PORTLAND, Ore. — For nearly three decades, one thing has been a constant in Portland: the Trail Blazers have entered the season with a defined leader, a go-to guy, a player who is unquestionably “The Man.” But on Tuesday, as a training camp filled with youth, promise and excitement began in Santa Barbara, Calif., one thing was noticeably absent — that defined player around whom everything revolves.
“It’s ‘Come and get it,’” general manager Joe Cronin said of the vacant role left by the recent trade of Damian Lillard. “We have many guys who are very capable or talented enough to be The Man. It’s who is going to emerge from that? Who is going to emerge not just in play, but in leadership?”
There are candidates aplenty, yet no one has a slam-dunk case to assume the mantle. Point guard Scoot Henderson has shown the confidence and skills to be a leader, but he is a rookie, and only 19. Guard Anfernee Simons is the longest-tenured Blazer and is the highest-scoring returner, but by nature, he has typically been reserved. Forward Jerami Grant, 29, is the second-oldest player on the roster, averaged 20 points last season and was a revered locker room presence, but like Simons, Grant is more soft-spoken and reserved. And while coach Chauncey Billups says Deandre Ayton will have a bigger role than he did in Phoenix, he quickly tempered that by saying the center wouldn’t be the focal point of the offense.
“We are not bringing Deandre here for him to be (Joel) Embiid, where we throw him the ball 30 times a game and say ‘All right, go be the MVP,’” Billups said. “Like, that’s not going to be his role. However, he will probably have a more expanded role than he had in Phoenix. But again, we have a lot of young guys who are figuring out … these things take time.”
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It’s the first time since the late 1990s — in the wake of the Clyde Drexler trade — that Portland hasn’t had a defined go-to player, an Alpha who led while assuming the burden of making the big shot. Clifford Robinson was the leading scorer the year after Drexler left. Kenny Anderson and Isaiah Rider moonlighted as go-to players the next two years until the team settled into defined eras: Rasheed Wallace (1998-2004), Zach Randolph (2004-07), Brandon Roy (2007-10), LaMarcus Aldridge (2010-15) and Damian Lillard (2015-23).
Having a defined go-to player doesn’t necessarily equate to success. The 1995-96 Blazers won 46 games behind Robinson, Rod Strickland and Arvydas Sabonis. The next year, Portland won 49 games behind Anderson, Rider and an emerging Wallace.
The way Billups sees it, the vacant role is a positive. His hope is it creates a hunger within the young players, and a healthy competition throughout the roster.
“I think it’s a great advantage,” Billups said. “You have a lot of guys here who are wanting to prove who they can be in the league. So it’s on me, and our staff, to basically handle that and make sure we don’t just have a guy who is so thirsty that they are shooting 30 times. That’s not going to happen.”
Another advantage, Billups said, is that opponents will be guessing at the end of close games. With Lillard, everyone in the gym knew he was likely to take the last shot in clutch moments. Now, opponents will be left to wonder whether Henderson drives, or Simons shoots, or Shaedon Sharpe cuts, or Ayton catches a lob. Even last year, when Lillard was injured early in the season, Grant hit a game-winner at Phoenix off an inbounds pass.
“We’re probably going to have a situation where there are going to be so many different guys night-in-and-night-out who lead the team in this or that,” Billups said. “But to me, there is so much beauty in that. You become less predictable when you have those kinds of teams. I just always felt like when you are like that, and the ball is really moving, you get so much more engagement from everybody.”
Maurice Cheeks, a former Blazers coach and Hall of Fame point guard, once said “the players are the first to know.” He was talking about how players — after all the scrimmages, workouts, and locker room interaction — can tell better than anyone who is who. They know who is a leader. They know who should start. They know who can back up the talk. And they know who is overrated or overpaid. And that’s why so often a clear-cut leader emerges. The players know who has “it.” And after being the best player for their entire lives before reaching the NBA, they know who they will defer to.
So it will be an interesting dynamic to track this season, seeing who the team gravitates toward — whether it’s the charisma and confidence of Henderson, the grounded wisdom of Grant, the NBA Finals experience of Ayton, the bucket-getting Simons or the crowd-pleasing Sharpe — and how the other candidates react. Who emerges as the go-to player, or the leader, figures to be one of the subplots in a season full of intriguing questions.
“There’s a lot of unknowns with our roster, and I think the only thing we are pretty certain about right now is they are talented and capable,” Cronin said. “The rest is going to need to play out. And that’s where we will ask for your patience … these guys are going to need some time to figure all that stuff out, because that is an important question.”
(Photo of Chauncey Billups and Jerami Grant: Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images)