For the record: Every player in the NBA wants to be a starter. Sure, most will accept roles off the bench if they’re unable to win one of those five coveted spots, and some can even come to the realization that they’re better off as a reserve, but even the most enlightened, team-first individuals still want that start. There aren’t too many axioms that span professional sports, but the desire to start is one of them.
Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, as a former player, knows these things. So when it came time to deliver the news to Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and Nassir Little about which of the three would be the starter at small forward come the start of the 2022-23 regular season, he likely knew he had two difficult conversations on the horizon. But he also knows that disappointment is far superior to a lack of transparency.
“It’s just a relief to know, whether it’s you or the other guy,” said Billups. “It’s just a relief to kind of know so you can settle in to what your role is going to be.”
So after evaluating all three over the course of training camp and preseason, both in terms of their own performance and how they function alongside confirmed starters, Billups came to the conclusion that Hart would join Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic when the Blazers begin their season on October 19 in Sacramento, not only due to his skills, but the way he approaches the game. And once he made that decision, he didn’t delay in delivering it.
“Josh just gives us something we don’t have in that starting unit, the edge and the fire he plays with, I think, helps that unit,” said Billups. “His rebounding ability, the way that he guards, the push that he gives us on the rebound, I just think it’s great for the unit. It’s great for Dame, it’s great for Ant, takes some pressure off of Nurk to try and get all the rebounds. I just felt it was best for the team and I wanted to do it as early as I knew so we could have clarity.”
Hart, who has averaged 4.0 points on 50 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals in three 23.3 minutes per game this preseason, has started in 118 of his 296 career appearances since being selected out of Villanova with the 30th pick of the 2017 Draft. So he’s been a part-time starter since entering the league -- he started 55 games in his first two seasons, both with the Lakers -- and after starting all but one game last season, he feels like he’s proven that he’s ready for the job full-time.
“I was a starter last year, I think I proved I can be a starter in this league,” said Hart. “That’s what I expect. Just play my game how I play my game, let everything else fall how it may.”
Breaking the good news to Hart was the easy part. But while the decision might have been difficult for Billups to make -- each player had a unique case for starting --- the way both Winslow and Little took the news showed both respect for their coach and quite a bit of self-awareness, two traits which aren’t exactly guaranteed around the league.
For Winslow, who averaged 7.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks in two preseason games, learning he would be coming off the bench was disappointing. But as a veteran who has also started in roughly a third of his career appearances, he’s well aware of the role sacrifice plays in the success of a team. A lot of players these days talk about being a “star in their role,” and Winslow sees that as his charge now, even if that role is off the bench.
“I wouldn’t say I was upset, but I wanted to start. Coach is the leader of this team and that’s what he thinks is best right now, so I’m going to buy into my role and be all-in,” said Winslow, who learned of the importance of being a team player under Udonis Haslem in Miami, one of the NBA’s most respected veterans. “But just continue to try to build. Nothing is really concrete, ever, in the NBA. Just staying with it. You’ve got to buy-in during the season, you’ve got to sacrifice.
"That’s one of the things I told the guys before we started was you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. Right now, that’s one of the things I have to sacrifice, but I’ve still got to go out there and be myself and play my game.”
As for Little, he understood that he wasn’t ready to step into a starting role after undergoing shoulder surgery in January and abdominal surgery in May. While his improvement in his third year was one of the few positives to come out of Portland’s 2021-22 season -- he averaged 13.1 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists in January -- he wasn’t cleared to return to full basketball activities until the start of training camp. That simply wasn’t enough time to get his fitness and rhythm back to where it was last season, something he readily admits.
“I understand. Honestly, I agreed with (Billups),” said Little. “I told him, ‘The Nas that I was in January, I’m not him right now.’ If I was that, it’s probably a different conversation, but I told him I think he made the right decision. There was no ill will.
“Beyond that, Josh earned it. He played great in camp, just the way he pushes the ball in transition, I think it allows guys like Dame and Ant to get open. I meant what I said about whatever decision they make is what I’m riding with. I think it’s a credit to Josh and I’m going to continue to work back and get into my groove and just play it out.”
While the decision has been made, there’s no guarantee that Billups will stick with one starter all season -- in fact, he’s specifically noted that he might not. Hart, Winslow and Little know this as well, which serves as a good bit of motivation. But more importantly, Billups knows he’ll need all three at their best, be that as starters or reserves, in order for Portland to have success this season. Everyone in the NBA might want to start, but not more than they want to win.
“(Hart) played well enough, he’s earned it, he’s done a good job. The other two guys he was competing with, Justise and Nas, will be huge parts of our team this year in their own way,” said Billups. “All three guys are going to have such a big impact on our team. Whoever starts, who knows if they’ll finish. We just don’t know. But I really value all three guys and I think for us to be a good team they all three have to play well whenever they play.”