We are exactly one week away from the official resumption of the 2019-20 NBA season, and a week and one day away from the restart of Portland Trail Blazers basketball. But first, the teams will have a week of scrimmages before officially starting, with Portland facing off against the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder.
While the scrimmages have no real impact on the season, they should be good for getting a feel for what to expect from certain players and providing a preview of what lineups we can expect. With the Blazers’ first matchup coming on Thursday, here’s some things to look out for.
The Return of Nurkic and Collins
This is the most obvious one. Portland has been without their star center Jusuf Nurkic since last March while Zach Collins hasn’t played since October due to a shoulder injury. Both will be vital to the success of the Blazers, as we have written about several times here on the site.
Their return won’t just be telling about how their rehab has progressed. The truth is we haven’t seen what a starting lineup featuring Nurkic and Collins actually looks like. The two big men have only played 123 minutes together over the course of the last three years, as our very own Nate Mann pointed out, making it a unique twin towers-esque starting lineup. Most likely they’ll be an intimidating defensive presence, so the real question will be how productive they can be offensively.
Regardless, it’ll be good to see both big men back out on the court for the Blazers. The scrimmages are using a shortened clock, but it’s an excellent opportunity to get the big men some run before the season officially starts. It’s the main thing most people should pay attention to.
Big Man Rotation
Speaking of big men, the Blazers have some interesting lineup choices to make. One of the biggest questions facing Portland is how to utilize Nurkic and Collins alongside Hassan Whiteside. It’s been at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds — including our own — and we are almost assuredly going to see a lineup that features both Nurkic and Whiteside at least once.
This is something that both Whiteside and Nurkic have hinted at in the past. Whiteside has said that he thinks the two could coexist on the floor together and Nurkic even noted that he might get some minutes at the power forward slot in the bubble. And while some (read: most) might be skeptical, it is almost an inevitability that they will try pairing the two on the floor together.
Two centers will never...welp...let’s wait a sec. https://t.co/GKC5cJfWZm— Steve Dewald (@SteveDHoops) July 22, 2020
In all actuality, there’s no better time to trot out a super-big lineup than during this week. Either the practice videos of Nurkic moving swiftly around the court are legit and his shot has genuinely improved enough to put him at the 4, or it goes horribly and the lane gets so unbelievably clogged that Terry Stotts can’t believe he ever tried it. Either way, there’s no better opportunity to try it than now, so let’s see if it goes about as good as we all think it will.
When Woj announced that Trevor Ariza would not join the team for the restart, it raised some questions about who would start at the 3 for Portland. The obvious answer here is Carmelo Anthony: he’s started every game he’s played for Portland and while there are certainly flaws in his game, he’s been fine as a third option for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. He’s played like the Melo we expected: a negative defender who can create his own offense whenever necessary, even when that offense is an infuriating foot-on-the-line jumper or a random post-up.
But the wing spot is interesting beyond just what Melo provides. Gary Trent Jr. should play a prominent role for this squad, with his shooting and defense putting him in prime position to be a consistent contributor for Portland. He has the size to play the 3 spot, and that’s something Portland will definitely use to its advantage. Nassir Little also should get some spot minutes, and if his shooting has improved like he and other coaches have said, then he could be significantly more valuable to Portland.
I wrote about both these players in the months leading up to the restart, and it’s worth keeping an eye on their contributions. Both are being asked to step up in big ways for young guys, but if they play even marginally as well as the Blazers hope they can, then it’s a big boost for Portland.
The Role of Anfernee Simons
Since we are essentially in playoff mode now, we are more likely than not going to see a tightening of the rotation. While there’s a chance we get to see a lot of players get some run since it’s just scrimmages for Portland until July 31, it’ll still be interesting to see where Terry Stotts is leaning rotation-wise to finish out the season.
I’ve talked about the frontcourt more than the backcourt mostly because the backcourt is set with Lillard and McCollum. But I am curious to see how Stotts handles backup point guard Anfernee Simons. Simons has had an objectively bad year, and it’s not something that can just be chalked up to him being only a second-year player. Most advanced metrics have him as one of the worst players to see significant minutes this season.
But even as the rotation tightens, Stotts needs players who can handle guard duties when Lillard and McCollum aren’t out on the floor. Maybe Simons turns things around and plays passably in the restart. Maybe the newly signed Jaylen Adams can take over the reins. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see whether Simons becomes a casualty in the tightening of rotations, even if that doesn’t become apparent in these scrimmages.