The Portland Trail Blazers, led by six-time All-Star Damian Lillard, have a new revamped roster heading into the 2022-2023 NBA season. While it does not exactly represent the type of overhaul that many expected, as it still lacks size and veteran experience, this team still has potential. The real question that needs to be answered this season is how this team will stack up against the rest of the league.
The Blazers’ biggest need in the offseason was to increase their defensive presence. Their major acquisition, bringing in borderline all-star and defensive stud Jerami Grant from Detroit in exchange for draft picks and young prospects, represents a major upgrade at the forward position. Grant averaged 20.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists per game on 42% shooting during his last two years with the Detroit Pistons. He stands at 6’8″ tall, giving him the length and size to guard bigger wings and he’s quick enough to switch onto perimeter players as well. He’s a clear defensive upgrade that has also proven he can carry himself as a primary scorer.
The Trail Blazers re-signed fan favorites Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, cementing their roles as the starting shooting guard and center respectively. With Lillard limited to 29 games during the 2021-2022 season, Simons and Nurkic stepped up before being ultimately shut down for the season as well. Simons was averaging 21.2 points, 5.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds during his time as a starter. During a four-game streak in February, Nurkic was averaging 21.5 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, but was ultimately shut down as the Blazers went full speed ahead into tanking mode.
After helping the Warriors win the NBA title, Gary Payton II signed a three year, $26 million contract with the Blazers. The former Oregon State guard went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft and over the next 5 years barely registered on the NBA radar, averaging three points and two rebounds for four different organizations over just 71 games before finding a spot in the Warriors’ rotation this past season. His return from injury in the Finals helped spur the Warriors; in the last 3 games of the series, the Warriors were +33 in the 56 minutes that Payton played. In addition to his tenacious defense he provided the occasional offensive spark, highlighted by racking up 15 points, five rebounds, and three steals in Game 5.
This year it will be a tall task to make noise in the West. The Warriors will be at the top of the conference, alongside the Phoenix Suns and young upstart contenders like the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and even the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Clippers health will play a factor and so will the cohesion of Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the Lakers, but those teams will certainly have to be reckoned with. The Nuggets have back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and he’s getting his reinforcements, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., back healthy.
So where do the Blazers fit in? Many forget that in 2019, with a healthy Lillard flanked by a high-scoring guard in CJ McCollum, strong wing defenders in Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, and talent like Evan Turner, Zach Collins, and Seth Curry coming off the bench, they finished 3rd in the Western Conference and pushed themselves all the way to the Western Conference finals. Can players like Simons, Grant, Payton, and Sharpe provide Lillard with enough support in these roles to yield similar results? Even returning to that level of play might not be enough in a much deeper conference where so many of the top contenders have an extensive track record of playoff success.
The Blazers as currently incarnated can still squeeze into the playoffs, although that will require that they outlast their own former star guard in McCollum and his scrappy young New Orleans Pelicans squad along with one or two of the aforementioned contenders. But a healthy Lillard can do a lot of damage on his own, as we’ve seen in seasons past, and it’s not like he’s acting alone – he now has a legitimate second option in Grant and a potential star backcourt mate in Simons. Gary Payton II, Josh Hart and Trendon Watford play with a physical style that can do some damage against other team’s bench squads.
The biggest x-factor for this team will be Shaedon Sharpe and how quickly he comes into his own. Five minutes in a summer league game is not enough to determine how he will perform in his NBA career; giving him an opportunity to play meaningful minutes with the a borderline playoff team could expedite his development. We also can’t discount the play of young veteran Justice Winslow, who saw significant minutes last year and could develop into a solid bench player with the Blazers now that he’s finally healthy. The team also signed second round pick Jabari Walker, who showed enough talent in the Summer League to earn a three year, $4.76 million contract.
Without knowing how teams and players will perform this upcoming season, fans can also hope that there may be kinks in the armor of certain teams that could present an opportunity for the Blazers to pounce. Could the Blazers be in the running to trade for Kevin Durant? They have the picks, the potential young stars, and the fit that would provide a perfect runway back to the Finals for Durant. The Blazers could also make more moves later in the season for some more defensive minded players such as Myles Turner, OG Anunoby, or even Draymond Green. Or they could double-down by acquiring another All-Star like Donovan Mitchell or Pascal Siakam.
The Blazers can treat this season as an experiment to develop their young talent and overall team chemistry. But do the Blazers have time for an experiment? The Blazers bring back four players in their starting lineup from last season’s roster and get an upgrade at power forward. The team improved on defense, which had been sorely lacking in seasons past. Once they have a better grasp on the development (or trade value) of Simons, what Sharpe could become, and the reality of a fully healthy squad, the Blazers could either lean more into the direction of a rebuild or a more immediate push for contention. The clock is ticking, but it’s still Dame time.
Lillard has repeatedly stated that he wants to win a championship in Portland, and still talks about seeing him parade down Broadway. The window seemed to be closing, but as long as Lillard is on the team there will be opportunities to force it back open. By signing their star to a sizable contract extension they’ve bought themselves time to build around their centerpiece but can also pounce on more immediate opportunities to upgrade if they present themselves. How well Lillard meshes with the new players will help the team determine what other changes are needed around the edges to bring them to the promised land. The results likely won’t be immediate, but Lillard will help the Blazers endure this season and set them up to contend for a championship in the near future.
PG Damian Lillard
SG Anfernee Simons
SF Nassir Little
PF Jerami Grant
C Jusuf Nurkic
Gary Payton II
*1 roster spot still open for 2-way contract at present