The Portland Trail Blazers have not been playing up to par this season. They are just 28-35 and are four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Remember, this is a team that made the Western Conference Finals last year. And while the Blazers were never pegged as serious title contenders going into the 2019-20 campaign, I’m pretty sure most people had them making the postseason.
But here Portland is, with just over a month remaining, and its playoff chances are fading.
There is some good news, though. Big man Jusuf Nurkic will be making his season debut on March 15 after missing the first five months while recovering from a gruesome broken leg injury he suffered last year.
So, just how much of a difference will Nurkic make?
Well, a healthy Nurkic is very valuable. He’s a walking double-double and is actually a very underrated defender. Plus, he is one of the toughest players in the NBA.
But here is the thing: even if Nurkic is fully healed from his injury, he is not going to be 100 percent. Not even close.
A great comparison for Nurkic is Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward suffered a similar injury at the onset of the 2017-18 campaign and labored throughout his first season back last year.
Now, Hayward has regained his old form and has been playing at an All-Star level this season. But it took him a year to get there.
Of course, every player is different. So it’s entirely possible that Nurkic’s recovery goes better than Hayward’s. But expecting him to get his legs underneath him with the playoffs looming in one month is asking too much.
For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Nurkic having a dramatic effect on the Blazers’ playoff chances, especially considering that Hassan Whiteside has actually filled in more than admirably for Nurkic this season and Portland has still struggled.
If Nurkic returned in November or December and had more time to get back into game shape, then I would say yes. He could certainly help the Blazers, but at this point, it’s a tough one to sell.
Not only that, but Nurkic’s absence is far from Portland’s only problem. Zach Collins is also out, and the Blazers’ depth has been a pretty big issue all season long.
So a Nurkic who is far from 100 percent and will suddenly be thrown into Portland’s lineup with just over a month left to play in the regular season may not have the type of positive effect that Blazers fans are hoping.
It’s a shame, really, because Nurkic was really coming into his own last year. He was actually bucking the trend of traditional bigs being unable to get significant minutes in the modern game.
That, and a young man suffered a horrific injury that may very well haunt him for the rest of his life.
Nurkic may very well get back to producing at a high level next season. But I can’t get behind the idea of him helping Portland awake from its slumber and make a playoff push.