After nearly a five-month break in the middle of the 2019-20 season, the Portland Trail Blazers roster will be almost completely healthy for the NBA’s abbreviated finish in Orlando. Only Rodney Hood, who The Athletic’s Jason Quick stated would not come back this year under any circumstance, will remain in street clothes.
The two previously injured players rejoining Portland’s roster are Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Both are undeniably starters given comments from General Manager Neil Olshey, so the lineup from earlier in the season requires adjustment.
It’s important to note that Nurkic – and potentially Collins – will likely have a minute restriction. So even though two of Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside are moving to the bench, there will be plenty of playing time to go around.
To best optimize each players skill set and compatibility with certain teammates, Whiteside and Anthony should move to the bench, and Ariza should stay in the starting lineup.
Moving Whiteside is obvious – Nurkic is better in the pick and roll with Damian Lillard. Their chemistry is too pure to separate. Whiteside will still get a chunk of time alongside Lillard, where he’s improved as a roll man throughout the season, because of Nurkic’s expected minute cap.
Hopefully, a consistent 20+ minutes per game off the bench won’t become a point of contention with Whiteside. He’s a free agent this summer, and any disagreement with this change could hurt his opportunity to re-sign with Portland.
Choosing between Ariza and Anthony is less obvious. Both are capable corner three-point shooters, which would be their role in the new starting lineup. However, Ariza stays within that role better than Anthony does. He doesn’t require isolation or post touches like Anthony, thereby leaving the ball in the hands of Lillard, McCollum or Nurkic, who all score with impressive efficiency.
The trio of Ariza, Collins and Nurkic is strong defensively as well. Lillard and McCollum are undersized and need support on the defensive end, which their three front court teammates provide on the perimeter and in the paint.
Anthony’s move to the bench benefits him too. He played a portion of his minutes with the Blazers bench group during the regular season. He provides guidance to the younger players and can create his own shot, which is frequently needed considering the reserve unit’s lack of ball movement.
Adding Collins and Nurkic back into the fold will effectively remove Nassir Little, Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan from the rotation entirely. Coach Terry Stotts used a shortened nine-man lineup in last year’s playoffs, and neither forward makes the top-nine cut. In the eight pre-playoff quarantine games, the lineup will likely include Lillard, McCollum, Ariza, Collins, Nurkic, Whiteside, Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons.
That’s a deep roster with a balance of different skillsets. There will be kinks to work out in a short turnaround from practices to games to playoffs (hopefully), but fans should feel more optimistic than they did at the start of March.