Trail Blazers have high expectations for Anfernee Simons, Zach Collins

Trail Blazers have high expectations for Anfernee Simons, Zach Collins

(Fifth in a multi-part series on the inside story of the Trail Blazers’ summer of change)

There will be many new players in a Trail Blazer uniform this season, but what cannot be overlooked is the expectations for a couple of guys who were on the team last year.

Much is expected from Anfernee Simons and Zach Collins and, indeed, part of the reason for dealing some of the players who were not brought back was to open playing time for the youngsters.

And there is no doubt the most mystery surrounds Simons, the 20-year-old second-year player who did not play college basketball. Practices are closed to media in the NBA but word leaks out and there was a constant stream of praise last season from Portland players and coaches about how well Simons played in practice. Then, in the final game of the season when, given a full 48 minutes against Sacramento, Simons scored 37 points, including 7-11 on three-point shots. He led a 28-point comeback that resulted in his team garnering the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. He followed that up with a solid summer-league performance.

The Trail Blazers plan to plug Simons into the off-the-bench scorer role that Seth Curry played last season.

Collins, who will turn 22 in November, moves into his third season with a chance to be the starting power forward in place of departed Al-Farouq Aminu. He is a shotblocker and solid defender who must show improvement offensively. If Collins can consistently make corner threes he’s going to be a big factor.

The front office is very optimistic about the future of both players, as Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations, details in the accompanying video.

The big-time players the Trail Blazers are probably NOT going after

The big-time players the Trail Blazers are probably NOT going after

Earlier this week, I wrote about what the Trail Blazers might do in the wake of the injury to Rodney Hood and the troubles the team is having winning games without its injured players.

I said I did not expect any moves to be made that were not long-term moves – trades that would help beyond this season.

It’s time to go more in-depth on that topic because there are rumors out there about players who do not fit into that category. Portland will be shopping the expiring contracts of Hassan Whiteside and possibly Kent Bazemore, in order to swing a deal for a major piece – perhaps the last big deal the team will be able to make for a few seasons.

So, quite obviously, that means acquiring players with more than this season left on their contracts. In other words, unless they get stuck without a better deal, they would probably not be looking to trade an expiring contract for another expiring contract.

If you look at their search in that context, you can eliminate several talented players who have been mentioned as possibilities by the national media.

Among those players whose contracts expire this season:

Danilo Gallinari

Gordon Hayward

Paul Millsap

Bogdan Bogdanovic

DeMar DeRozen

Otto Porter Jr.

Anthony Davis

Andre Drummond

Understand, too, that it appears Davis and Drummond are expected to stay with their current teams and most of the other players on that list would probably not commit to re-signing with Portland without first testing the market this summer. Porter is a player the Trail Blazers have coveted, but without a commitment to re-sign here that they could trust, it would be a gamble.

Trading the expiring contract of Whiteside is perhaps the team’s last best chance of landing a big-time starter for what this team expects to be a championship core. Would you do it for a player you cannot count on to be back next season? Especially with what’s going on this year. What was supposed to be a run at the Finals is looking more and more like a pipedream. But with the expected return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins next season and beyond, the hope of a big run is still alive.

That’s why the players with major seasons (and major money) left on their deals are the most likely targets. The most-often mentioned are Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Love has been mentioned frequently, but is a question mark. There was a report that Portland is his favored destination, but I have not been able to substantiate that and, in fact, have been told by people close to him that the report is not necessarily true. And the other concern with Love – who is obviously a terrific player with championship pedigree – are his injuries. Over his last three seasons, he has played 60, 59, and 22 games. At an average salary of $30.1 million over the next three seasons, his availability is a concern.

Griffin, also a spectacular player, has the same problem. Over the last six seasons, he’s played in an average of only 38 games per season.

Aldridge, more durable than the others, carries some concern at 34 years old, that his career would be nearing a decline – and he also has only one season left on his contract.

One other thing should be mentioned, too. There is a very good chance that Whiteside’s contract alone might not be enough to land any of these players. Some sweetening might be required to make a trade for players who have been all-stars.

Would the Trail Blazers include a first-round pick in a deal? Yes, I think they would. But would they be willing to throw in Collins? Anfernee Simons?

I don’t know. I do believe that over the next couple of seasons, any of the three players just mentioned would be better for them than the young ones. But after that, not so sure. If they include one of their promising young players, that would mean they are going all-in for the next couple of seasons in a search for a championship. And perhaps paying a price for it in the seasons after that.

Stotts 'trying different things' with new lineup wrinkles

Stotts 'trying different things' with new lineup wrinkles

The Trail Blazers rolled over the hapless New York Knicks on Tuesday at the Moda Center, ending a two-game losing skid by pummeling one of the league’s bottom feeders. The blowout win was much needed for the struggling Blazers, but more importantly the game allowed Stotts to reach deep into his bag of tricks.

