Portland Trail Blazers fans are arguably more enthused about their new reserve frontcourt compared to its predecessor. Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller have been solid during the team’s first two outings against the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns.
Good thing, too, as the prodigious pair will need to address serious defensive holes left by Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter, halting opposition scoring when Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington sit.
Great, the Blazers appear competent at the power forward and centre positions, but are they deep?
Short answer, no.
Once we get beyond Nurkic, Covington, Nance Jr. and Zeller, we are left with few options. And by few options I mean 6’9 rookie Greg Brown III who’s as raw as a saran-wrapped supermarket steak.
If you were hoping for extra support at the two-way contract level, you’re going to be disappointed, with those spots manned by wings Keljin Blevins and Trendon Watford — the latter of whom might be able to pass as a power forward, but barely.
Yes, Nance Jr. and Covington can move up to center when called upon, but it’s not sustainable. And what exacerbates this issue more is the injury histories carried by Nurkic, Nance Jr. and Zeller in particular, as the trio have endured a long list of ailments resulting in not one playing more than 60 games over the past two seasons with Nance Jr. never playing more than 67.
Actually, let’s spell it out:
Nurkic’s last five seasons have featured 37, eight, 72, 79 and 65 games.
Zeller’s last five seasons have included 48, 58, 49, 33 and 62 games.
Nance Jr.’s last five seasons resulted in 35, 56, 67, 66 and 63 games.
What happens if all three go down at the same time? Do the Blazers move Covington to center with Tony Snell, Nassir Little — who hasn’t had the cleanest injury history himself — or, perish the thought, Brown manning the power forward slot?
Who comes off the bench, Watford?
And while Dennis Smith Jr. was clearly the standout of the training camp invitees, some have criticized his signing, suggesting big Marquese Chriss might have been the more prudent move. Smith Jr. is solid guard insurance but he’s stuck behind Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Anfernee Simons, all with relatively better durability.
If this team wasn’t trying to contend to appease its star point guard, the lack of big man depth would acceptable. You could legitimately expect Brown and Watford to play up a position to fill in if the team fell victim to the injury bug.
But this fantasy world does not exist in 2021-22. The Blazers have nine months to prove to Damian Lillard that this team can be a Western Conference heavyweight and to prove to him that his best option is to stay in Oregon instead of asking for greener pastures.
While the Blazers had similar roster balance issues last season, Kanter and Anthony didn’t miss games. They just didn’t.
I hate to be a buzzkill here but President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey really needs to have a backup plan.
Do you look back to Chriss, do you try to re-ignite unsigned DeMarcus Cousins or do you wait for the buyout of the also oft-injured Kevin Love if and when that happens? Do you look to give up a piece or pieces you actually like for a big man already sitting on an NBA roster?
Do you pull the trigger on a CJ McCollum for Ben Simmons deal? Yes, Simmons is 6’11 and able to guard almost every position but he’s starting to look less appealing by the day. Not to mention Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Daryl Morey, who honestly thinks he’s doing his franchise a favor by suggesting Simmons could stay in Pennsylvania four more years.
There’s also one more factor we need to consider. The Blazers payroll is a smidge over the luxury tax. To avoid paying the repeater tax next season, it’s likely that Olshey will try for a deadline deal that tips the team under the tax, which means giving up player(s) and not necessarily adding any.
Western Conference competition
Last night, the Blazers got their first win of the season, handily taking care of the reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns by 29 at the Moda Center.
While a disappointing night for the Suns who were playing the second night of a back-to-back, they are rich in big man stock. Not only does their roster feature premier center Deandre Ayton, but also JaVale McGee, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Frank Kaminsky, Jalen Smith, and Dario Saric, who is unfortunately out through injury for most of the season.
The Western Conference favorite Los Angeles Lakers lay claim to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza, who when fit can comfortably play the power forward position.
And fellow contender Utah Jazz boast reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gay, Royce O’Neale, Eric Paschall, and rookie first round draft pick Udoka Azubuike.
These three franchises have legitimate claims to contest for a championship, primarily because of the quality of their players, but they also have depth that can sustain them if injuries persist.
We should all cringe if the Blazers lose a couple of big men and have to go up against one of these premier teams.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory this Blazers frontcourt has been decimated by injury. It was only two years ago former coach Terry Stotts was forced to start Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja for stretches.
We don’t want those days to return.
And while Greg Brown’s potential is obvious, you don’t want him playing serious minutes this season.
This team will play small ball at times, perhaps pushing Little or Snell to the four but that’s not going to be a long-term recipe for success.
Let’s hope Olshey has a plan ready because there’s probably not going to be a Carmelo Anthony-type player waiting for his career to be revived. The stars truly aligned two years ago when the future Hall of Famer joined an injury-ravaged Blazers team.
So as we look forward to the 2021-22 season, we should also shudder every time one of those injury prone big men land awkwardly, wondering if that’s another big man down.
I’m not trying to be a pessimist but rather realistic about the fact that there’s simply not enough fingers to cross or wood to touch to protect Portland’s big man brigade and their vulnerable bones, ligaments, muscles and soft tissue.