The Portland Trail Blazers are entering the post all-star break portion of the 2022-23 season two games under .500, but just a half-game out of 10th place in the Western Conference standings.
A decent run over the final 24 games could get the Blazers into the play-in tournament, and with Damian Lillard on the floor, anything becomes possible in a one-and-done situation. (Or two-and-done, if Portland finishes ninth or 10th in the west. The same idea applies.)
But a not-so-decent run over the final two dozen games could get the Blazers a high lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. General manager Joe Cronin used the No. 7 pick last year to grab Shaedon Sharpe, and that appears to be going swimmingly thus far.
But which direction does Portland want to go? And perhaps more important than where is how. How do Cronin and head coach Chauncey Billups – and Lillard, too – take this Blazers roster and prepare it for the future?
Here are three things to watch for as Portland kicks off the final third of the regular season.
1. Do the young guys see a significant uptick in minutes?
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Billups give his younger players a longer look, whether the Blazers are shooting for a playoff spot or not.
If Portland wants to quietly tank, then this would be the obvious play. But Sharpe, Trendon Watford, newcomers Cam Reddish and Matisse Thybulle, and even Jabari Walker have played relatively well in the minutes they’ve received.
Since the trade deadline on Feb. 9 when the Blazers roster got re-shuffled, Sharpe is averaging 14 points per game in 27.5 minutes a night. He’s tied with Anfernee Simons for third on the team in scoring and is playing barely less than three fewer minutes than Portland’s starting two-guard.
The 19-year-old rookie is shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor and is hitting 57.1 percent from three on almost 5 attempts per game during that span. It’s a small sample size of only three games, but Sharpe is taking advantage of his extra opportunities.
Reddish is averaging 11.3 ppg in 23.1 mpg and is connecting on 41.2 percent of his 5.7 3-point attempts per night.
Thybulle has started both games he’s played in since arriving in Portland. He provided an instant spark defensively, but he’s also shown an offensive game he never displayed before he was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers.
The two-time Second-Team All-Defense guard is hitting his 4.5 threes a game at a 44 percent clip.
The 6-foot-8 Watford has been pressed into playing center since Jusuf Nurkic went down on Feb. 3. He’s averaged 8.9 ppg, 3.6 rebounds, and 21.2 minutes a night. He poured in 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting in a win over the Washington Wizards the night Nurk went down.
Giving the young guys minutes is important on two fronts. One, it’s critical to see what players like Reddish and Thybulle can do, as they’re restricted free agents after the season. Handing more minutes to Sharpe will only accelerate his development.
And two, pulling back on Lillard’s workload and giving more possessions and shots to other guys would – theoretically – increase Portland’s chances of grabbing a higher lottery selection (although Billups and Cronin may have to literally fight Dame on that one).