The Portland Trail Blazers have been blessed with a chance to make one last run at the postseason before the 2019-20 season ends thanks to being one of the 22 teams invited for the restart at Walt Disney World in Orlando. However, they will have to navigate a series of questions upon taking the floor on July 30.
3. How do the Blazers incorporate Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins?
The Blazers have been plagued by injuries for most of the season, something that spurred their poor start to the 2019-20 campaign and the consequent move to acquire Carmelo Anthony as a free agent.
Jusuf Nurkic has been out of action since suffering a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula during a March 25 game against the Brooklyn Nets last season. Nurkic was replaced by Hassan Whiteside, who was acquired in a trade with the Miami Heat in the offseason.
Zach Collins, who was projected to have an increased role this season, was forced to have surgery on his left labrum after dislocating his shoulder late in the fourth quarter of a 121-119 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 27 — an injury that was slated to sit him out at least four months.
These two capable scorers and lengthy defenders will provide a boost to a team that has had a steady dose of backcourt prowess, but little else to aid it forward.
Just how will the team go about incorporating Nurkic now that he’s set to play again for the first time in 16 months by the time the season restarts? How will a young Collins fare after missing not four but nine months since dislocating his shoulder?
The Blazers will have to ease both of them back, but will that get in the way of making a serious playoff push?
2. What about Melo, Hassan Whiteside?
Much like the return of Nurkic and Collins means some welcome reinforcements, it also sparks questions about the rotations head coach Terry Stotts will use moving forward.
Collins is expected to cut into Carmelo Anthony’s minutes, but Portland would be best served leaving the perennial scorer as the starter to avoid any major shake-up to the rotation. Anthony also has plenty of playoff experience, which could serve the Blazers once the backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum needs a third scorer.
As far as Whiteside, that is a different question altogether. The 7-footer’s robust numbers of 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, and a league-leading 3.1 blocks per game are no joke, and his 20-20 efforts can lift the team on some nights.
Yet questions about his lack of concentration, slow-footed closeouts on 3-point shooters, and downright missed assignments in transition defense have given Blazers fans their share of headaches.
The idea of Whiteside and Nurkic — two 7-footers coexisting in the same frontcourt — is simply far-fetched. Their skill sets are too similar to warrant two of the same under one lineup that is already slow-footed and lacks a clear dynamic to put other teams in trouble.
The best bet would be to keep Whiteside as the starter, for two reasons. Continuity is the first of them, given the Blazers have managed to be in the thick of this race while playing with Whiteside as their starting center. It’s been a year and a half since they’ve played with Nurkic.
The second reason is Whiteside’s contract. If Portland is to get any value in a sign-and-trade scenario, it’s a lot easier to do it with a starter-caliber player rather than one who was replaced by another coming off a major injury.
While making a run for the playoffs is important, so is setting the franchise for future success — and optics will be everything during this Walt Disney World restart.
1. Do the Blazers have a decent shot at the playoffs?
In short, yes they do. Not only are they ninth in the Western Conference standings, but they have played (and won) one more game than their direct competition in the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.
Why does this matter?
Well, all teams will get eight games to play before determining who moves on to the postseason — regardless of how many they have played before the season came to a halt.
The Blazers, who have played 66 games, have less ground to cover than their counterparts to get within four games (currently 3.5 games behind) of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
If Portland gets close enough to Memphis, they will trigger a play-in scenario in which they will have to win two straight games against them before the Grizzlies win one to seal their playoff spot.
Furthermore, the Blazers will have a game against the Grizzlies right out of the gate, which could help them cut that deficit and amplify their margin of error during the following seven games.
While the Blazers haven’t had lady luck by their side during the majority of the 2019-20 season, they seem to have it now under these circumstances. Now it’s up to them to make a run for it and capture the last seed in the West after falling in the Western Conference Finals last year.