The Portland Trail Blazers will depart for the NBA’s Orlando restart with a slightly different roster from March, when play was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Portland has weathered numerous roster shakeups this season as the team dealt with injuries to key starters and trades. Now, the Blazers will need to not only make up for the loss of Trevor Ariza, but also rework Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins into the lineup. Let’s walk through Portland’s roster heading into Orlando.
The star backcourt
Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is a pairing some teams dream of when it comes to consistency and offensive firepower. Both players have averaged 20 or more points per game since the 2015-16 season (when McCollum was promoted to starter). This year, the pair is averaging a combined 51.4 points per game, which is the highest scoring output since their partnership began.
Portland has relied heavily on Lillard and McCollum this season to not only score but also initiate the offense: Lillard is currently averaging a career high in assists per game (7.8) while McCollum is tied for his best assists per game average (4.3). The addition of Jusuf Nurkic —who brings dominant interior scoring and underrated passing abilities — will help alleviate some pressure from the backcourt in Orlando.
In need of a new starting small forward
The loss of Rodney Hood in December due to an Achilles tear set Portland’s wing depth back indefinitely. The Blazers didn’t find stability at the starting 3-spot until Trevor Ariza arrived around the February trade deadline.
Ariza, a 15-year veteran, lived up to his 3-and-D reputation and instantly slotted in at starting small forward, registering a start in each of the 21 games he appeared in for Portland this season. However, Ariza will not be traveling with the team to Orlando, meaning the Blazers are yet again in need of a new starting small forward.
Head coach Terry Stotts has mentioned Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. as options to fill Ariza’s spot. If Anthony does get the nod, Stotts believes the 36-year-old could handle his opposing assignments because of “team defense.” Rookie Nassir Little and journeyman Mario Hezonja may also be in line for more minutes with Ariza out.
The biggest story for the Blazers heading into Orlando is the expected returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Nurkic last played in a game on March 25, 2019, when he suffered a fractured tibia and fibula; he was set to make his season debut on March 15, but the season suspension put that on hold. Collins was sidelined in the third game of this season after having surgery on a dislocated left shoulder; the second-year big man was cleared last month for full basketball activities.
Damian Lillard recently said that both Nurkic and Collins “look great” and seeing their progress has made him “more confident” as the Blazers prepare for Orlando. Lillard believes that Nurkic and Collins will be starting in Portland’s frontcourt when the season restarts at Disney World.
The Blazers’ incumbent starters in the frontcourt are Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside. Anthony has started in each of his 50 games with the Blazers this season. He has provided scoring relief (15.3 points per game) and a solid rebounding presence (6.3 per game).
Whiteside arrived in Portland after his marriage with the Miami Heat went sour. He has filled the gap left by Nurkic with averages of 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds (a career high) and 3.1 blocks (a league high) per game this season. Nurkic's arrival doesn’t mean he’ll overtake Whiteside’s role outright: Nurkic recently said he expects to play some minutes at power forward, likely beside Whiteside at center.
The young bench trio
Portland’s bench features three 21-and-under players that could feature into the franchise’s long-term future: Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little. Simons came into the season with much hype surrounding him as he prepared for a larger role. The second-year guard has upped his scoring from 3.8 points per game as a rookie to 8.8 points this season, but he hasn’t taken The Leap that some were expecting. Still, the flashes of Simons’ talent are undeniable.
Trent is the likely breakout player from this season thanks to a second-half explosion from the former Duke Blue Devil. After only posting two double-digit scoring performances from October to December, Trent has gone on to rack up 15 such outbursts since January. When he earned extended minutes in February, he also showed his defensive intensity, as evidenced by his 1.5 steals per game that month. Trent’s defensive instincts could be a factor that helps earn him the promotion to starting small forward.
Little was thrust into the starting lineup for three games in November, showcasing his raw athleticism and energy. His minutes have been a roller coaster during the season, but that hasn’t stopped him from bringing 100% whenever he does step on the court. If Little can improve as a 3-point shooter (23.7% this season), he could become a crucial piece in Portland for years to come.
Other reserve contributors
By necessity, Terry Stotts has sometimes gone deep into his bench for minutes. Reserves Caleb Swanigan, Mario Hezonja and Wenyen Gabriel have each registered at least one start for Portland this season. Hezonja has been a consistent presence on the Blazers’ bench during the 2019-20 campaign, averaging 16.3 minutes in 47 games.
Swanigan and Gabriel both arrived along with Ariza in February. Swanigan appeared in 20 games while seeing 13.3 minutes per contest. However, the former Purdue big man will not be traveling to the Orlando restart, cutting the Blazers’ frontcourt depth even further.
That could mean Gabriel, who appeared in 17 games and averaged 8.8 minutes per contest, may be in line for extra minutes as Portland makes its playoff push. Two-way players Jaylen Hoard and Moses Brown are other options for the Blazers to turn to if they travel with the team to Orlando.