to the exclusion of everything else). Portland’s lineup is full of shot creators, volume scorers, or at least guys who like to mess with it a little.

Resolving this issue without sacrificing the role, energy and contributions of the players who end up on the outside will be a key to Portland’s development and success this season. If they want to keep up with this line-up, everyone has to work at a consistently high level. This will require sacrifice and synergy. These qualities will be one of the few keys that will determine if the blazers look good on paper or on the pitch as well.

(PS Don’t be too surprised or disappointed if the Blazers end up winning players with less name value and volume-scoring potential but more targeted skills in the upcoming NBA free agency period, partly for this reason.)

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