The NBA All-Star break has come and gone, and the playoff race begins in earnest for the Portland Trail Blazers as the season enters its home stretch. The team starts the second half on solid footing after a strong finish to the pre-break schedule. While the remaining slate is daunting, including 12 games against teams currently in the top four of their respective conference, Portland should be buoyed by the return of stars Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum from injury.
Today, we examine three key storylines to watch as the Blazers look to make the postseason for the eighth consecutive year.
The biggest change for Portland will certainly be the impending return of McCollum and Nurkic, who have each been out since mid-January due to injury. While the team, led by MVP candidate Damian Lillard, has performed admirably in their absence, there’s no question that Portland will need the duo back and locked-in to have any chance at a deep playoff run.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Nurk to adjust in his return to the court. He had a slow start to the season, and was just starting to find a rhythm before breaking his wrist against the Indiana Pacers on January 14th. While it’s unlikely that he will pick up right where he left off — assuming he is able to return to the court in the next couple of weeks — he will have plenty of time to get his feet under him before the playoffs begin in mid-May.
McCollum, on the other hand, was playing the best basketball of his career before breaking his foot two days after Nurkic’s injury. CJ will probably be able to make a more immediate impact, though it will be worth monitoring his mobility. If he can continue to shoot the ball the way he was before the injury, Portland will be adding an All-Star caliber player back into the mix.
With the return of Nurk and CJ, several players will see their roles change, and some will be greatly diminished. Enes Kanter is a likely candidate, as he averaged over 30 minutes a game over the month of February as Portland’s only healthy center. That number will certainly go down, but the big man should still play a major role off the bench, especially if Nurkic is slow to find a rhythm in early going.
Other players, like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little, will probably play much more sparingly due to the return of McCollum, who will likely go right back to playing upwards of 40 minutes a night. The youngsters have shown splashes of success with their elevated minutes, so it will be curious to see if coach Terry Stotts finds a way to get them on the floor despite a more crowded rotation. Should he opt for this, veteran Rodney Hood’s regular minutes could be cut entirely.
Gary Trent Jr., on the other hand, will face a different challenge. While his minutes will likely come down a bit, the biggest adjustment for him will be fewer shot attempts with the return of McCollum, as well as a return to a sixth man role. He will need to be more selective with his shot, and will have the ball in his hands less. It’s up to him to be able to adjust back to his old role now that he’s had a taste of the limelight. That adjustment will factor critically into Portland’s playoff hopes and success.
The Blazers have made a splash over the past couple of deadlines, though it sounds as though things may be a bit quieter this time around. With an already crowded rotation and few moveable assets, it will be interesting to see if the team decides to stand pat come the March 25th deadline. Portland has already been in the discussion for players like James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin this season, though it’s unclear exactly how seriously in the mix they were for either of those players.
It seems unlikely that Neil Olshey won’t at least explore opportunities to further improve the team. However, the best bet might just be to see how far the current group can go when fully healthy, rather than making a change just to shake things up.
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