A Damian Lillard Trade Is Suddenly Much Easier to Stomach Thanks to the Swift Rise of Anfernee Simons

The Portland Trail Blazers have long been engulfed by questions about Damian Lillard. On one hand, the superstar guard has kept Portland in the playoff conversation for eight years in a row. But with Lillard hurt and the Blazers falling further out of playoff contention, one has to wonder how much longer their partnership should last.

Lillard has been fiercely loyal to the Trail Blazers, as they have been to him. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Portland shouldn’t reconsider a deal involving its franchise star. And conveniently, the recent performance of Anfernee Simons is giving the Blazers a bit more confidence to explore a possible trade.

Anfernee Simons is making the most of his playing time

The Trail Blazers were excited about landing Simons, a 6-foot-3 guard out of IMG Academy, in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft. Though with Lillard and CJ McCollum blocking his path to regular playing time, his first three seasons have been spent in a depth capacity.

Now, with both of Portland’s veteran guards on the shelf, the 22-year-old Simons is taking advantage of his opportunity.

In Simons’ fourth start of the season and ninth of his career, the Florida native scored a career-high 43 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks. Simons, who’s a career 38.5% shooter from three, hit a whopping nine 3-pointers to go with seven assists. Two nights later, Simons chipped in another 28 points and seven assists with a single turnover in a hard-fought loss to the Miami Heat.

The last two nights have been equally impressive for the fourth-year guard. In a blowout win against the Sacramento Kings, Simons dropped 31 points with seven threes and another six assists. Then on Monday, Portland upset the Brooklyn Nets thanks to Simons’ 23 points and 11 assists, his first double-double of the season. The 6-3 guard managed to lead the Blazers to a win despite missing Norman Powell and Larry Nance Jr. along with Lillard and McCollum.

Through five games, Simons is averaging 27.8 points and 7.6 assists while shooting 51.0% from the field, 44.6% from three, and 94.7% from the free-throw line. It’s an incredible improvement for a guard who until this year never averaged more than 8.3 points and 1.4 assists in a season.

Simons’ play could make it easier for the Portland Trail Blazers to trade Damian Lillard

Just to avoid any confusion, Anfernee Simons is not the player Damian Lillard is. In fact, there’s a decent chance he won’t ever be.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t gradually making it easier for the Blazers to finally move on from their longtime star.

After eight consecutive postseason appearances, the streak is all but over for the 15-24 Blazers. While part of that can be attributed to Lillard missing 10 games, the franchise also has just four series victories since the six-time All-Star joined the club in 2012. So even with a healthy Dame, it doesn’t appear like Portland’s title window is open.

Lillard was been a loyal soldier for all 10 of his professional seasons. But the reality is it’s time to start thinking about the future. And right now, Portland’s roster headlined by a 31-year-old Lillard isn’t dethroning teams like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, or Utah Jazz out west. And the chances of that changing are very little barring any shocking turn of events.

At least now with Simons, Portland could sell high on Lillard and have a young point guard already in place with loads of potential. Add in similar trades involving veterans like McCollum, Jusef Nurkic, and Robert Covington, and suddenly the Trail Blazers have a strong collection of assets to usher in a new era.

Although it might be painful in the short term, a deal would ultimately place Portland in a better spot for the future.

Regardless of a trade, Anfernee Simons needs lots of playing time for the remainder of the season

There’s no indication the Trail Blazers are interested in shopping Lillard ahead of next month’s trade deadline. In all likelihood, the star will remain on the roster through the end of the season before trade talks potentially ramp up over the offseason.

But regardless of a trade and if Lillard returns from his lower abdominal tendinopathy, the Blazers need to see Simons as often as possible.

In a small sample size, the 22-year-old is proving he’s more than capable of being a productive NBA player. But is he worth building a franchise around in a post-Lillard world? That’s what the Blazers need to find out. And the only way they’ll learn is by making him a featured part of the team even if the six-time All-NBA selection makes his way back into action.

However, is there a chance Portland would shut down Lillard? Although it would be a definitive mail-in for the rest of this season, there are a couple of benefits. First, you’d get a lengthy look at what life without Lillard would be and what Simons can do when truly given the keys to the offense. And second, you’d give the star a long break going into next season, assuming he’s still on the roster.

In a perfect world, the Blazers have a superstar in Lillard, an up-and-comer in Simons, and a real shot at competing in the Western Conference long-term. But if they decide it’s time for a new direction, Simons is instilling more and more confidence with each passing game.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: NBA Trade Rumors: Why the Portland Trail Blazers Should Regret Refusing to Trade Damian Lillard Before the Season