NBA

How much can Anfernee Simons help the Trail Blazers?

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Anfernee Simons is one of the bright young prospects for a Portland Trail Blazers team in need. He scored 17 points per game last season, shooting 44% from the field, making Blazers fans forget about the wave of injuries, trades and disappointments that otherwise defined the 2021-22 campaign.

The Blazers will have the option of re-signing Simons this summer. He is a restricted free agent; they have the right to match any offer made to him. But is Simons the answer to their woes? That’s the subject of today’s Mailbag Edge from Blazer.

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David,

There’s a lot of talk about building the future around Anfernee Simons, but his stats are nowhere near the level you’d want for a franchise stalwart. Obviously he’s young and last year he played with a lousy team and no ladies to help him increase his efficiency, but even so how do you look at those numbers and say to yourself ‘This is the guy I want to build my team around?”

For reference, here are Simons’ stats.

15.3 PER is just a hair above the league average. None of these numbers jump out at you as a guy who is a breakout star.

Digging deeper into advanced defensive stats, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus shares and Defensive Win Shares are literally the last in the entire NBA this season.

For comparison, here’s how he lines up next to Josh Hart, a guy no one seems to be putting into the long-term plan at all.

If you looked at those numbers blind, Hart would be the guy who not only seemed like the better player, but a much better fit next to Dame given his defense and rebounding advantage over Simons. Ant will only be 23 next season, but after 4 years of NBA development and 30 starts this year, what signs are there that he’s poised to improve dramatically beyond what he’s been up to? ‘he is actually ? And what does it give you that you can’t find in a reasonably priced replacement veteran guard?

So my question is, if you’re Joe Cronin, why is he your guy? And, if you’re looking for assets to trade to field a roster around Lillard, why wouldn’t you want to trade Simons’ potential developing into a complete player for a quality veteran who can actually help Dame right now?

Thanks!

-J

Respect for research and reasoning!

You’re really asking two separate questions here:

  1. Where does the famous “potential” of Anfernee Simons come from?
  2. Is this potential the best option for the Blazers right now?

In order to understand the first question, we need to be a little more specific than your numbers show. You are not wrong. Simons has room to improve. He must do this if he wants to become a superstar and/or lead a competing team.

That said, I’m not sure I’ve heard too many people predicting All-NBA status for Ant. The big question right now is not whether he can become a superstar, but a star, or at least a high quality starter.

If you look at career numbers, or even overall stats like PER, Simons looks mediocre. It’s not unusual for a player in his position: not a lot of basketball experience coming into the league, playing for a team in transition, earning spotty minutes until this season, then watching the team collapse around him.

The common denominator in all these playoffs: teammates and the environment are very important. Playing behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for years, Simons’ minutes weren’t going to be huge, nor was his effect on the floor limitless. His defensive numbers were influenced by his role and the general strength of the defense around him. This season, the one Simons finally managed to flourish (comparatively), the Blazers had no defense. He wasn’t going to look good no matter what he did.

It’s not an argument that he’s a great, or even a good, defender. More like, the jury is still out on “worst in the league” because every guard in the universe would register poorly on defense given Portland’s motley lineups this year.

Some statistics highlight the potential value of Simons. His three-point shooting percentage shines. He shot 42.6% from the arc two years ago, 40.5% this season. Add to that a quick release and you can see why people are excited about Simons’ ability to stretch the floor and pour points. His scoring efficiency should stay high as he reaches his peak.

The attendance percentage is another interesting indicator. Simons’ position was in question before last season. He flourished as a shooting guard, but could he set up other players in focus? In 2020-21, his assist percentage (percentage of his teammates’ field goals assisted) was 11.4%, far from distributor territory. In 2021-22, it nearly doubled that stat to 22.2%. It’s not a fantastic number; Lillard’s was 34.0%. Simons sits with Hart and CJ McCollum, more hybrid guard than true point. But the upward curve impresses.

Simons will turn 23 before next season. He didn’t play college ball. His journey through the NBA so far has been a long learning tour. When people see positive statistics, even very positive in some cases, they get excited. We don’t yet know what Simons’ cap will be. He shows us again.

That brings us to the second question: what do the Blazers need? Come back in 2019 and the more well-rounded and tried-and-tested Hart might take over from Simons. Portland had just completed a trip to the Western Conference Finals. One or two established first-team veterans could have sent them over the top…provided Jusuf Nurkic’s leg could be okay.

The Blazers are gone. They cling to the relevance of the fingertips, hanging from the precipice of a reconstruction. A very good complementary player could become another number holding them quickly. This will not get them out of their predicament.

I suspect people are excited about Simons because he seems like the kind of player who could get them out of trouble. Simons’ tantalizing “could be great” sounds better than Hart’s “will be good” when the team is in dire straits.

The problem, of course, is that Simons is playing in the same position, or at least in the same vicinity, as Lillard. If Simons was a forward or a center, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Portland would have a Big Two, plus Nurkic, and the critics be damned.

As things stand, Simons will not be judged on his own growth, but on the results of a couple in which he will inevitably play the second banana. Given that the Blazers seem determined to move forward with Lillard, Simons will have to mold himself around the system — and his fellow guard — or sideline himself. This is a huge variable when evaluating its usefulness.

Here we come to one last problem: time. Simons carries with him a lot of gray areas, both individually and in tandem with Dame. If they intend to build around Lillard, the Blazers can’t leave the questions unanswered for long. They have 3-4 years to complete their transformation into contenders, and that’s generous. In these circumstances, variables are the enemy.

This is the dilemma. The Blazers must excel on two axes: excellence (because they need more talent to break into the Western Conference) and certainty (because they don’t have time to play with Lillard). Simons offers the potential for excellence, but not the certainty. Hart offers more certainty, but less promise of groundbreaking excellence.

So what should they do?

Trading Simons is definitely an option. Dragging Hart into the shooting guard position might be a better bet for Portland than fielding a Lillard-Simons backcourt, depending on who else they get.

On the other hand, there is a faction that defends Simons as a guardian of the future, supplanting Lillard. He’s not going to outclass Lady. We are pretty sure. The argument here is that Simons will be close enough to Lillard that any trade with Dame would make a difference that would make the Blazers better in the long run. Given Simons’ age, that net could include future draft picks, which greatly opens up the possibilities.

The Blazers look more likely to trade Hart than Simons – and more likely to trade either or both than trade Lillard – but there’s a good chance they’ll end up keeping whatever precedes, postponing the question until they see how the group freezes.

Personally, I don’t think the Lady-Ant-Hart trio will last. I’m all for moving Lillard or Simons right now, depending on the return, swapping Lillard if they’re ready to rebuild, Simons if they want to start with a more veteran, well-rounded squad. I don’t think the Blazers agree with me. Either they’ll kick Hart into a deal for a front-row player this summer or they’ll keep all three for now, keeping their options open and hoping the future brings more clarity.

Thank you for your question! You can all send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer them!

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