He tested new lineup pairings, went deep into his bench well before the game got out of hand and even mixed in a little zone defense. 

“The way things are going, we are trying different things, different lineups,” Stotts said. “[I] talked to my assistants earlier today about what can we look at. We are trying to find different things.”

Anfernee Simons was the first sub of the game, as Stotts turned to the three-guard lineup featuring Simons, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum at the first possible opportunity. Simons has been one of the first players off the bench all season, but lately he’s been replacing McCollum, not joining him on the wing next to Lillard.

“Me, CJ and Ant -- our minutes together have been positive for the team. So why not?,” Lillard said. “I think (Stotts) was just rolling it out there and seeing how it would go.”

The tinkering may have started with the first substitution, but it was the theme of the entire night. Stotts went deeper into his bench than he typically stretches, playing 10 guys in the first half and getting Gary Trent Jr., who hadn’t played since Nov. 23, an extended shift in the second quarter. 

The Blazers mixed in some zone on a couple defensive possessions before halftime, and Stotts also rolled out a super-big lineup with Hassan Whiteside and Skal Labissiere sharing the court for the first time this season. The very early returns on that two-center look were positive as the Blazers outscored the Knicks by 11 points in the six minutes Whiteside and Labissiere shared the court.

“I think it’s good,” Whiteside said. “Skal reminds me a lot of Zach (Collins). I think we could do it more. I’m glad coach had that confidence to go out there. I think it could work.”

The Knicks are 4-20, and they lost their 10th straight game on Tuesday night in Portland. Part of the Stotts’ willingness to experiment is simply because New York’s roster is a mess. But the other side is a real need for the Blazers to find some combinations that work. There probably won’t be many more nights where the Balzers zone up on defense. And the Whiteside-Labissiere pairing, while effective against the non-shooting, non-dribbling Knicks frontcourt could be a tough combination to trot out on most other nights. 
But this was more about process than results. The willingness to mix things up is more significant than whether the experiments proved fruitful or could be repeated. At 10-15 Blazers need solutions, and on Tuesday the coaching staff showed it’s ready to search for remedies in new places.

“I mean we’ve struggled to start the season so right now why be afraid to try different things if what we’ve been doing this whole time has been giving us issues anyway?” Lillard said. “You gotta be willing to step outside your comfort zone and do things. But as long as coach is doing that with faith that it has a chance, and when he puts us in those positions we do it with confidence, and like we believe in what we’re doing, I feel like it’s going to have a chance to work. So that’s all that counts.”

Trail Blazers players, coaches visit local hospitals, cuteness ensues

Trail Blazers players, coaches visit local hospitals, cuteness ensues

It’s time to spread some holiday cheer.

On Monday, a day before taking on the New York Knicks at the Moda Center, the Portland Trail Blazers visited Shriners Hospital and Doernbecher Children's Hospital. The team signed autographs and spent time with kids giving them memories they’ll treasure forever.

Here’s a thread of all the most precious moments.

CJ McCollum loved the video of Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver as much as the rest of us.

The Trail Blazers' season continues Tuesday night against the New York Knicks at 7:00pm in the Moda Center. The game will be available live on NBC Sports Northwest.

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win over the Knicks

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win over the Knicks

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. For the Blazers, the team representing the Big Apple was just what the doctor ordered. 

In desperate need of a win, Portland welcomed the NBA's worst team - The New York Knicks. 

Damian Lillard made sure to set the ton early, scoring 17 points in the first quarter alone. He ended the night with 31 points on nine made field goals; eight of which were from beyond the arc. 

Hassan Whiteside had himself another solid game as well, registering a double-double with 17 points, 15 rebounds, while adding five blocks. 

The Blazers led by as many as 32 in this one, and from start to finish, it was never in doubt. It was the get right game the team needed before heading to Denver. 

Final score in this one: Blazers 115 - Knicks 87. 


Damian Lillard on coach trying new schemes:

I mean, why not? With Skal and Whiteside out there, Skal moves pretty well and they had non-shooting bigs tonight and I think it worked because of those two reasons. But we’ve struggled to rebound the ball, so having two of those guys out there, if it can work, why not? Me, CJ and Ant, our minutes this year together have been positive for the team, so why not? He was just rolling it out there and seeing how it would go.

Coach Stotts on playing Skal Labissiere and Hassan Whiteside together:

Neither one of them had any fouls at the time so foul trouble wasn’t an issue. New York had a big lineup with a lot of offensive rebounders with (Julius) Randle at the four along with (Mitchell) Robinson. I thought the game went with that opportunity to look at.

Carmelo Anthony on how bad they needed this win:

We just needed a win. It didn’t matter how we was gonna get it, or what happened, we just needed a win and this one was a good one especially with a two-game road trip coming up. Hopefully this spirit leads us in the right direction.



