The Portland Trail Blazers missed the playoffs last season for the first time since Damian Lillard’s rookie year, and finished with their worst record (27-55) since the fall of the Jail Blazers era. After GM Neil Olshey was fired midseason for
being a total a-hole fostering a toxic work environment, his successor, Joe Cronin, called in the tanks and began reshaping the roster to meet the needs of first year head coach Chauncey Billlups. The Blazers were stripped down to a G League team for the final two months, losing 21 of their last 23 games – who out there had Drew Eubanks power them to a league title?
Some fans said “Tanks For Nothing!” for the lost season that saw a beloved borderline all-star player traded for role players and financial flexibility; the lottery balls left them at No. 7; and Lillard’s Primetime clock ticked through another year. But now Dame is back, the hype machine is rolling – “Not sure how good they’ll be, but they’ll be fun to watch!” – and Portland looks primed to return to its normal status as playoff team but not a contender.
I’m including the mid-season trades here, since that was basically the start of the Blazers’ offseason:
2022 Depth Chart
|PG||Damian Lillard||Gary Payton II|
|SG||Anfernee Simons||Keon Johnson||Shaedon Sharpe|
|SF||Josh Hart||Nassir Little||Justise Winslow|
|PF||Jerami Grant||Trendon Watford||Jabari Walker|
|C||Jusuf Nurkic||Drew Eubanks||Olivier Sarr|
Damian Lillard played 29 games and never looked comfortable before being shut down to fully heal from a lingering abdominal injury. His 3-point shooting dropped to 32% after shooting 39% and 40% from deep the previous two seasons. Expect him to return to form this year, although his minutes will likely dip a little and he’ll probably get the occasional rest game. He’s being drafted in the late first and early second rounds, and should easily be able to return that value.
In 27 games after Lillard’s season ended, Anfernee Simons averaged 23.4 points, 5.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds in 35 minutes of play, while shooting 42% from deep on 10 attempts a game. With CJ McCollum kickin’ it in The Big Easy, Simons is Dame’s new running mate. Simons has proven to be a crafty passer and he’ll still get plenty of run at point guard with the second team and when opponents purposely take the ball out of Lillard’s hands, so assists should remain in the 4-5 range. He doesn’t offer much in rebounds or d stats, but could be a Top 10 3-point marksman this year with solid percentages across the board. He’s being drafted around 100. I’m going TOOT TOOT on the hype train and say he has Top 50 upside this year.
Before going down with a case of plantar tankiitis after 56 games, Jusuf Nurkic had his best stretch of play since the last time he was in a contract year. When focused, The Bosnian Beast is a double-double machine who’ll provide average defensive stats for a big man and 3-4 assists. He is in his prime and shot a career best 53% last year. But consistency has always been his major malfunction. I wouldn’t reach in drafts, but he has the upside of a Top 10 center.
In a new role with Portland, Jerami Grant’s usage rate will drop, but that should be good for his percentages. He’s going to get a ton of open looks from behind the arc, and the shot has looked good thus far in preseason. An average of two 3s, a steal, and block each game is definitely in play here. He’s never been a great rebounder, but likely will play some center in small-ball lineups, so an uptick in that department is possible.
Josh Hart put up 20-5-4 with a steal in his 13 games with the Blazers. The scoring will drop with a full roster of competent players, but he still provides a solid all-around fantasy-friendly game. Billups announced this week Hart will start at small forward, but he can also play either guard spot with bench units.
There’s some hype for a Nassir Little breakout this season, but I think we’re a year or two away from that. Justise Winslow still can’t shoot, but can provide plenty of counting stats in deep leagues if you can take the hit on percentages. His abilities to defend 1-5 and to initiate the offense will make him a solid rotational player on Billups’ team.
No. 7 pick Shaedon Sharpe needs time to develop before he’s fantasy relevant, and will split backend bench minutes with Keon Johnson. Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks will take on backup big duties depending upon matchup — however, second-year 7-footer Olivier Sarr earned a two-way contract with his preseason play, and may eventually find a spot in the rotation depending on his in-season development. Second rounder Jabari Walker is also worth monitoring in case of injuries.
“Young Glove” Gary Payton II played 71 games plus the playoffs for the champs of Golden State last year, after totaling 71 games in his first seven NBA seasons. He led the league in steal percentage and, because he only dunks or shoots open 3s (at a respectable 35% clip), was 4th in the league in true shooting percentage. Of course, fancy advanced stats don’t necessarily translate to fantasy stud, but it will translate into minutes from a coach who loves lockdown defensive dogs.
Billups convinced Cronin to use the team’s full MLE on Payton II (3-year, $29 mil), so you have to believe that came with expectations of playing a major role. Payton II can defend anyone on the court (eagerly anticipating the rematch of Payton II v. Jokic) and will be effective with any unit on the floor. GPII could lead the league in steals this year and, with enough minutes, may produce as a low-end fantasy asset in all leagues and a solid contributor in deeper leagues.
Billups wants the Blazers to play with more pace and break away from the ISO-heavy offense of Blazers’ recent past. He may not get that with lineups featuring Lillard and Nurk, but the rest of the team is basically all athletic wing types, and the aforementioned lack of experienced bigs will result in lots of small-ball lineups, so role players will have plenty of opportunity to produce counting stats.
The Trail Blazers success this season will hinge on their ability to buy into Billups’ system and be disruptive enough on defense to make up for their lack of height. Chemistry shouldn’t be a problem, as Lillard is perhaps the best team leader in The Association, so the new look squad should be able to gel quickly. Predicting Portland’s season at this point is straight guesswork, though. That said:
Season Prediction: 42-40, win play-in game, first round loss in 7 games.