After a series spanning two weeks, today we reach the last of 9 questions facing the Portland Trail Blazers as they enter the 2019-20 regular season. We all surmise that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are going to be as fantastic as ever this year. With half the remaining roster new this year, what other issues and challenges could the Blazers face?
So far we’ve covered these questions:
9. How much can Pau Gasol contribute?
8. Who will hit catch-and-shoot threes?
7. Can the centers stay out of foul trouble?
5. Will Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons fit into bigger roles?
4. Do the Blazers have a true starting forward?
3. Are fastbreak points finally on the menu this year?
2. Will the Blazers execute a mid-season trade?
Now we finally reach the #1 question of the year...
Question #1: When will Jusuf Nurkic Return?
The Blazers were cruising towards the 2019 NBA Playoffs with high hopes last March when starting center Jusuf Nurkic went down with a fractured leg. Heroic play from reserve Enes Kanter helped Portland to the Western Conference Finals despite Nurkic’s absence, but the team was not the same without him.
Kanter departed over the summer, replaced by Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. That acquisition appeared to give the Blazers a deep center rotation of Nurkic, Whiteside, and Zach Collins. Mentally and emotionally, Trail Blazers fans are operating on the presumption of abundance at the five.
Reality may prove to be more modest. If that three-headed center rotation exists, it will only come to life after Nurkic recovers. The general timetable for his return is February, but that’s not set in stone. He could come back before or after.
Nurkic’s recovery is paramount because of the strong season he turned in before his injury. He provided a hub for the offense, scoring and rebounding at career-high levels, shooting at the top of his form, and covering mistakes on defense. He was in shape, active, and wholly engaged night to night. Simply put, he was the best version of Jusuf Nurkic the NBA has ever seen.
The Blazers need to know when that version of Nurkic is going to return. The reality is, they don’t.
Regaining rhythm and confidence after a sustained injury take time. Finding peak form takes even longer. It’s unlikely we’ll see big-minute, full-throttle Nurk for some while after he dons the uniform.
In the meantime, Whiteside and Collins hold the fort, which brings up a whole new set of questions. Whiteside has the tools to help Portland, but his motivation and team-oriented play have been questioned through major parts of his career. He’s in a contract year, which is good news for Portland. He spent most of the preseason slowed by an ankle sprain, which is not.
The early part of Portland’s season hinges on Whiteside panning out. If he performs poorly, gets injured, or turns out to be a step too slow, their frontcourt rotation gets thin enough to wrap spring rolls with.
The yawning pit underneath that tightrope underlines the importance of Nurkic’s recovery. If the Blazers want to be great, they need him. They’ll be better on the floor, more equipped to make mid-season trades, with him in uniform. Nurkic’s return date and effectiveness will be the biggest, and most crucial, variables in Portland’s season.