The 2016-17 NBA season has been a roller coaster for Rip City. After a shocking second-round playoff appearance last year, the Portland Trail Blazers were supposed to be in the hunt for a top-four seed. A 10-10 start was underwhelming but far from disastrous; however, the 1-10 skid that began just two games later (not to mention a 2-7 record in February) looked like a death sentence when it came to the postseason.
Then, something amazing happened. And his name is Jusuf Nurkic.
Following the acquisition of the 7-foot Bosnian Beast, the Blazers looked reinvigorated. Not only did the team have a legitimate low-post presence who could alter shots, but it had a third scoring option who could also create for others. (Damian Lillard scoring 30 points or more eight times in March helped, too.)
Then, in true Blazers fashion, the big man went down with a leg injury and was lost for the regular season (but is hopeful to return for the playoffs).
Following Portland’s crucial 105-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night, Rip City sits in sole possession of eighth place out West, a full 1.5 games ahead of the Denver Nuggets. It hasn’t been easy, but it looks as if the Blazers will be making the playoffs barring a complete disaster.
The lesson here? This squad sure know how to keep things interesting. But guess what? So does this squad!
Oregon Sports News has put together a roundtable discussion looking ahead at what’s to come. Garrett Thornton (GT), Bryant Knox (BK), Jason Hartzog (JH) and Casey Mabbott (CM) have combined super forces and are ready to break down what you can expect to see moving forward.
With one week left in the regular season, it’s time we put matters of the past behind us and predict the future.
R.I.P., Miss Cleo. This one’s for you.
- Jusuf Nurkic has been excellent since joining the Trail Blazers. Jusuf Nurkic has given this team life on both ends of the floor. Jusuf Nurkic is out for the rest of the regular season…Holy S–t: Jusuf Nurkic is out for the rest of the season. Thoughts on Nurkic Fever, his impact and what his surprising absence means?
GT: The biggest thing that Nukic has brought the franchise is hope. It reminds of when Damian Lillard had such a spectacular rookie campaign, winning the Rookie of the Year award unanimously in 2012. While the team did not make a giant leap during Lillard’s rookie year (winning only 33 games), it did during his sophomore season, winning 54 contests. That hope was contagious. Nurkic fever reminds me of that. Hopefully the team gets him back in time for the playoffs, but it’s the next season that the full impact of Nurkic will be felt.
BK: Nurkic has become the lifeblood that keeps the Blazers going, and his absence is huge. Luckily for Portland, Denver doesn’t look capable of landing the eighth seed. But as far as Nurkic Fever is concerned, the Blazers finally have two things they’ve needed desperately since they lost four of five starters in one summer. They have a legitimate third option on offense and a big body at the rim on defense. His presence won’t likely get Portland into the second round, but he has fans excited for the postseason, and he’s given Blazers fanatics both a two-way presence and another personality to root for.
JH: Nurkic has given the Blazers everything they have been missing and more since coming over from Denver. His offensive skill set has opened things up for shooters. The Blazers have been in desperate need of a back-to-the-basket type of player, one who can draw in defenders and at times a double team. This does wonders for Portland, who strives under great ball movement to find the open shooter. The two-man pick-and-roll game with Nurkic and either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum has been a beautiful thing to watch as well. He has been just as impressive on the defensive end. He’s been active blocking shots, rebounding and has brought a contagious energy that helped Portland soar through March with a league-best 13-3 record. Portland was looking like a dangerous eight seed that could do some damage in the playoffs. Now with the injury, they look like just an eight seed. They won’t do any damage without Nurkic.
CM: Trail Blazer fans have been obsessed with talented centers for decades. It started with Walton, and Nurkic is the latest and greatest in that line. It’s easy to see why fans love Nurk; he put this team and their season on his back from day one, re-igniting the fires of basketball passion in the city after the previous results had lulled fans into either a deep slumber or angry tirades. Nurk’s presence on the court has taken this franchise from a potential lottery team to a legitimate playoff team, and the results speak for themselves. As good as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are, they both looked lost and frustrated before Nurk arrived. That said, once he was in uniform they went on a tear and were suddenly capable of beating any team, any time. Nurk’s value cannot be understated, and his injury is huge. This is not a playoff team without him—it’s that simple.
