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Can the Trail Blazers Contend if They’re Healthy?

A reader thinks Portland is one injury-free season away from standing among the NBA’s best. We unpack the notion.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2020-21 season was pockmarked with injuries, particularly to center Jusuf Nurkic and starting shooting guard CJ McCollum. Though they survived with a 58% winning mark, many Blazers fans feel it wasn’t representative of Portland’s best efforts. What would happen if the band got back together and everyone was able to play to their fullest? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Daaavvvveee!

I really really think we are just one healthy year away from being in the top 3 or 4. We can win if we’re there too. Last year was a glitch with CJ and Nurk down. If we’re healthy do you think we make it this year?

Byron

Here’s the good news: a healthier season should lead to better performance from the Blazers. I agree that last year was rough for them. They experienced significant injuries to two key starters plus an important reserve in Zach Collins. CJ’s injury was a new wrinkle. Up to that point, they had only missed Nurkic and Collins.

But my agreement comes in measured fashion. McCollum’s injury was rough, but the Blazers actually had Nurkic for almost five times the games last year than they had the season prior: half of the regular campaign and all of the playoffs. Collins aside, they fielded their entire roster when the Denver Nuggets beat them in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Whether the same roster, minus a couple veterans, plus Larry Nance, Jr. will yield different playoffs results this year is up in the air.

The issue becomes more murky when you start applying the same standard to Portland’s competitors. Rough health years are not uncommon in the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors had it bad last year too. If we imagine perfect health for Portland, are we also doing so for those teams? If Anthony Davis plays a full season, would even a healthy Blazers squad eliminate the Lakers from the playoffs? Given the recent championship L.A. earned with that roster, I’d say not.

What we’re really talking about here isn’t just good health for the Blazers, but Portland having better health than their opponents.

You know what? Once upon a time that was a reasonable expectation. It happened, in fact! The Blazers were among the healthier teams in the league right up to Nurkic’s catastrophic injury in 2019. That hasn’t been true after that injury, and it may not be true again with this incarnation of the squad.

Three Portland starters—McCollum, Damian Lillard, and Robert Covington—have rounded 30. That’s not the end of the road; all three should have plenty of good seasons left. But Lillard and McCollum have walked the same path. They’ve either played huge minutes or been injured, with no in-between. These are high-mileage guards, regularly making the Top 10 in minutes played. They’re not likely to keep up that pace indefinitely. Health issues and rest days are going to become part of the portfolio.

Portland’s supporting cast isn’t immune either. Nurkic and Larry Nance Jr. are in their primes, but both have been injury-prone. Cody Zeller hasn’t been the healthiest guy in the world. Norman Powell is the only under-30, upper-half rotation player you’d have confidence in playing all game, every game for the full 82.

I’m not trying to doom-and-gloom it. This is just one example of the transitional time warp that Blazers fans are stuck in. We’re heading into 2022. People are still asking, “Where are the big free agent signings?” That was 2016. We ask, “What player can Portland draft who will make a difference right away?” That happened in 2017. “What veteran will they spend the MLE on?” The time for that was 2017-2019. “Damian Lillard is saying he’s stay here forever!” Not anymore, really. We’re remembering what he said from 2015-2020. In the same way, the assumption that the Blazers will remain among the healthiest teams in the league is an artifact from earlier years.

This is 2021-22. Time isn’t going backwards. The Blazers are going to need to start compensating for age and injuries until they recycle the main lineup and field a group of 24-year-old players again.

Hopefully Portland’s health issues won’t be as dramatic as they were last season, but they’ll be there. Depth is going to matter alongside top-end talent. Portland will need to win games with mid-tier players and back-up point guards. Last year they were mostly up to that challenge. They’ll need to do it again and again.

Either that, or the Blazers really will depend on luck to keep them healthier than everybody else. It could happen! But every team carries that hope. It sits up there with, “Just one player away...” in the lexicon of every franchise that’s not winning a title but can see beyond that glass barrier to the teams that are. It doesn’t usually work out that way, unfortunately.

Thanks for the Mailbag question! You can always send yours in to blazersub@gmail.com!