In a refrain at once familiar and painful, the Portland Trail Blazers have suffered significant injuries to key players—CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Zach Collins—that threaten to derail their season and their progress towards the playoffs. Dave Deckard and Dia Miller had planned to talk about something else today, but you can’t miss the elephant in the boot cast sitting in the corner of the room, so here we go...
Dave: Let’s start with the obvious. How has your outlook on the season changed because of these injuries? What are your expectations now?
Dia: Honestly? My outlook hasn’t changed much. I know that might seem unrealistic given Blazers twitter and the fact that you’d think the Trail Blazers actually ceased to exist over the last week. But the truth is, neither Nurk nor CJ’s injuries are probably season ending. Both are temporary. We talked at the beginning of this about how deep the Blazers are this year and how crucial that would be with COVID, and it’s proven to be even more crucial than we thought. But here we are. My expectations haven’t changed much— make it to the playoffs and go from there. My hope is that with this deep of a team we can do that even without Zach, Nurk and CJ.
Dave: We’re falling into the expectation gap here, I think. If you judge these events by Portland’s routine in the Lillard era, yes, they’re dramatic, but they’re not wholly abnormal. Nurkic broke his leg and was out most of two years. Collins has been on the injured list seemingly forever. Lillard hasn’t been injured severely, but he’s had tough stretches due to fatigue and nagging injuries, weeks where he’s struggled markedly. That’s not even counting the supporting players.
As you point out, neither of these injuries are supposed to be season-ending. Both stars will be back in the second half, as far as we know. The Blazers will have a chance to make a run at the postseason, also to play well there. That’s what they always do.
Here comes the gap, though. This year wasn’t supposed to be normal. It was supposed to be The Year (tm) all rights reserved, void in Vermont, Tuscaloosa, and apparently, Portland. The headache induced by millions of Blazers fans crying out all at once and then falling silent is as much about the dreams as the facts. You can feel the milk of contention oozing out of the busted Blazers bucket by the minute.
This wouldn’t be so bad except for the contract situation. As we’ve said over and over again, the Blazers can’t afford to keep this team together. This was their shot to finally make a run, even for one year, with the right players around Dame, CJ, and Nurk. We were still asking whether those players were really right. Nobody expected to also ask whether there’d be a CJ and Nurk.
Ugh. Pick me up, Dia.
Dia: I still would argue it won’t be a normal year. Again, these injuries won’t last all season, and this time, Dame has a decent supporting cast around him even with Zach, Nurk and CJ out temporarily. I truly believe we are going to see guys step up and take over. Just like we talked about when Nurk went down. Out of the next 17 games only 5 have a winning record. Even with these injuries, we can hold it together through that. Let me play devil’s advocate here and make a different argument. What if the lack of Zach and Nurk and CJ actually gives some of these other guys to step up in a way that will benefit us when they come back? What if Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Harry Giles come out swinging, knowing they have to? What if these injuries actually build a stronger team going forward? I know that’s not a popular opinion, or maybe even a likely scenario. But neither was being in the position we are currently in.
Dave: I’m all for it. I don’t fear the Blazers being able to score. I’m really worried about the defense, which wasn’t going that well anyway. On the bright side, the bench defense should get better with Gary Trent, Jr. and Harry Giles getting more playing time. I’m excited for that. On the murkier side: more Carmelo and Enes Kanter. I fear that the starting unit will be back to their old, “Score 120 and pray” defensive scheme. That’s going to expose the lack of offensive production and reliability at the forward positions.
If the Blazers are going to be great, they need to hold the opponent to 105 points per game. They’d win 75% of the time with that average. It wasn’t happening even with Nurkic around. I don’t see it happening without him.
I do think this is the big opportunity for Trent, Jr. and Giles to show what they’re worth, though. GTJ has got to elbow Rodney Hood back into the rotation with excellent defense and shooting. HG3 could do the same to Anthony and Kanter with energy. If they’re going to come to the fore, there will never be a better time.
Are you as excited about that potential as I am, or do you see other micro-things to get excited about amid the gloom?
Dia: Yeah, it’s hard not to be excited about some of what we are seeing. I’ll admit when the news came in about CJ last night I was in a mood. I definitely felt discouraged and disappointed. I’m not a robot. CJ was quickly becoming a big highlight of this season for me, and I’m anxious for him to come back and go right back to that. But in the mean time, I’m excited to see some more play time for guys who normally wouldn’t get it. Actual minutes in NBA games are huge for player development and I’m really hopeful that that’s what we are going to see happen. I know I often go back to Portland’s team chemistry, but I think this is an appropriate time to bring that up. Much of this game is mental, and we have watched this team continue to push forward admits adversity time and time again. I’m excited to see how they do that again this time. I think guys like Gary Trent Jr. and Harry Giles will be crucial in that, obviously. I think they will step up and fill that role. We saw Hood come out and have a fantastic game this week. He is another piece we didn’t have last season, and coming back from such a long hiatus takes time. It seems like his time is now.
Dave: Here’s another open door. If Damian Lillard was ever going to win the NBA MVP award, the time is right now. He’s still in his prime. Nobody healthy on the roster comes close to his level of dominance. They’re literally there to support him; that’s why they were acquired. The team needs him to carry them through the next 6-8 weeks. He could, without complaint and with nothing but positive effects, take over the franchise and push his limits to the moon. Between you and me, I don’t think this will happen. I’d still like to see him try.
Before we wind this up, let me ask you a personal question. You’re as dedicated and hopeful as anybody I know who follows and writes about this team. How do you deal with events like this. Blazers Nation is dragging their collective chins to the ground right now. What’s allowing you to cope and come out swinging despite the hardship?
Dia: I wish there was some magic formula, but there isn’t. The truth is, I’m pretty optimistic in life in general, that’s just kind of part of who I am. But also, it’s not fun to spend the entire season expecting to lose. That would be a terrible way to watch. So I just hold onto hope. There’s always that sliver of hope—until there isn’t. So even though it may not be the most likely outcome, it’s the one I want, and the one I’m hoping for. I’d rather live in a world of hope than one of expecting the worst. So here I am, living in an optimistic world of hope where the Blazers hold it down the ship until Nurk and CJ can come back, and then they all go on to win the Championship. I’m going to go ahead and hold onto that hope until the day it’s no longer a possibility.
Dave: I’ll be right there with you, but the Ides of February may not be pretty. This season is starting to feel like a changing of the tide, the same as happened in 2010 and 2011 with Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. The injuries are nowhere near as severe and career-threatening, but they’re still stealing away seasons that the team depended on for growth and achievement. The mantra going into the year was, “If not now, when?” How quickly that’s morphed into the question nobody wanted to have to ask: What now???
It’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re seeing one of the last, best chances for the Lillard era to blossom into the kind of success he deserves. If the Blazers have a rabbit in the hat, it’s time to pull it out. Let’s see what happens.
How are all of you coping with the injuries? Find anything interesting in what either of us said? Share it below in the comments!