Community Shootaround: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers were one of the teams I was most interested in following entering the 2022/23 season. Perhaps most importantly, I was curious to see how Damian Lillard would perform after the first lengthy injury absence of his career following abdominal surgery last season.

Lillard has been as brilliant as ever offensively, averaging 29.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 7.1 APG on .455/.366/.898 shooting, including a career-best .638 true shooting percentage, through 32 games (35.6 MPG). So, no worries there.

As we noted when we checked in on the Blazers at the end of August, the new front office, led by general manager Joe Cronin, reshaped the roster around Lillard through a series of trades, acquiring Josh Hart, Jerami Grant and Justise Winslow. The team also added Gary Payton II in free agency, re-signed Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, and selected Shaedon Sharpe No. 7 overall in June’s draft.

Portland got off to a terrific start, going 9-3 over its first 12 games. Unfortunately, it turns out that hot start wasn’t sustainable, as the Blazers have gone 12-20 since. They currently sit with a 21-23 record, the No. 11 seed in the West (they are 16-16 when Lillard plays).

Payton has missed most of the season with injury, as has Nassir Little, who recently returned from a fractured hip. Winslow is currently sidelined with an ankle sprain. The team’s bench depth has definitely been tested, even though the starters have been quite healthy overall.

Sharpe has been up and down, which is to be expected for a 19-year-old rookie who didn’t play at all in college. Grant has been very good, posting a career-best .621 TS% while playing solid defense.

Hart was great in 13 games (32.1 MPG) with Portland last season, averaging 19.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.3 APG and 1.2 SPG on .503/.373/.772 shooting, including a career-high 6.4 3-point attempts per contest. However, as John Hollinger of The Athletic writes, Hart has been a very reluctant shooter in ’22/23, averaging just 2.0 3PA despite playing a heavy workload (a career-high 34.2 MPG through 42 games).

Even with notable offensive weapons around him, it’s odd to see a player coming off his best individual season pass up shots like Hart has this season — he’s averaging just 7.1 FGA and 9.5 PPG. Complicating matters further is his unique contract and the team’s future cap outlook, Hollinger notes.

The Blazers want to re-sign or extend Grant, which is understandable. But Hart is almost certain to decline his non-guaranteed $12.96MM player option for next season in search of a longer deal. Keeping both while staying under the luxury tax might be impossible, according to Hollinger, who wonders if Portland would be better off dealing Hart at the deadline while they can still get value for him.

The 27-year-old is a solid defender, excellent rebounder and smart passer, plus he’s a vocal leader who plays with plenty of energy and effort. He will have positive value if Portland does move him.

The last thing I was interested in monitoring with Portland was the backcourt fit of Lillard and Simons, two scoring guards with poor defense. The results haven’t been great — the Blazers rank 11th in offense, but 22nd in defense. It’s hard to envision that changing as long as they’re together.

I actually like both players a lot individually, so this isn’t as critical as it might seem; I just think they’re a poor fit. I could easily see Simons thriving as the lead guard in Portland or another location — he averaged 29.0 PPG and 5.9 APG on .462/.419/.940 shooting in 10 games without Lillard.

The Blazers seem intent on being as competitive as possible this season. They’re only 2.5 games back of the Mavericks, the West’s No. 5 seed, and they could definitely end up there if things go right. But do they have what it takes to win a playoff series if they make it? Anything beyond that seems unlikely, even with Lillard playing at such a high level.

We want to know what you think.Where will the Trail Blazers finish in the standings this season? Can they make noise in the playoffs, if they make it? Should they move Hart while they can still get value for him, or hold off and try to re-sign him, even if it means going into the luxury tax? There are a lot of questions for this team, but not many easy answers.

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