Why the Trail Blazers Shouldn’t Trade Anfernee Simons
Last week I wrote a column highlighting the need for the Portland Trail Blazers trade Jusuf Nurkic. Interestingly, the piece provoked further thought transferring to Anfernee Simons than the great Bosnian.
It was fascinating to read all the emotional and unequivocal comments. But unfortunately, none of them were enough to change his mind.
My position was reinforced this week, when Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report pointed out the team could see an upgrade at center as your priority.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the comments and why some might be laboring under misconceptions, missing three key points regarding the 23-year-old:
- The Blazers’ front office isn’t necessarily being built for this season — there’s a bigger picture.
- Anfernee Simons is no CJ McCollum.
- Anfernee Simons, 23, has played fewer than 30 games starting alongside Damian Lillard.
I will touch on each of these points and why Simons should stay where he is for now.
Long term construction
With Portland’s partial delisting last February, a new timeline was established. Crucial to this debate, Norman Powell and CJ McCollum were traded “create a track” for Simons to reach his potential.
The Blazers, in consultation with Damian Lillard (see below), required time to properly retool this team, undo the questionable moves made by the front office, using their new assets and flexibility.
It was clear to most that there was little way Portland would be in a position to contend until 2022-23. There were trade exceptions to use, assets to develop, other stars to disenchant, and draft picks to land. Shaedon Sharpe, Jabari Walker, Keon Johnson, Greg Brown III and Trendon Watford all took time to develop.
As we stand here on January 7, 2023, the Blazers are not a finished product. Far. That’s despite Lillard being 32 years old, with the number of major games in his back pocket dwindling by the day.
Yes, the Blazers live in two timelines. But anyone who thinks it’s 2022-23 or bankruptcy needs to suppress the need for instant gratification, if only for the sake of their own sanity.
Cronin has acknowledged the holes of this equipment. He’s fully aware of the lack of height behind Jusuf Nurkic and doesn’t have a clear answer when it comes to starting small forward. It wasn’t done through negligence and I don’t think it was for lack of trying.
Of the many things that became increasingly frustrating living under Neil Olshey was building the annual roster, using cheap parts that didn’t fit. It was a flawed strategy that prevented the team from progressing.
But let’s actually look at what Cronin said to Danny Marang and Brandon Sprague on the Jacked Ramsay podcast in October.
“You know, we’re trying to build, this is not a win-win list right now, we haven’t put all our chips in yet. We weren’t signing players by position over talent. We’ve been picking talent over need, basically throughout this process”.
“We knew there were going to be some layoffs and some position holes and we’re OK working through them because we’re trying to build our talent base, trying to build that culture that we’ve been talking about. And also, we haven’t pushed all of our chips until we’ve made a big move yet, like using future draft capital or anything like that.”
“And that comes with a lot of discussions with Damian about trusting where we’re going and trusting what Chauncey and I are telling him.”
Yes, he gave Nurkic a big contract last season, probably more than he deserved. But to me, the reason for this was to help match the salary once they had targeted the “push the chips” player they wanted when he became available.
Anfernee Simons is no CJ McCollum
Several comments suggested that Simons was a carbon copy of CJ McCollum and therefore would produce the same results when paired with Lillard.
While it’s easy to label Simons as another McCollum-like guard, it’s not entirely accurate. Before we get to the pair as players, Simons’ contract ($22,321,429 this season) is still considerably smaller than McCollum’s ($33,333,333 this season). This alone allows the team to improve the roster in a way that CJ never could.
Defense is the obvious concern of Simons’ game.
Let’s start with the physical attributes. Wikipedia lists Simons at 6’3. He’s not, he’s openly said he’s not sure how tall he is now. I would suggest closer to 6’5.
Not convinced? Let’s see him next to 6’5 Josh Hart.
One more next to 6’3 McCollum. And this one is a little older, it might have shot up in the last few months. He also has an extra inch on McCollum in terms of wingspan.
Athletically, Ant and CJ are in completely different ball parks. McCollum rarely dunks, Simons is a slam dunk champion, helped by a vertical jump of 41.5 inches – McCollum’s was 38.5 inches.
Simons has the physical attributes to be a decent defender. At 23, he has at least another minute or two of entry-level play to get there.
I’ll just point out one thing that caught my eye during last week’s win against the Detroit Pistons. While the Pistons are far from an offensive juggernaut, there was one defensive play where Simons stayed and stopped a 6’7, 226-pound veteran Bojan Bogdanovic from getting to the rim, disrupting his shot. Simons, of course, has to do it regularly, but the ability is there.
