It seems like only a matter of when, not if, Damian Lillard is traded. The Portland Trail Blazers have likely moved on internally and are trying to make sense of what a post-Dame roster could look like with Scoot Henderson taking the reigns.
Scoot may be the headliner, but he’s not the only young, ascending potential star Portland has. The NBA world would do well not to sleep on other members of the Blazers’ future core.
For now, though, the Trail Blazers roster is what it is, barring some small moves around the margins. (And unless general manager Joe Cronin decides to swing big in a Lillard trade to acquire another star who would immediately be inserted into the starting lineup.)
Following the seemingly inevitable Lillard deal, though, and as the roster is currently constructed, what group of five should Portland fans expect to see on the floor for the opening tip of the 2023-24 season?
Portland Trail Blazers 2023-24 projected starting lineup
Point guard: Scoot Henderson
Even though he’s a rookie and has yet to play an NBA game, Scoot Henderson is the future of the Blazers franchise.
He showed why in his brief time on the floor at summer league – the patience of a true point guard coupled with the athleticism required to be a star. Henderson was a pick-and-roll maestro, using screens and waiting for the defense to adjust before making his move, whether that was a pull-up jumper, a kick-out pass to an open shooter, a dish to the roll man or simply a burst of incredible acceleration into the lane for a nifty finish.
It would’ve been easy for Scoot to simply show off his explosive athleticism, especially in a setting like summer league. But he chose to show his advanced feel for the game and ability to run a team that he learned in two seasons in the NBA G League that he started at age 17.
His inaugural season won’t come without its hiccups, but Scoot is much more advanced than a typical rookie, especially for a point guard. There’s legitimate reason to think he could challenge Victor Wembanyama for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award.
Shooting guard: Anfernee Simons
This could be a major breakout season for Anfernee Simons. Like Most Improved Player, first-time All-Star kind of breakout season.
Simons was second on the team in shot attempts last year at 16.9 per game. Lillard led the team with 20.7. Even with Henderson on board and more attempts for the next player on this list, Simons will likely attempt more field goals than any other Blazer and should lead the team in scoring.
The 24-year-old set career highs across the board in 2022-23 when he became more involved in the offense: he averaged 21.1 points and shot nearly 38 percent from three on more than 9 attempts per game and averaged more than 4 assists for the first time.
With a higher volume of shots and a more go-to role, Simons could be closer to 25 ppg in ’23-24. He’ll likely slide in at point guard when Scoot sits, which would give him even more control of the ball and the offense, which should only enhance his numbers and case for his first All-Star Game berth.
Small forward: Shaedon Sharpe
Shaedon Sharpe is often pegged as a two-guard, but as he matures, gets stronger and more familiar with the NBA game, there’s no reason he can’t be a starter on the wing. He’s 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan and was listed at 200 pounds last season; assuming he puts on some more muscle this summer, he’ll certainly have the size, length and athleticism to play as more of a hybrid guard/forward.
More than anything, though, starting Sharpe at this spot is the best way to get the Trail Blazers’ triumvirate of the future all on the floor as often as possible. Henderson is 6-2, Simons is 6-3 and Sharpe is 6-5, so Portland will once again need to deal with a lack of size; the goal next year, however, is to get these three reps, not necessarily win at a high level, so struggling defensively isn’t a huge concern.
(Plus the team has struggled defensively for years anyway, so what’s the difference really?)
Similar to Simons, Shaedon should see an increased shot volume and role in the offense in 2023-24. There were glimpses in summer league when he showed the ability to create for himself as an isolation scorer, something the Trail Blazers don’t currently have in a player taller than 6-3.
Sharpe averaged 9.9 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47.2 percent shooting and 36 percent shooting from three in 22.2 minutes as a rookie. There should be a dramatic uptick in every statistical category this season.
Power forward: Jerami Grant
Cronin decided to re-sign Jerami Grant to a five-year, $160 million contract before Lillard announced his trade request. The deal wasn’t official until five days later, but Portland decided to bring Grant back at that high dollar amount anyway, even with Dame likely out of the fold.
It’s a dramatic overpay (and would be even if Lillard was coming back), but the 29-year-old can still bring plenty of value to the Blazers.
Grant shot 40.1 percent from deep on almost 6 attempts a night last year. It was the most efficient season of his career, even if not statistically the best. He put up bigger numbers when he was the No. 1 option for the Detroit Pistons, but was arguably a better offensive player as a third option behind Lillard and Simons.
Assuming this is the lineup that starts the season, Grant will immediately become its best defender. At 6-foot-8 with a 7-3 wingspan and above average athleticism, he’ll be Portland’s most versatile and important defender.
He hasn’t been in a ton of big games and isn’t known as a locker room leader, but he’s a nine-year veteran who’s been around the league and knows what it takes to play at a high level. Combine that with his offensive and defensive skill sets and, assuming he remains in Portland all season, Grant will be a valuable piece of the Trail Blazers’ starting five.
Center: Jusuf Nurkic
This spot is subject to change – perhaps likely and significant change – but as of now, Jusuf Nurkic returns as Portland’s starting (and really only) big man. Cronin should try to include Nurk and the rest of his salary in any Lillard trade, which would make this spot open for competition; the problem is that the Blazers don’t really have any other NBA-ready big men on the roster.
Drew Eubanks was solid for Portland last year when Nurkic was injured, and Trendon Watford played as a small-ball center toward the end of the season. Neither is still with the Blazers.
Duop Reath played 19.5 minutes across five summer league games and averaged 13.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Ibou Badji also played in five games, averaging 19.1 minutes and 3.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Neither is ready to play any real NBA minutes. At best, they’re two-way players who would spend the season in the G League, assuming they even make the roster.
If Nurkic is traded – which he should be, even if it leaves the Trail Blazers with no real big men – Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez could be brought in as free agents who are still available, or Portland could take a flier on a young prospect such as Vernon Carey Jr.
The center spot would be bleak without Nurkic and even kind of bleak with him, but with the goal of developing Henderson, Simons and Sharpe and perhaps landing another high lottery pick next summer, it wouldn’t be a massive loss. The idea of starting those three and building around them is what matters in 2023-24.