On May 29, we finally got a date. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the NBA is targeting a return date of July 31 for the resumption the 2019-20 season. And with the confirmation on Thursday that the league will resume with a 22-team format, the Portland Trail Blazers have secured their spot in the restart.
That means we’ll get the opportunity to see two players plagued by injury suit up this season: Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Nurkic—who suffered a horrific leg injury the same night Portland clinched a playoff spot last March—was set to return on March 15 before the league was suspended. Collins had also been progressing well with his shoulder injury from earlier this season and expected to play before the stoppage.
Both of these players are undoubtedly game-changers for the Blazers, and their contributions were sorely missed this year. But considering the severity of their injuries, what can we realistically expect from these bigs in their return?
Shaking off the rust
In what feels like ages ago now, Nurkic tweeted this to give us an idea of what to expect when players come back.
Yeah, it’s going to be pretty sloppy, no matter how good the teams are. It’s especially going to be interesting for Nurkic, considering that he hasn’t played in what will have been a year and a half when he returns. And while there is hope that the extra rehabilitation will have done him well, we more than likely are going to see a rusty Nurkic.
Truthfully, we might not see much of Nurkic at all. Dan Marang noted last week on the Blazer’s Edge Podcast with Steve Dewald that Nurkic is more likely than not playing no more than 15 minutes a game. That’s the prudent thing to do with him regardless of how long he’s had to recover. The more precautions the better, even as the Blazers make a playoff push. Regardless, we’ll probably see some Nurkic; it just won’t be in the capacity that we desire.
It’s also intriguing to think about how Collins will play. Back in April, he mentioned that the last part of his rehabilitation was getting out and playing against live competition, but that was impeded by, you know, the pandemic. But he will be back, as Damian Lillard noted that he was only about a month from becoming available before the league was suspended. When he returns there may be rust also, but the minutes restriction will be nothing compared to Nurkic most likely.
What role do they play
As noted earlier, Nurkic’s role will be pretty straightforward. He’s rejoining a team that has a starting center already, so there’s no need to rush him back and have him playing 30 minutes a night. That’s a good thing, especially because Nurkic doesn’t need that many minutes to make an impact.
It’s been a long time, but if you dig deep into the depths of your mind, you can probably remember slightly what Nurkic brings to the table: pick-and-roll proficiency, stellar defense that doesn’t require him to chase every block, and playmaking as a big man. Dan Marang said it best: when we get back, the first thing they’re running with Nurkic on the floor is a pick-and-roll with Lillard, and it surely will bring tears to the eyes of Blazer fans everywhere.
But even though Nurkic is capable of so much, that’s not a burden we can ask him to take right away, at least not at a starter’s capacity. Hassan Whiteside—as polarizing as he is—remains the best option to start games for the time being. Hopefully the extra time has only aided Nurkic’s recovery and he will be able to get back to full strength sooner rather than later. But he can still make excellent touch passes from the elbow, operate in the pick-and-roll and deter plays defensively, and he can do it in a way that doesn’t expend too much energy. Expect bench Nurkic for a while, because that version might be all we need to make a playoff push.
Collins’s role will be more interesting initially for two reasons. First, he is supposedly going to be at full health when he returns, especially with a few extra months to recover, so he should be healthy enough to play significant minutes right away. Second, his return raises questions about two other players’ playing time: Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza. The two wings have been the starters at the three and four spots while both Collins and Rodney Hood have been out, and while both have been serviceable in their own ways, their roles will surely be affected by Collins’s return.
The best decision seems to be—assuming he is fully healthy—starting Collins over Melo at the power forward position. It’s a more natural placement for Collins than it is for Anthony, and while Melo is the more talented scorer, Collins fits the role-player mold better while providing quality defense. Collins’s contributions on the defensive end outweigh Melo’s offense, especially considering how bad Portland has been defensively. Pair this with the fact that Ariza provides the 3-and-D services that are so highly valued, and it makes more sense to partner Collins with Ariza in the starting lineup than Anthony.
This change doesn’t have to happen right out the gate. Realistically, Collins should come off the bench until he’s back in game shape at least. But sooner rather than later, the Blazers are going to need Collins to start for them this year. Anthony has done well, but with a healthy Collins, Melo is best used as a sixth man coming in as a second or third option for Lillard and CJ McCollum. Getting Collins back into game shape as soon as possible will be key for Portland going forward.
Generally speaking, we should temper expectations of Nurkic and Collins when they return. Yes, they are both valuable members of the team and their return will be greatly appreciated, but they’re both coming off serious injuries that held them out for long periods of time. Rushing them back into action only hurts the Blazers, especially if the result is one of those players suffering a setback.
Getting them into game shape is priority one, but priority two should be utilizing what they do best. With Nurkic, that means contributing in his varied ways in a bench role until we know that he’s absolutely 100% healthy, because risking him more than necessary means risking the future of the franchise. The same goes for Collins, although he’s someone that can potentially be thrusted into a starter scenario sooner. For now, though, it should be one step at a time for these two.