After making a surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Portland Trail Blazers may be in danger of missing the playoffs entirely this year.
They have their injury-ravaged frontcourt to blame for that.
Starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered compound leg fractures in March, and general manager Neil Olshey told reporters in September that the team plans on being “purposely vague” regarding his timeline. Even if Nurkic does return at some point this season, he might be a shell of his former self until the 2020-21 campaign.
In Nurkic’s absence, the Blazers needed third-year big man Zach Collins to take a significant leap. However, he lasted only three games before suffering a dislocated shoulder that required surgery, which will sideline him for at least four months, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
With 39-year-old big man Pau Gasol still out indefinitely as he works his way back from foot surgery, the Blazers are down to Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver and Skal Labissiere as their only available players above 6’8″.
Now both Whiteside and Labissiere are dealing with their own nagging injuries.
Labissiere sprained his ankle Friday against the Brooklyn Nets and left the game after nine minutes, although he suited up two days later against the Atlanta Hawks. Whiteside was also listed as questionable for Sunday’s game because of a sprained right foot, and he told Jason Quick of The Athletic on Friday that he’s been dealing with foot, ankle and knee injuries.
“I’m not 100 percent,” he told Quick. “But you look around, guys are falling like flies around here. So I come in here, ice up and try to will myself through it. I was in pain tonight, but I’m soldiering up and trying to get a win.”
Whiteside averaged 14.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 28.0 minutes during his first nine games in a Blazers uniform, which is right in line with his career averages. However, that didn’t stop Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal from lighting him up during Thursday’s edition of Inside the NBA and calling his effort into question.
“Do you think he knows what his strengths are?” Kenny Smith asked.
“Yeah, going to the bank twice a month, stealing money,” Barkley replied.
Charles Barkley goes in on Hassan Whiteside "His strength is going to the bank twice a month and stealing money" pic.twitter.com/LH6bQ0ONR1
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) November 8, 2019
The Blazers have outscored opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the floor this season, while opponents have outscored them by 1.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits. Granted, Whiteside has played all but 20 minutes alongside All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who has a team-high on/off differential of plus-24.5.
During Whiteside’s 20 minutes without Lillard this season, opponents have outscored the Blazers by 37.6 points (!) per 100 possessions.
Tolliver started five games in Collins’ place after the Gonzaga product went down, but that experiment proved to be short-lived. The 34-year-old is shooting a career-worst 25.7 percent from the field while averaging only 3.2 points in 17.4 minutes per game, and he lacks the requisite lateral quickness to successfully defend modern-day 4s.
Labissiere is much better suited for that type of a role, but he has yet to draw a start this season. Instead, head coach Terry Stotts moved 6’8″ wing Mario Hezonja into the starting lineup for the past two games as a small-ball 4.
Whereas the Blazers had a Twin Towers approach with the Collins-Whiteside pairing, Hezonja gives them a four-out look on offense. Portland has outscored opponents by 4.0 points per 100 possessions with Hezonja playing the 4, according to Cleaning the Glass, but the 24-year-old is shooting only 31.7 percent overall this season.
Gasol’s eventual return won’t solve Portland’s frontcourt woes, as he’s best suited to serve as a low-minute backup 5 behind Whiteside. If Labissiere can’t eventually carve out a larger role, the Blazers will predominantly have to rely upon Hezonja and Rodney Hood as small-ball 4s, which leaves them exposed against opponents fielding twin-big frontcourts.
With both Nurkic and Collins likely sidelined until after the February trade deadline, help is not around the corner, either. The Blazers may need to scour the trade market after Dec. 15—when free agents who signed with teams this summer become eligible to be moved—for some badly needed reinforcements.
The New York Knicks seemingly signed nothing but power forwards this summer, so one or more of Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis or Marcus Morris might be available for the right price. Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love has long been mentioned as a possible trade target for the Blazers, but it would be difficult for them to match salaries without including Lillard, Whiteside or CJ McCollum.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari may be the best of both worlds for the Blazers. The career 37.8 percent three-point shooter would give Lillard and McCollum a frontcourt scoring outlet, and Portland could match salaries by flipping Kent Bazemore to Oklahoma City (along with a draft pick). With second-year 2-guard Anfernee Simons beginning to catch fire, the Blazers could afford to lose Bazemore and stick with Hood and Hezonja as their primary 3s.
Other options may emerge between now and the trade deadline as teams get a better sense of whether they’ll be in the playoff hunt or are lottery-bound. The Blazers owe their top-55-protected 2020 second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets and are sending their 2021 and 2023 second-rounders to Memphis and Detroit, respectively, but they have all of their other picks at their disposal.
That should allow them to sweeten the pot on any trade offer for frontcourt help.
The Blazers may get both Nurkic and Collins back before the end of the regular season, which could make them a low seed that no top-tier Western Conference team wants to draw in the first round of the playoffs. But barring a roster shakeup ahead of the trade deadline—or significantly improved play from Tolliver, Hezonja and Labissiere—their frontcourt may keep them out of the postseason altogether.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.