The Portland Trail Blazers will be young and likely without Damian Lillard in 2023-24, but that doesn’t mean they can’t contend for a postseason spot.
Losing the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and the best shooter Portland has ever seen is certainly a major blow. Depending on rookies like Scoot Henderson and Kris Murray and 20-year-old sophomore Shaedon Sharpe won’t come without growing pains.
But there are reasons for optimism in Portland.
The Trail Blazers could be stealth contenders for the postseason this year
Henderson and Sharpe possess out-of-this-world basketball talent, and though they’re raw, they may surprise some people around the NBA this season with how advanced their offensive games are.
And while that pair has garnered most of the offseason headlines (along with Lillard), the Blazers are bringing back two proven veterans who had career years last season and will get more opportunities to shine without Dame.
With a few tweaks and a little more luck on the injury front, there are reasons to believe Portland can make a surprise run in 2023-24. Not a run to the finals, not a run to a top-four seed in the Western Conference; but a run toward a play-in spot and maybe a place in the playoffs.
Reason No. 1: Anfernee Simons
Lillard had a career offensive year last season and remains one of the best scorers in the NBA, but some extra ball movement and balance couldn’t hurt. The biggest winner in any Dame trade – even perhaps more so than the Miami Heat (probably) – will be Anfernee Simons.
Simons was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Lillard and broke out as one of the league’s best offensive guards last year. He scored 21.1 points per game and dished out 4.1 assists a night. He was a slightly more efficient shooter from deep than Lillard (37.7 percent to 37.1 percent) while approaching double-digits in attempts (9.1).
All this while Dame had a 33.1 percent usage rate – the seventh highest in the league. Simons’ usage rate of 25.5 ranked 73rd.
Henderson and Sharpe will certainly get their touches, but as the Blazers’ best and most advanced offensive player, Simons should get up a ton of shots and have the opportunity to raise his numbers across the board.
The fact that Scoot is a more willing facilitator than Lillard shouldn’t hurt, either. Dame can beat defenders off the dribble and get into the paint, but he does so looking to score. Not only is Henderson more explosive and able to get past defenders better than Lillard, he’s more likely to draw the defense and kick out to open shooters.
Enter Simons, who was in the 80th percentile of all spot-up shooters in the NBA last season.
Simons had a breakout year in Portland in 2022-23, but he’s about to have a league-wide breakout in ’23-24 on his way to a potential all-star berth.