Blazers

How Nurkic’s Absence Could Alter Portland’s Future

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In the wake of a potential career-altering leg injury against the Brooklyn Nets in double OT, the entire NBA universe came out in force to send their well wishes to Jusuf Nurkic. Head Coach Terry Stotts put it best after their win against the Bulls two days later: “The season rolls on no matter who suits up.”

Since the injury, Portland has beaten Chicago and Atlanta but most recently lost to a Blake Griffin-less Pistons team. For a team that seems to be in a year that could set the course for the future, this injury could not come at a worse time.  Nurkic may not be a household name with casual fans, but it’s more than that.

His importance to Portland’s lineup and playoff future is massive.  How will the Blazers attempt to weather this injury and what could this mean for their future?

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Center Rotation

The Blazers are in the midst of a tough playoff race in an always-competitive Western Conference.  They are currently 48-28, only four games behind the top-seeded Warriors but only four and a half games ahead of the Thunder for 8th.  Every game is important for seeding and matchups, and Portland knows this lesson all too well.  Last year with full health, Portland entered the postseason as the three seed but was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the underdog New Orleans Pelicans.  If the playoffs started today, they would be the same seed at last year with the upstart Clippers standing across from them.  When healthy, Portland would feel like a comfortable favorite, looking to slave last year’s playoff demons.  However, this year, health is no longer on their side.

Losing Nurkic opens up a hole in the frontcourt that they will need to fill quickly.  Nurkic averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 blocks per game this season.  He gives them an option down low on offense that creates space for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the perimeter.  The Bosnian Beast is also the crux of the defense as he protects the rim and allows the perimeter players to funnel people to him in the center.  In their most recent game this was sorely missed.  Pistons big man Andre Drummond abused whoever they put on him to the tune of 22 points and 19 rebounds.  The possibility of facing Rudy Gobert, LaMarcus Aldridge or Steven Adams in the first round is less than ideal for a Nurkic-less squad.

Replacement Options

Portland may turn to second year center Zach Collins as the playoff starter. The 2017 lottery pick provided a spark for them in the playoffs last year.  His numbers have not been eye-popping, but the larger role may be exactly what he needs.

The Blazers added Enes Kanter during the buyout season but banking on him for playoff success could lead to disappointment.  Kanter has proved during his stops in Oklahoma City and Utah that he is much easier to game plan against in the playoffs due to his lack of defensive ability.  Most teams will play him off the court, making the Nurkic injury that much tougher.

The Other Injury

This injury is also quite tough to deal with as CJ McCollum is currently sidelined as well.  Lillard is an All-NBA lock, but there is only so much he can do while missing two starters in the West.  Seth Curry has stepped up in McCollum’s absence, but the rest of the team’s contributions have been inconsistent at best.  With eight games remaining in their regular season, young guys like Jake Leyman and Anfernee Simons will have to pitch in with veterans Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood and Evan Turner.  This depth may be enough to weather the storm until McCollum returns, but the future is much murkier.  Portland is due to see Atlanta, Detroit, Minnesota, Memphis, Denver twice, Sacramento and Los Angeles (Lakers). They will still be a playoff team, but the seeding is completely up in the air.

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What the Future Holds

For years, the Blazers have been the type of team that does well in the regular season but is quickly out of the post season.  Terry Stotts has done very well in his time there, but his contract expires after next season.  The late Paul Allen, beloved owner of the team, denied him an extension as recently as November.  Another early exit could lead to change in the voice that leads the team.  Missing a starter as well as having one at less than 100% puts them in a tenuous situation against any of the other West teams.

The other elephant in the room has been there since LaMarcus Aldridge left the team in the summer of 2015.  For years, people have been questioning if McCollum and Lillard can be the two best players on a team that can achieve bigger playoff success.  Both have swirled around in rumors and those calls may get louder with another early exit.  Given the timing and severity of Nurkic’s injury, he will likely be out the majority of next season as well.  Are the Blazers ready to face these questions for a whole other season before making a choice on further direction?

Lillard’s Loyalty

Lillard has indicated he loves it in Portland and wants to build something special there.  As we have seen in the past though, years of coming up short have changed many star’s minds before.  What if the Lakers strike out in free agency and are again rebuffed in pursuit of Anthony Davis?  The Lakers may shift their interest and it could be more than the Blazers can refuse.

Fully healthy and given the right seeding, Portland could have seen playoff matchups against the Clippers or Nuggets.  While both teams are good, neither has much playoff experience. That appears to be the best conference finals path for Portland, giving them a sense of confidence moving forward.  Now, the Blazers have a lot of questions that look murkier following an injury to Nurkic in a game that went an overtime too long.  It will take an MVP level stretch from their star to keep them on track.

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About Corey Rausch

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