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Trail Blazers Face Tough Choices After Jusuf Nurkic Injury

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The Blazers don’t have their starting center, Can they fill the gap?

Indiana Pacers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have lost Jusuf Nurkic for an indefinite period due to a fractured wrist suffered in their loss to the Indiana Pacers last night. The natural question resounding through the halls of Blazerdom—and in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag—is how they’ll cope.

Danny Marang already did a good job of explaining options via video and audio. Let’s summarize the more popular questions here and augment his work.

When Will Nurkic Return?

We don’t know yet. We hope to find out in the next day or two as the Blazers release information on treatment and prognosis. But we’re almost certainly looking at multiple weeks or months, plus readjustment time.

Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic tweets that the injury will necessitate surgery and is expected to cost Nurkic eight weeks.

That interval would leave Portland without their center for all of the first half of the season. The Blazers are scheduled to play 25 games between now and March 4th.

How Bad Is This for the Blazers?

It’s bad, but not all hope is lost.

If you’ve listened to literally anything I’ve done since pre-season, you’ll know that I tabbed Nurkic as the hidden, but irrevocable, key to making the New Look Blazers work. The combination of size and mobility on defense, plus scoring and passing ability on offense, provide the connection point for his teammates. He’s not the best player on the team. He’s the one that turns their starting lineup from two-dimensional to three.

We’ve seen this in a couple ways since the season began. When Nurkic started slow and sloppy, so did Portland. They couldn’t throw the ball inside, reverting instead to the three-point-heavy, guard-oriented attack that everybody expected. Derrick Jones, Jr. cut the baseline occasionally, but he and Robert Covington were stuck on the perimeter, watching as guards dribbled, the bail-out three their only option. Their individual defense was strong, but it yielded no results without a backstop in the middle. They shaded dribblers into layups. Or opponents just ran guard-center pick-and-rolls against the ponderous Nurkic, eliminating Portland’s best defenders from the equation altogether. It was comically easy for the opposing team, tragically bad for the Blazers.

We’ve also seen that Enes Kanter and Harry Giles III, though eager, cannot bring what Nurkic does. Kanter suffers on the defensive end, Giles is nowhere near as multifaceted on offense. They both play their game well; they can’t play his.

In short, outside of Damian Lillard, this is the worst loss Portland could suffer.

HOWEVER...

In the macro sense, they can still recover to some version of normalcy. I think we can presume that dreams of an ultra-high playoffs seed have departed, unless they have another huge trick up their sleeve. But let’s face it, nobody but the Lakers has played like a lock for those seeds anyway. Portland was playing better as Nurk rounded into shape, but they still weren’t burning up the league. In all probability, they were destined for a mid- to low-bracket position anyway.

This injury lowers the ceiling on their aspirations, but it doesn’t drop off the floor much. They can still play their guard-heavy style, look for more mobility at center (or get by with Kanter rebounding his way through the offense for extra points), and earn that same mid-to-low position anyway. They won’t have as much experience together when they reach the postseason, but hopefully they’ll have Nurkic back and in shape at that point.

The Blazers weren’t supposed to be in, “As good of a chance as most teams...” position this year. They were built to earn a better one. But even without Nurk, they can still earn that low-mid-level place, just as they have in past seasons.

Can Portland Sign a Replacement?

Yes, but there are limitations.

They won’t receive an injured player replacement slot for Nurkic unless the injury is far worse than we fear.

They do still have their bi-annual exception, a $2.4 million trade exception, or they could sign a minimum-contract player. Those options wouldn’t cost them any further assets in trade.

The luxury tax is going to be a barrier here. I don’t foresee any future in which the Blazers exceed it without proven championship track record or undeniable potential. Though they don’t have either right now, there’s wiggle room. Tax is not calculated until after the last game of the season. Portland can make moves in the middle of the year that take them over the threshold as long as they’re back underneath it by the end.

Using the BAE or the trade exception to sign a player would put the Blazers into tax territory. If they made an unequal-salary trade afterwards, taking back slightly less money than they took in, they could end up back in non-taxpayer land.

Signing a minimum-level player is the more likely option. Cap rules allow any team to do so, even if they’re already over the cap.

Since the Blazers are only half a million below the tax line now, even a min-level signing would push them into tax territory. But as colleague (and Blazer’s Edge writer) Eric Griffith points out, the Nurkic injury should take him below the minimum number of appearances needed to earn a $1.25 million incentive in his contract. If that money is not credited to Nurk at the end of the year, it comes off the cap ledger. That gives Portland more wiggle room, leaving them $1.8 million or so to sign a minimum-salary player now without exceeding the tax line.

NBCSports’ Chris Burkhardt came out with a list of seven potential min-level free agents the Blazers could pursue in this situation. He did a fine job. There’s no need to elaborate on his work, and our own staff may have a couple more ideas percolating this weekend.

The problem with all of the potential solutions is clear: they’re not Nurkic. If even Kanter and Giles are struggling to fill Nurk’s shoes, John Henson and Skal Labissiere aren’t going to do it. Nobody on the minimum-level market is going to restore Portland’s high-seed aspirations, and that’s really what we’re talking about here.

What About a Trade?

This is where it gets more intriguing. Faithful readers will know that the other preseason topic we hit heavily was the short-term nature of most of the Blazers’ contracts. Of the non-rookie-contract players on the squad, only Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Robert Covington are completely guaranteed past the end of this season. Lillard and McCollum are the only players with any kind of guaranteed contract past the summer of 2022, one year from June.

Because of this, the current incarnation of the Blazers has a one-year shelf life. Retaining all of them past this summer would push the Blazers so far into the luxury tax that the Golden State Warriors would say, “Damn! Slow your roll!” If the Blazers are not on track for a World Championship (or close) by the trade deadline, making a trade for a smaller number of longer-term players would make sense.

In other words, a trade was a reasonable possibility anyway. The Nurkic injury may change “reasonable” to “strong”.

No position has a bigger bifurcation in value than centers do right now. Traditional, bulky, lane-oriented centers are worth little in today’s NBA. Multi-talented, mobile, rangy centers are starting to come into vogue and are prized. If the Blazers only want a muscular chunk to clog the lane, they could probably get it with a modest trade. If they need a true Nurkic replacement (besides Kanter, who is actually somewhat close), they’re going to have a hard time.

The guy they should probably chase is DeMarcus Cousins. He’s playing 14 minutes per game for the Houston Rockets. He’s shooting only 34% from the field, 32% from the arc, but he has the multi-layered skill set to fill the need and his per-minute production is still good.

Having traded James Harden, the Rockets are no longer serious playoffs threats. Looking to the future, they wouldn’t be averse to tearing it down. Trading Cousins wouldn’t be out of the question.

The problem is, Cousins is already on a minimum-level contract. The Blazers could offer a young player on a low rookie contract in return, but would they want to give up that player’s future for a short-time replacement?

Attractive package deals are available. PJ Tucker would be a nice get and his salary would open up more trade options. But Tucker is also on the last year of his contract and Houston isn’t interested in picking up future salary at this point, particularly not for mediocre players. Without draft picks thrown in, there’s no incentive for them to trade expiring contracts for expiring contracts either. Trading future picks for a replacement player doesn’t make any more sense than trading young talent does.

In short, making a Rockets deal work is hard. But if the Blazers were going to target one player, I’d go for DeMarcus.

Readers will have other trade suggestions, I’m sure. The trick will be not spending permanent capital on a temporary problem. Either way, I’m guessing that if the Blazers are going to pull out of any post-Nurkic dive, they’ll either have to do it with the personnel already on hand or make a significant swap in the middle of the year. A signing just won’t do it.