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Blazers’ Vacant Two-Way Contract Slot Needs to be Addressed

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The Trail Blazers’ recent injury woes should open the door for another young player to join the roster.

Portland Trail Blazers All Access Practice Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Trail Blazers suffered another noteworthy injury setback this week when Jusuf Nurkic exited the action with a right wrist fracture on Thursday. With Zach Collins already out of the lineup, Portland’s post rotation is bordering on dangerous territory. Armed with a modest cupboard of trade assets and an open roster spot, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is tasked with exploring potential moves that will help Portland shore up its backline depth.

Filling out the final roster spot with a veteran big man is the obvious move on paper and it appears that the Blazers’ braintrust is open to exploring the free agent landscape. In addition to that low-risk avenue, the Blazers also have the option to sign a second two-way contract player—a transaction that will not nudge Portland closer to the tax line on its own. In addition to the minor salary-cap stakes, the league relaxed the rules on player assignments prior to the start of the 2020-21 season. Unlike previous seasons, two-way contract players are not tied to a 45-day window with an NBA team.

The Current Roster

Signing a second two-way contract player will not cure the Blazers’ current injury woes on its own. Simply adding an end-of-the-bench option will not offset Portland’s decision to build its roster around a 14-man payroll sheet in a condensed season. Even with that in mind, adding a developmental post player has the potential to add minor flexibility in the form of an extra body.

A quick look at the Blazers’ current available roster heading into this week drives home that point:

  • Damian Lillard
  • CJ McCollum* (suffered a foot sprain on Saturday)
  • Derrick Jones Jr.
  • Robert Covington
  • Enes Kanter
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Harry Giles III
  • Rodney Hood
  • Gary Trent Jr.
  • Anfernee Simons
  • Nassir Little
  • CJ Elleby
  • Keljin Blevins (two-way contract)
  • Jusuf Nurkic (out)
  • Zach Collins (out)

*Early postgame reports from Saturday suggest that McCollum’s injury is “just a sprain”. It is unclear how much time he will miss, if any.

Counting McCollum, the Blazers have 13 players ready to see the court. Digging deeper, Kanter and Giles represent the only players that can be comfortably labeled as true centers on the roster — a reality that leaves a tiny margin for early foul trouble or a minor injury. Fortunately for coach Terry Stotts, a crunch-time lineup that features Covington at the pivot exists. But in early-game situations, when managing minutes is still a factor, the Blazers are dangerously thin at center.

Again, a second two-way contract cannot solve Portland’s current depth issues in and of itself. Beyond that, the possibility for a reduced, Noah Vonleh-like role is also not possible without an additional post player.

Current Landscape

Ideally, the Blazers would have competed for sought-after developmental players directly after the conclusion of the 2020 NBA Draft. Moving past that window, adding a big body should have been a priority once it was clear that Zach Collins’ timetable for return drastically expanded at the end of December. Now, with the G League bubble just a few weeks away, the Blazers find themselves in a less-than-ideal position for two-way contract auditions.

Originally, this post was going to look at a handful of available options. Robert Franks, Kylor Kelley and Omer Yurtseven topped a preliminary list of promising, developmental post players. Like several other young players looking to break into the NBA, that trio is in the process of making good on their previously-signed Exhibit 10 deals by reporting to the corresponding G League affiliate for their initial contract. A potential two-way contract does outweigh the bonus of a fulfilled Exhibit 10 obligation, but the process of pre-bubble quarantine has already gotten underway—putting players and agents in a potentially awkward situation.

In short, the Blazers would have to navigate a complicated situation or pursue a player that does not have a current obligation to another organization if they hope to make an immediate two-way signing.

Long-Term Outlook

Regardless of the potential pitfalls outlined in the previous section, a second two-way contract players presents a low-risk option that will not impact the Blazers’ ability to make a splashier move in the buyout market. In less-than-ideal scenarios, like early foul trouble for one of Portland’s two remaining centers, a two-way contract player could step in for spot duty — paving the way for the rest of Stotts’ rotations to remain intact until the second half (the Vonleh role). Remember, minutes add up quickly for a player operating inside a depleted roster during a condensed season.

Beyond this year, taking a flier on a young post player is a no-brainer. Currently, the Blazers lack a developmental big man on their roster. Even if that player has a less than 10 percent chance of panning out, the cap-friendly structure of a two-way contract removes almost all of the potential risk.

The Blazers have already decided to work at a disadvantage by joining the Nuggets as the only other team without a direct G League affiliate. Neglecting the two-way contract slots further removes the Blazers from the ability to develop players like Covington and Jones Jr. in house. With one open spot on the table, the Blazers can immediately take a small step in the right direction with a frugal signing.