- Aside from Nurkic, who is one player (outside of the backcourt) who could have the biggest impact on a potential playoff series?
GT: Al-Farouq Aminu has been hampered by injuries a lot of the season, but will play a huge role to close out the year and moving into the Playoffs. As we saw during the Blazers’ matchup in Minnesota on Monday, Aminu is a versatile and valuable defender. He can guard just about anyone on the floor. That is invaluable in a playoff series, especially opposite Golden State. Oh, and by the way: That night in Minnesota he had 20 points (four three-pointers), seven rebounds, and five assists off of the bench.
BK: There are two players who come to mind here; one for better, one for worse. For better, Mo Harkless. The Blazers know they’re going to get a long body who can defend the perimeter and score eight to 11 points a game. But at his best, he can be that same defender while hitting shots from the three-point line and threatening 20 points a night. For worse, you have Al-Farouq Aminu, who while always a defensive staple can shoot a percentage from deep as janky as his form. The Blazers will hope they get the former, but the latter could negate any positive showing they get from Harkless.
JH: Al-Farouq Aminu. With the Blazers recent revival, there has been improved play all across the board. One player in particular that has been great as of late is Aminu. He is finally shooting the ball with confidence again, knocking down over 40 percent from long distance since February (a stark contrast to hitting under 30 percent beforehand). He heated up in a similar way last season as well and played an integral role in the Blazers playoff success. We all know that Aminu is one of the Blazers’ best defenders, but when he can knock down shots as well as he has lately, he adds another problem for opponents. If Nurkic remains out heading into their first round playoff series against Golden State, Aminu will need to be great for Portland to have any chance.
CM: Allen Crabbe. When he is shooting lights-out, no one has an answer for him (See: Thursday’s night’s explosion versus the ‘Wolves). His size and length help him get open and shoot over smaller defenders as well as provide length and size on defense. This only works when his shot is falling, however. When he has an off night, he is a liability and essentially useless on the court. Which fair or not usually opens up the discussion on why Olshey is paying him more than $18 million a season.
- If you and you only could choose whether Portland lands in the playoffs or the lottery, which one do you pick?
GT: Playoffs. It is basically a foregone conclusion at this point: The Blazers play their final four games in the Moda Center, a place where they perform exceptionally well. Some people forget that this is still the second-youngest roster in the league and playoff experience could be a huge building block moving forward.
BK: Playoffs. Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. Don’t get me wrong: This is the year to join the lottery. The draft is stacked not only at the top but through the middle part of the first round. There’s plenty of talent to choose from, but a young team that’s hungry to win needs postseason experience—even if that experience comes in the form of a one-sided series against the Golden State Warriors.
JH: I touched on this in last week’s column. Around the All-Star break, I was an advocate for the Blazers to tank in order to move into a top draft pick. There was one problem with that—Damian Lillard. That man does not like to lose. They also started clicking with their newly acquired center, Nurkic. All of the sudden, the Blazers actually started playing some great ball. They had a newfound confidence. Even though they’re likely headed for an early first-round exit, the confidence they are building with the current roster will bode well for next season. Any playoff experience is good experience. I pick playoffs.
CM: Before Nurk’s injury, I would have said playoffs, no question. But I don’t expect Nurkic to be fully healthy come playoff time, so rather than risk his long-term health or see this team embarrassed in the first round and take a step backward, I’d vote to rest Nurkic the rest of the way and skip the postseason. I’ll take it a step further and say I would do that even with Portland’s current standing where the lottery is out of the picture. This team should take its chances with the healthy players and draft assets it has and not risk its franchise big man. Do not mortgage this Portland’s future just to serve the present.
- What should Portland’s approach to the draft be with three picks?