Instant Analysis: Damian Lillard cashes in as Blazers take it to Knicks

HIGHLIGHT: Blowout win over Knicks just what doctor ordered for Blazers 

Blazers fan completes nearly impossible challenge, wins $5000

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

A sight for sore eyes: Nurkic hits the court 

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team 

Good thing Hassan Whiteside has a weight room at his house

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

The love Rip City has for the Trail Blazers is real. 

When a player comes to Portland, Blazers fans become invested. Players become part of the family. Whether it be one year or for what looks to be a player’s full career. Rip City takes special interest in all aspects of the players’ life. 

Prior to Tuesday’s game vs. the Knicks, CJ McCollum took a special interest in Rip City’s interests.

CJ got HUNDREDS of responses. 

But, if you’re a CJ McCollum fan, there was really only one right answer to his question. There’s a number of loves in CJ’s life: His fiancé, drinking Pinot and listening to J. Cole. 

A Trail Blazers fan who knows all of those things? Ashlee Yuille. 

Originally from Flint, Michigan, Yuille lives in SE Portland and has been in the area for 20 years. A social worker at the Portland VA Hospital emergency room, Yuille follows the Blazers pretty closely and even listens to CJ McCollum’s “Pull Up Podcast.” Yuille wasn’t just angling for tickets. She shares in CJ’s appreciation for J. Cole's music. Her favorite song of his is “Love Yourz.”

CJ responded to her tweet, and later that evening Yuille, who was sporting a CJ McCollum jersey, and her 13-year-old son, Colton, were off to the game. The 7th grade Colton likes Jusuf Nurkic, and while the Bosnian Beast wasn’t able to suit up tonight, they still had a ton of fun watching the Blazers blow out the Knicks. 

“Really, just being there was so amazing and we were so excited to see Melo for the first time!” Yuille told NBC Sports Northwest via direct message. 

This isn't the first time CJ has performed this generous act. CJ granted a Blazers fan's wish to take his son to a game for his birthday in November. 

This is yet another example of how the love between Rip City and the Trail Blazers remains genuine and real. 

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team

The Trail Blazers left no doubt Tuesday night that no matter how bad things were going for them, they weren’t going as poorly as the New York Knicks.

The now 10-15 Blazers outscored the Knicks by at least eight points in each of the first three quarters and led by as many as 32 points while routing 4-20 New York, sending the reeling Knicks to their 10th straight defeat.

Obviously, Portland has not reached its pre-season expectations – injuries have taken care of that – but Damian Lillard says there is no worry about this team splintering or losing its way this season.

“Not us,” he said emphatically. “Because I think that starts at the top. We don’t have a coaching staff that wavers, where they come in here like, ‘We got to stop doing this!’ They are never negative. Some people have a hard time when you’ve struggling or losing and coming in the next day and still having the same positive attitude, while still addressing what the issues are. And our coaching staff, they do a great job of that.

Myself and CJ, we’ve always had that mentality of, ‘It’s not going well, but we’re going to figure it out.’ So, it’s not only no panic, when we see that from our coaching staff and our teammates see it from us, there is a level of confidence that you have throughout a group, when everybody can look to each other know and say 'He still believes, he’s still positive.'

“You keep that energy as a group. Whereas, ‘It’s going bad, but let’s keep going.’ If we finish the season bad, we’re going to have a whole season where we say, we fought through it. We always have our minds in the right place and we’re going to keep fighting through it.”

The Blazer coaching staff showed that it’s willing to tinker with things a bit, showing a 2-3 zone, a three-guard lineup and the team’s only two true bigs – Skal Labissiere and Hassan Whiteside – playing at the same time.

Asked when the last time he was on a team that played a 2-3 zone, Kent Bazemore shook his head and fought for a memory he couldn’t find.

“Um, I can’t really remember. It’s definitely a different wrinkle, especially if you throw it at them right out of a timeout,” said Bazemore, who started at small forward. “You have smart enough players on the floor, it’s actually very effective.

“You’ve got to give us credit tonight, though. We came out… Dame was super-special tonight and had the game we kind of needed from him. We’re still building. Confidence is starting to grow.”

Whiteside had another night of stuffing the stat sheet, getting 17 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots in 25:38. Lillard was sensational from the floor, hitting 9 of 15 overall and 8-12 from three -- and he didn't play in the fourth quarter. Portland hit 17 of 41 threes while the Knicks managed just 7-38.

Next up, Thursday night on the road, is Denver.

Listen to this week’s Talkin’ Blazers podcast here:

Fans went wild for Chris. You don't often see someone win big on those timeout games, and it's exciting anytime it happens. 

Congratulations, Chris!!!