New city, same Josh Hart.
Not even a week has passed since the trade deadline, yet Hart has already acclimated himself into the scheme of things for the Portland Trail Blazers. He didn’t even wait to officially put on a Blazers uniform before showing love to Rip City.
The former Villanova Wildcat has always been known as a defensive-minded guard whose rebounding ability and defensive chops belie his height but it’s his growing offensive game, which has produced some major results over the last two seasons that included him (Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Tomáš Satoranský, Didi Louzada, and a handful of draft picks) in the deal that sent CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., and Tony Snell to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Case in point was in Portland’s 122-107 win over the short-handed Milwaukee Bucks, where Hart and his teammates took advantage of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s absence. Hart finished with 27 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal, teaming up with Anfernee Simons (game-high 31 points and six assists) and Jusuf Nurkic (24 points and a game-high 16 rebounds) in an otherwise solid win.
It may not be a coincidence that the Blazers have won two consecutive games since Hart’s arrival (and three-straight since they made the trade with the Pelicans) as he brings a different element to the team compared to McCollum. This is no disrespect to McCollum, who has shown he can take over in stretches, but considering the personnel in Portland, scoring was never going to be a major issue with the Blazers.
The defense and intangibles Hart brings to Portland lessens the chances of teams exploiting them on the defensive end by switching onto weaker defenders. Hart has also drawn assignments of guarding players taller and wider than him and it has helped lessen the defensive load of his teammates, something Damian Lillard will be happy about.
If that was McCollum on Julius Randle, it would have been an easy basket and/or a trip to the free throw line. Hart effectively forced Randle to rethink his decision and in turn, chose an ill-advised shot that did not even touch the rim.
That Hart is shooting 53.3 percent from behind the 3-point line in his two games with the Blazers is a welcome development, and while it will likely regress considering he is making 34.5 percent of his 3-point attempts on the season, the looks he will get will be different once Portland is at full strength.
Part of it comes from being taking on a different role with the Blazers, as Hart usually took a step back to Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas on offense. He’s not necessarily a game changer as a playmaker, but neither will he be a black hole on offense. Hart’s 3.5 turnovers over the past two games are also an aberration as he averages 1.1 turnovers for his career (0.9 turnovers per game when you remove this season).
The extra touches on offense over the past two games have also come due to the absence of Lillard and the exit of McCollum so it remains to be seen how things play out if Lillard returns later this season. Regardless of when he returns, it’s fair to say that Hart has locked up the starting guard spot with Lillard, with his defensive capabilities allowing Portland head coach Chauncey Billups to field lineups with Lillard, Simons, and Hart together.
The last two years of Hart’s three-year, $38 million contract are not guaranteed, but his instant impact with the Blazers will likely change that. What could complicate matters, though, is the fact that only Lillard and Nassir Little are categorically under contract, as Nurkic, Simons, and even the injured Joe Ingles are either pending free agents or subject to qualifying offers. Nevertheless, they should consider adding a high-character guy in Hart.
Two games may be a small sample size to judge the effect of Josh Hart on the Portland Trail Blazers, but the early returns point to a great fit for both player and team. A strong finish to the season will further validate this and in turn, could help speed up a rebuild towards playoff contention again.