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Gauging the Long-Term Impact of the Trail Blazers’ Injuries

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Portland’s injuries have been devastating this year. Are they among the worst ever?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries have decimated the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019-20. Jusuf Nurkic entered the season unable to play. Zach Collins fell three games into the campaign. This week the Blazers lost Rodney Hood to an Achilles tear. A team once hoping to make a second straight run deep into the playoffs now faces a legitimate struggle just to make the bracket in a crowded Western Conference. Unsurprisingly, these topics are dominating submissions to the Blazers’ Edge Mailbag this week, including this one.

Dave,

As resident online historian of the team I want you to answer a question. I’m not trying to be depressing but is this the worst run of injuries you’ve ever seen? Three starters down at once! It’s destroying a season that had incredible potential and could have taken us to the WCF again and maybe beyond. I can’t remember anything much worse. Put it in perspective. Do you feel as bad as I do?

Elaine from Eastern Oregon

Troubles in your windshield always seem than the ones in the rear-view mirror.

In a way, you could describe this as one of the biggest, and most significant, rash of injuries to hit the Blazers in franchise history. Nurkic, Collins, and Hood were all critical to the success of the team this year. That’s modified by three factors, though:

  1. The importance of those players has as much to do with the way the roster lies as their inherent talent. All three are good; Nurkic was approaching great last season. I’m not sure you could argue any of the three would be absolutely critical to the success of any NBA team they played on the way they are in Portland. The Blazers need them badly because of a relative lack of frontcourt depth otherwise.
  2. The definition of success is open to interpretation. The Blazers would surely be better with all three on board. Whether “better” equals challenging the league’s elite teams, or even making it to the Western Conference Finals again, is open to debate.
  3. Either way, the current incarnation of the Blazers was built for the short term. Several key veterans, including Hood, have expiring contracts or options in the Summer of 2020. Injuries or not, the roster was going to change next summer.

None of these factors downplay the severity of the injuries. None should reduce empathy for the players involved either. Watching them fall one by one has been tragic; hearts go out to them as human beings and as athletes. There are no good injuries. Every one of them affects lives and careers. Saying they’re insignificant or minor based on who they happen to isn’t fair.

The factors do mitigate how we judge these events on the completely arbitrary “Worst Blazers Injury Ever” scale. The injuries to Greg Oden and Sam Bowie had wider, longer, and stronger effects on the franchise than any of the injuries this year. One might argue that Wesley Matthews Achilles tear plus the constant ailments of Nicolas Batum added up to a stronger derailment than is happening this season. Buck Williams wearing a mask and Clyde Drexler going down in 1993, Bill Walton’s foot in 1978...those robbed the Blazers of possible title chances. There’s plenty to mourn as 2019 closes, but there’s been plenty to mourn in the past too.

I also think your description of Portland’s current promise is a little wishful. Nurkic went down last season when the Blazers were playing their best basketball. They seemed to max out their playoffs run anyway. His absence certainly colors the start to this season. Hassan Whiteside was supposed to help fix that, but he hasn’t. All the rest of Portland’s “depth” hasn’t amounted to much. The dirty little secret is that it wasn’t amounting to much even before Hood’s injury. The Blazers have been playing a pretty bad brand of basketball all season. They’ve just got too much raw talent to lose every game because of it. They look low-end mediocre instead of awful. That doesn’t make their play more coordinated, their offense more cohesive, or their defense sturdier.

This year’s Blazers have won under two circumstances: either Damian Lillard plays like an MVP or the opponent is so bad that losing to them is barely conceivable. If neither of those things is true, Portland’s not winning. Most decent opponents throw hard double-teams at Lillard and chalk up their “W”.

Again, though, we hearken back to the third factor above. This team wasn’t built to last five years together. If they won a championship this June, they might have tried to renew everybody. Otherwise Whiteside, Bazemore, and Tolliver were short-timers, while Hood’s tenure was speculative depending on whether he could outperform the option year on his contract.

2019-20 is a lost season in the sense that we’ll not see what this incarnation of the Blazers could have done together while healthy. We wouldn’t have seen that for long anyway. Their ceiling probably wouldn’t have reached the level of the Clippers and the Lakers. That hurts to hear, but it also puts the ultimate effect of the injuries in perspective. They’re bad. They’re sad. They’re not going to be franchise-altering long-term.

This is a subjective question and I’m not the only “historian” out there. What say all of you? Put this current streak of injuries in perspective in the comments. You can also submit your own Mailbag question at blazersub@gmail.com or DM on Twitter @DaveDeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com