This week Josh Hart has been named Portland Trail BlazersA small start ahead at the start of the team’s 2022-23 campaign, which kicks off in Sacramento on Wednesday night. While most Blazers fans weren’t particularly surprised by the decision, some were left wondering about the other contenders for the role – Justise Winslow and Nassir Little.
The Blazers currently have Damian Lillard, Invernee Simmons, Jeramy Grant and Josef Nurkic, permanent as starters this season. Lillard, because “duh,” Simons got paid after shining during the former’s absence last season, and Grant was Portland’s biggest deal-breaker from Offseason and Nurkic because…there’s no one else.
The young striker’s position has been molded by many throughout the league as the most important in modern basketball. A role that increases the need for maneuvering, shooting and passing as well as defending, rebounding and playing paint.
That’s why you see teams like Paul George, Kohi Leonard, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Michael Bridges, Chris Middleton and Andrew Wiggins dominating at the end of the season and in the playoffs. Kevin Durant and LeBron James have become league stars who play this position as well.
The Blazers haven’t had anyone shine in SF since Nicolas Batum was shipped to Charlotte Hornets In 2015. Since then, Moe Harkless, Jake Layman, Norman Powell, Rodney Hood, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza and Evan Turner have rotated on the lineup.
Thanks to a commercial deadline for General Manager Joe Cronin being stripped from the team, Blazers brought on Hart and Winslow, each with their own flaws but arguably well suited for the role. Not to mention Little, who has struggled with injury, now finds himself on a one-year contract trying to establish his place in the league.
Interestingly, Gary Payton II was also brought in this summer with a mid-level exception. The 30-year-old can obviously play all three comfortably, but from what we’ve seen and heard, he appears to be an asset coach who is keen on using the bench.
On Media Day, Billups told us that Hart, Winslow and Little will be competing for the final starting role and each will be given a chance to win the place.
Fast forward two weeks. Hart started three of his five pre-season games, Winslow had one and Little was the singles win against a smaller opponent at Maccabi Raanana, when he played just 18 minutes.
And it’s no surprise that the 22-year-old is still working his way back from abdominal surgery. It soon became clear that at this point Little wasn’t the frontrunner for the trio as he worked to get his body and mind back into shape for the game.
But nothing lasts forever and many things last more than a week in the modern NBA. And as Little regains his fitness, touch and rhythm, there’s nothing to stop him from jumping on Hart Winslow with his youth, skill set, athleticism and energy during the season.
For the purposes of this article, we look at the merits of both Hart and Winslow’s nominations as a small forward start.
Why Josh Hart?
Like I said, it’s not hard to see why Hart was chosen. Of the three players, he likely had the most ability at this time. He can expertly place the ball on the floor, and he has an innate instinct to cut and finish steadily. It’s interesting that Hart started his career with the Los Angeles Lakers as an elite shooter, racking up less than 40 percent shade of his triples during his rookie year. Unfortunately, his long-range numbers haven’t been impressive since then.
However, he has more than tripled his assists, from 1.3 in 2017-18 to 4.3 last season. At 6’5, his rebound has been particularly notable, having a career average of 5.7 and enjoying an astounding 8.0 during the 2020-21 season. His 6-foot-8 wingspan, basketball intelligence and impressive lateral movement also allowed the 27-year-old to guard positions one to three and in certain circumstances some strength forward.
It would be hard to argue against Hart who does more than Winslow when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. Just look at his average in 2021-22 (in both Portland and New Orleans Pelicans) of 14.9 points on 34 percent of three points and 50 percent of the field.
At the end of last season Hart was told he would Be the most “Dominant goalkeeper” this year, saving you scoring and making it easier to dash off the bench. Great, but if he starts out in all three, his production definitely tempers to sacrifice for those who play around him, namely Lillard, Simmons and Grant. Conversely, a bench unit including Hart and one by Lillard and Simons opens more doors for the versatile suite.
Hart would probably be the fourth or even the fifth choice of attack. From the bench, he is second and not less than third at all.
And personally, I’d rather see him play the shooting guard – but not Anfernee Simons – using his speed and size to look down on anyone playing in the center and comfortably protect opponents at the point of attack.
Why Justice Winslow?
I’ve been an unabashed fan of Winslow for years and despite his injury setbacks, he’s consistently demonstrated a unique ability for someone of his size and strength. When it was announced as one of the Portland Awards in much shame Los Angeles Clippers Trade, I was pleasantly surprised.
Like Hart, Winslow has confidence with the ball in his hands, using strong tight vision to select teammates and put them in useful positions. But while Hart can actually protect larger wings in certain circumstances, Winslow is well suited for the role thanks to his size.
Standing at 6-foot-6 and carrying over 220 pounds, Winslow is strong, intelligent and able to keep up with guys in positions one through four. Last season, after arriving in Portland, Winslow was tasked with guarding LeBron James in an unexpected Blazer win over the Lakers.
While James still had an impact on the game, the Blazers likely wouldn’t have won without Winslow who scored four steals while maintaining a positive/minus.
The 26-year-old is better equipped to guard the young strikers I mentioned earlier. The teams whose teams will compete will come in May and June next year. Thus, if Portland is to compete this season, it needs players who are able to suppress the influential players on the other side of the ball.
With career figures of 8.4 points on 31 percent of three shooting points, Winslow isn’t the attacking player Hart, but this starting unit doesn’t need another Lillard or Simmons.
Winslow also makes a lot of sense playing alongside Jerami Grant. You could argue that both players are 3.5 s – Grant, who can play minutes in the little striker and Winslow, who can comfortably play all four. The pair presents a powerful two-way forward duo, capable of adapting to a range of matches.
For a team that has had to settle for small (Powell) and one-dimensional (Harkless) options in recent years, why not engage someone who complements the players around them. The fit is very logical.
Hart, Winslow and Little are on similar boats this year as contracts that have expired or are likely to expire, which could also prompt the Blazers to move one or more on the deadline. Hart will face a player option at the end of the season, which will see him pay $12.9 million for the 2023-24 season. But if he continues to contribute as he has over the past couple of years, it will be very hard to see him pick up that option, which means the Blazers will have to dig deep into their pockets to keep it. At the end of the season, Winslow becomes an unrestricted free agent and Little will be restricted if not extended this week.
Removing the recovering Nasser Little from the conversation, there is absolutely no doubt that Hart is a better player compared to Winslow. But this team needs a junior striker at the start who is willing to do the dirty work and take on challenging defensive tasks, in many cases against some of the elite and big wings of the league.
Yes, Hart could score, but I think his offensive talents could be used more effectively with Unit Two. Winslow, on the other hand, has the size and demeanor to better support beginners while serving as an above-average and versatile defender.
I may be somewhat biased with Winslow, but I think it offers improved volume, ease, and hustle that will enhance the skills of the players around it. I’m not upset with the decision to start Hart, I’m just wondering if the team is better off going another route.