How Much Can Anfernee Simons Help the Trail Blazers?

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

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

Dave,

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 pillar. Obviously, he’s young and the last year had him playing with a lousy team and no Dame to help boost his efficiency, but even so, how do you look at these numbers and say “That’s the guy I want to build my team around?”

For reference, here are Simons stats.

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

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

For comparison, here’s how he lines up next to Josh Harta guy nobody seems to put into the long-term plan at all.

If you looked at these blind numbers, Hart would be the guy who seemed not only 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 greatly beyond where he is right now? And what does he give you that you can’t find in a replacement-level veteran guard at a reasonable price?

So, my question is: If you are Joe Cronin, why is this your guy? And, if you are looking at assets to trade to put a contending roster around Lillard, why wouldn’t you be angling to exchange the potential of Simons developing into a well-rounded player for a quality veteran who can actually help Dame right now?

Thanks!

-J

Respect for the research and reasoning!

You’re really posing two separate questions here:

  1. Where does Anfernee Simons’ reputed “potential” come from?
  2. Is that potential the best option for the Blazers right now?

In order to understand the first question, we have to get a bit more granular than your numbers show. You’re not wrong. Simons has room to improve. He must do so if he’s going to become a superstar and/or lead a team into contention.

That said, I’m not sure I’ve heard too many people forecasting sure 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 aggregate stats like PER, Simons looks mediocre. That’s not unusual for a player in his position: not much 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 of those qualifiers: teammates and environment factor in heavily. Playing behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for years, Simons’ minutes weren’t going to be huge, nor his effect on the floor unbounded. His defensive numbers were influenced by his role and by the general soundness of the defense around him. This season, the one in which Simons finally got to flourish (comparatively), the Blazers had no defense at all. He wasn’t going to look good no matter what he did.

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

Certain stats highlight Simons’ potential value. His three-point shooting percentage shines. He shot 42.6% from the arc two years ago, 40.5% this season. Couple that with a quick release and you can see why people get excited about Simons’ ability to stretch the floor and pour in points. His scoring efficiency should remain high as he matures into his prime.

Assist percentage is another interesting indicator. Simons’ position was in question heading into last season. He flourished as a shooting guard, but could he set up other players at the point? In 2020-21, his assist percentage (percentage of teammates field goals assisted) was 11.4%, nowhere near distributor territory. In 2021-22 he nearly doubled that stat to 22.2%. That’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 curve upward impresses.

Simons will be 23 heading into next season. He didn’t play college ball. His journey through the NBA so far has been an extended learning tour. When people see stats swing positive—in some cases very positive—they get excited. We don’t know what Simons’ ceiling will be yet. He’s still showing us.

This brings us to the second question: what do the Blazers need? Warp back to 2019 and the more well-rounded and proven Hart might take precedence over Simons. Portland had just completed a trip to the Western Conference Finals. One or two team-first, established, veterans might have sent them over the top…providing Jusuf Nurkic’s leg could get right.

The Blazers aren’t there anymore. They’re holding onto relevance with the tips of their fingernails, dangling over the precipice of a rebuild. A very good complementary player might become another digit holding them fast. It’s not going to lift them out of their predicament.

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

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

As it is, Simons won’t be judged by his own growth, but by the results of a pairing in which he, inevitably, will play second banana. Since the Blazers seem intent on going forward with Lillard, Simons will have to mold himself around the system—and his fellow guard—or get marginalized. It’s a huge variable when assessing his utility.

Here we get to one, last issue: time. Simons carries with him plenty of gray area, both individually and in tandem with Dame. If they intend to build around Lillard, the Blazers cannot leave questions unanswered for long. They have 3-4 years to complete their transformation into contenders, and that’s being generous. Under these circumstances, variables are the enemy.

That’s the quandary. The Blazers need to excel along two axes: excellence (because they need more talent to break through the Western Conference) and certainty (because they don’t have time to mess around with Lillard). Simons offers potential excellence, but not certainty. Hart offers more certainty, but less promise of breakthrough excellence.

So what are they to do?

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

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

The Blazers seem more likely to trade Hart than Simons—and more likely to trade either or both of them than trading Lillard—but odds are, they’ll end up keeping all of the above, pushing off the question until they see how the group gels.

Personally, I don’t think the Dame-Ant-Hart trio will be sustainable. I’m all for moving Lillard or Simons right now, depending on return, trading Lillard if they’re ready to rebuild, Simons if they want to jump-start with a more veteran, well-rounded team. I don’t think the Blazers agree with me. Either they’re going to throw Hart into a deal for a frontcourt player this summer or they’ll retain all three for now, keeping their options open and hoping the future brings more clarity.

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