Wide-eyed optimism runs notoriously rampant at all NBA media days.
Before training camp opens and the real games tip off, players, coaches and executives alike inevitably fall victim to the unmitigated promise provided by another season to prove themselves at the game’s highest level. Even so, it’s not hard to suss through the league-wide landscape and pinpoint teams whose hopes and beliefs espoused on media day are rooted far more in reality than the afterglow of summer.
The Portland Trail Blazers’, though, existed somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Coming off a surprising trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Blazers exuded the sweeping confidence at media day that would be necessary for them to compensate for a major talent deficit compared to the Western Conference’s true elite.
Hassan Whiteside predicted multiple triple-doubles while playing in Portland’s dribble-handoff heavy attack. Mario Hezonja was féted by his new teammates and coaches as a game-changing point forward. Rodney Hood called his mindset “night and day” compared to last season, while Kent Bazemore admitted that he imagined himself being the Blazers’ “missing piece” while watching last season’s playoffs.
“This year,” Damian Lillard said on Sep. 30, “Our focus is to win the championship.”
Just over halfway through 2019-20, Portland’s focus has shifted dramatically. At 20-27 and tenth-place in the West, with the league’s 19th-best net rating, that much is clear. What’s less obvious and will prove instrumental in charting the path forward is how realistic their goal of winning a title this season was in the first place.
Imagine a world in which Portland’s offseason additions lived up to media-day hype and Jusuf Nurkic quickly regained the form that made him a two-way impact player upon returning from injury. Imagine Neil Olshey flipped Whiteside’s expiring contract for a proven playoff performer on the wing or up in front.
Where would that leave Anfernee Simons?
The same place he is right now – as the Blazers’ third guard. But instead of fading into the background of a lost season, Simons might be Portland’s biggest question mark with the playoffs fast approaching.
Olshey, like the Blazers’ players and coaches, forecasted much bigger things for his team this season than a fight for the last playoff spot in the conference. Among the rosier reasons why were his outlandish preseason expectations for Simons, a 20-year-old sophomore that notched just 141 minutes in the NBA last season after spending the previous year at prep powerhouse IMG Academy.
Gushing about Portland’s revamped roster at media day, Olshey said Simons is “the best young guard in the league.”
The Blazers had been hyping Simons for months, priming local and national media for a breakout campaign they made seem like a formality. Olshey is known for his unflinching and often outlandish optimism. No one realistic thought Simons would challenge for Sixth Man of the Year while backing up Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, let alone match the prorated production of precocious guards from his draft class like Trae Young or Shae Gilgeous-Alexander.
Even outsiders less familiar with Simons’ game, though, anticipated more than what he’s given Portland over the season’s first four months.
Simons is averaging 9.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 23.1 minutes per game. He’s connecting on an ugly 31.7 percent of his spot-up tries from deep, and shooting just 42.0 percent on drives, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Simons as the Blazers’ lead guard, or situations without Lillard or McCollum next to him, possess a 90.3 offensive rating – over 13 points lower than the Golden State Warriors’ league-worst mark.
Nearly as disheartening as the numbers is the eye test. A potential dunk-contest participant at All-Star Weekend with rare burst and fluidity, Simons’ elite athletic profile has been manifested during games on fleeting occasions this season. Absent a head of steam in transition or ample space to rise for alley-oops in the halfcourt, you’d have no idea Simons has routinely been described by Portland as one of the best overall athletes in the NBA.
None of this is to suggest that Simons is doomed. This season is his first taste of real NBA basketball. His blend of raw, on-ball scoring ability and physical tools still tantalize.
It’s not Simons that deserves criticism for underperforming expectations, but Olshey for slotting him in a role he’s definitely not ready to play. Under head coach Terry Stotts, the Blazers have relied on consistent productivity from third guards as much as any team in the league save the Dallas Mavericks. If Olshey wasn’t absolutely certain that Simons could come close to replicating the play of Seth Curry and Shabazz Napier over the years, while sprinkling in dashes of future stardom, earmarking such a crucial place in the rotation for him was always setting Simons up to disappoint.
In that vein, Portland’s failure to live up to preseason title aspirations could be considered a blessing. Simons’ development wouldn’t be hastened by cutting his teeth as the Blazers’ third guard while they chased a championship. The relative lack of pressure playing for a team whose dreams of playing in June have already vanished should make Simons’ ongoing acclimation to NBA basketball a bit easier.
That’s the only silver lining for Portland to glean from wasting a year of Lillard’s prime. The belief in-house is that the Blazers will recover from a debilitating spate of injuries, re-tool on the edges of the rotation and enter next season with the same sense of championship promise as they did this one.
But as 2019-20 has made so abundantly clear, Olshey’s capacity to accurately evaluate the strength of his roster will again loom large – and maybe, without the loftiest of expectations on his shoulders, Simons can still become the player Portland insists he will be.
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