GT: Neil Olshey and Paul Allen love the draft; that is going to be evident as soon as the season is over. I don’t expect any front office in the league to take this draft more seriously. In the end, I think the Blazers should package some combination of picks and players and try to get into the top 10. Putting another star next to Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic should be a priority when the June 22 draft comes around.
BK: Olshey needs to consider his three picks movable assets. A lot of mock drafts have Portland going heavy on draft-and-stash prospects. I don’t think that’s necessarily the right answer, as this year’s draft is stacked and has plenty of difference-makers. If Portland can package multiple picks or a pick and a young player to move up, it should do so. But it should also look at (don’t call me a Ducks homer…) someone like Jordan Bell with its third selection. He would be a reach at that point, but this team can afford to reach considering it has three picks (assuming Olshey keeps all of them).
JH: Their approach should be to improve at the forward positions, whether that comes by moving up in the draft or finding a player available via trade. With Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic the Blazers now have three players they can comfortably build around. They need improvement from the 3 and 4. This improvement could come organically with their young roster, but if they can use some combination of current players and/or draft picks to improve positions of need, they should absolutely do so.
CM: Trade picks and use them as bait to move rotation players like Crabbe, Leonard, and Harkless in exchange for higher pick(s), veteran talent or some combination. This roster is simply not ready for a deep playoff run, healthy Nurkic or not. The previous build had defense at four of five starting positions, and all five players could shoot. Today you have Dame, CJ and Nurk contributing heavily on offense, and Harkless, Aminu and Nurk being your focus on defense. Until you bring more balance to the roster where at least four of your starting five are contributing on both ends, you will be watching a lot more than playing in May and June.
- What is Portland’s general outlook moving forward, both in the playoffs and beyond? This season was largely disappointing with a hot streak at the end, but the roster is mostly set for the foreseeable future. Are there moves to be had, or can this group grow and develop into a contender as is?
GT: While the outlook as an eighth seed against the Warriors is not particularly encouraging, the general outlook and (likely) feeling around the organization is optimistic. When 80 percent of the starting lineup left town just two years ago, Olshey said this was going to be a 3-4 year rebuild. I would say the team is ahead of schedule. With the three first-round picks and an aggressive front office, this will be a better team heading into 2017-18.
BK: As far as the playoffs are concerned, consider a single victory a win—and that’s with Nurkic in the lineup. This squad isn’t built to win now, and odds are there’s nobody outside the Big 3 that’s going to develop into a difference-making star. Olshey looks silly right now for having the second-youngest roster also make up the league’s second-highest-paid roster, but there’s a plus there. It’s true this group has no flexibility when it comes to free agency, but it also has the contracts to match any on-the-block superstar in the league. This isn’t saying Portland’s going to acquire Paul George…but it’s saying it has the ability to at least offer a cap-matching deal to a team that knows it’s losing its main guy. There’s a lot up in the air for Portland, but simply put: Olshey’s okay with that.
JH: Get to the playoffs. Hope for the best. Then move forward looking into an improved 2017-18 season. Moves will be made. With three upcoming picks, the Blazers will be very active during the draft. As previously mentioned, they have three guys to build around and positions in which they should look to improve. Olshey must use those assets to improve in those needed areas. The current roster can possibly improve into a contender. Hell, it looked like a contender during the month of March with the current roster. Everyone on the roster is still in their 20s, so there’s plenty of room for improvement from within. However, you have to use your assets to the best of your ability to improve. Why not accelerate the process to improve at a quicker pace?
CM: If Portland wants to be a consistent threat in the playoffs against the best teams in the West, it’s missing at least two pieces—and that’s just in the starting five alone. The Blazers desperately need to find their replacement for Nic Batum to slow down elite scorers, but right now they are trying to make due with guys like Turner, Harkless and Aminu, which is not getting the job done. In my opinion they should also go after an old-school power forward in the mold of Buck Williams who would be a good compliment to Nurk in the front court. There is work to be done on and off the court, but this team has a very bright future.