Yes, it’s clear that Simons is not a good defender right now. But he has shown flashes of skill and length that McCollum never could. He’s 23, a year older than McCollum was when he entered the league, but a year younger. than McCollum was when he started playing entry-level minutes in 2015-16.
Obviously, we’re dealing with a guy in his tenth year versus a guy in his fifth, so this isn’t an exact science, but…
Simons is not the ball stopper that McCollum is. I don’t find McCollum for that; it has been working for a long time. But during his tenure in Portland, the ball rarely left CJ’s hands unless he was shooting. Simons is a willing passer. If you don’t believe me, hear it from Lillard himself on Media Day.
With me and CJ, we could score a lot of points, CJ, he’d get the ball, he’s smart with the ball, you knew you could count on CJ to get 20-25.
I think because he (Simons) was so young and saw him every game his first two years in the league, I think he took that mentality as an NBA player. He’s already that type of person who’s not selfish, he sees the game the right way and I think because of that, because of who he is, because he’s my tower and he develops as a teammate, it’s going to be like two of basically We. He can get to places, he can score really well, but Ant will make the right play and if he gets going, he’s going to get going, but I know he’s going to have the same kind of mindset as me, so he’s going to do it. let me be on the ball sometimes, him on the ball sometimes, but it won’t feel like my turn, his turn. It’s going to be more movement, more action, the ball is going to jump more, so I think that’s going to be the difference.”
That’s also likely a factor in the team’s high turnover rate through the early part of this season. But if they can fix those issues, the team looks a lot better.
Even though McCollum shares the floor with Zion Williamson and for lesser stints Brandon Ingram, he’s still getting about 18 shots per game, the same as Simons. However, the younger guard is averaging 22.2 points to McCollum’s 20.0.
Simons finishes more than three. Through 36 games, the 23-year-old is making 44 percent, or 8.0 attempts, from two, hitting 51 percent of them. From beyond the arc, he’s attempting 56 percent or 10.1 shots, which is pretty impressive considering he’s still shooting 38 percent despite experiencing some relatively average nights so far.
For McCollum this season, most shots come from the arc at 60 percent or 10.7 attempts, with 44 percent falling. From long range, of his 40 percent, or 7.2 attempts, McCollum is recording a decent 39 percent.
But despite McCollum’s two-point penchant, Simons is still getting closer to the rim, making 3.0 three-footers, compared to McCollum’s 2.5.
Simons’ more versatile bag of athletic tricks also poses tougher questions for opposing defenses, and with those superior physical gifts, he can push his way and contort his body into a wider range of positions, especially as he increases the his attempts at the edge.
Simons and Lillard need time
Like my first point, fans need to slow down and not expect instant gratification. The last few losses have been incredibly frustrating, but I’m not too worried about this team, this season.
If they make the playoffs, great. But I’d rather the Blazers use the assets they have now to build and maintain flexibility in hopes of building a team that actually has a shot at the playoffs.
Simons and Lillard have started fewer than 30 games together. And while some of you might say, “So what, they’ve been teammates for over four years,” I’d say this team looks a lot different than previous seasons. The starting track should be given the same time to jam as its predecessor.
Yes, Lillard is 32, but the team has already been more conservative with his workload, conserving his body. Dame is playing a minimum of 35.4 minutes per game. He has suffered two relatively minor calf injuries, which have kept him out for a dozen games, and the team reportedly sat him a bit longer than they would have done previously.
Because? Because the guy is going to make $63 million in four years and they want him to stay on the court, so he and Simons can get the best out of each other for as long as possible.
I’ll repeat the above, Simons is 23, a year younger than McCollum was when he was thrust into a starting role alongside Lillard. The couple needs time to acclimatize and work on each other’s rhythms. If there are still problems in 12 months, we can start to worry.
This team traded away CJ McCollum and Norman Powell to make way for Anfernee Simons. Why, oh why, would you move him three months into his first season as a starter, with all the potential he brings to the table?
Jusuf Nurkic, 28, has been in Portland for six years, and while there have been plenty of highs, there’s also been plenty of frustration. Simons is just scratching the surface of their basketball and sports gifts. But he also needs time with Lillard, needs time for Cronin to improve this roster, and needs time to continue to prove he’s not just another CJ McCollum.
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