Larry Nance Jr.’s addition to the Portland Trail Blazers has elicited universal approval across the fanbase and the rest of the league. The 28-year-old is a legitimate sixth man for a Portland team needing contribution from an inexperienced/injury-prone second unit.
But could he be more than that?
Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has made it clear that Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Jusuf Nurkic are the starting lineup moving forward.
But things can change during the marathon that is an 82-game NBA season and while Covington might currently be the anointed starting power forward, Nance Jr. might be a different option and a better look.
Covington and Nance both offer solid defense, predominantly off-ball, as well as shot blocking, steals, and scoring; however each boasts skillsets that complement the other four starters differently.
Let’s get one thing straight: we’ve seen a few fans suggest both players could perform at the small forward and center positions. Yes, they could spend spot minutes at the 3 and 5 but both Covington and Nance Jr. are out and out power forwards. This is as clear as day.
We all know what Covington can and can’t do. After a slow start in Blazers colors last season, he delivered on what was advertized, a reliable three point shooter, a shot blocker, and an above average help defender.
Shooting almost 38 percent from three and more than 80 percent from the charity stripe — we’ll forget the final few seconds of that penultimate Phoenix Suns games last season — Covington offered reliable, low-usage offense, allowing Lillard to do what he does.
Once his stroke returned after Valentine’s Day, Covington step-in and catch-and-shoot threes became pretty reliable. However, one thing is clear, the veteran wing is not a ball handler, a facilitator, or any real kind of passer. And that’s fine, he knows what he is and sticks to his strengths.
The defensive side of the ball is where he shines. With a career average of 0.9 blocks, including 1.2 last season, Covington is a legitimate rim protector and this roster’s third best option at center. Combined with his ability to opportunistically work in passing lanes and use angles to disrupt opponents, he’ll be a crucial cog in improving what was the league’s second worst defense last season.
I’m not suggesting Covington was at fault for the team’s dismal defense. In fact, he was Portland’s only real wing defender after Derrick Jones Jr. fell out of the rotation, meaning he was first up to defend the likes of LeBron James and Paul George. But this team will be better defensively — a kind of addition by subtraction type scenario, so read further.
One of his most appealing draws is his durability. Yes, we know he got popped in the nose by Julius Randle early last season, but Covington played the team’s second highest number of games (70) behind Enes Kanter who featured in all 72.
One area of concerns we might need to consider is his age: Covington turns 31 in December and while he doesn’t rely on athleticism as much as other players, another year might slow him down ever so slightly.
Nance Jr. worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers to get to Portland last week and the Blazers faithful are happy about it.
The 28-year-old stands 6’7 — just like Covington — with a 7’1 wingspan — just like Covington. The only physical difference is that Nance Jr. literally tips the scales as a much bigger, bulkier body.
While Nance Jr. isn’t the shooter Covington is, recording a career 33 percent three point shooting average, he’s not bad, hitting 36 percent last season. Nance Jr. might also not be the shot blocker Covington is but he still averaged 0.5 last season.
Unfortunately, the area Blazers fans should worry about most is his ability to stay on the court. Nance Jr. hasn’t played more than 67 games since entering the league in 2015, battling a range of ailments including issues with his thumb, knee, wrist, finger, hamstring on top of his struggles with Crohn’s disease.
But that’s where the concerns should end.
On offense, Nance Jr. can handle the ball to the point where he becomes the perfect release valve for Lillard and McCollum when they get trapped by double and triple teams. He’s a cerebral interior passer, particularly close to the rim, able to read defenses and more often than not, make the right decision.
Despite the injuries, his athleticism is still there, the man can jump and finish at the rim, helped along by stunning footwork. He can also use that larger frame to post up defenders pretty effectively.
On the other end, one could argue that Nance Jr. is a better defender than Covington. He’s vocal on the court and he’s clearly not afraid to hold teammates accountable when they miss an assignment.
He’s incredibly smart on the court, reading angles and able to get himself into great position to box out on rebounds. While Covington tends to work closer to the rim, Nance Jr. often positions himself higher, executing almost surgical steals with ease. And once he’s got the ball, he’s a lock to finish competently at the other end of the court.
Ok, it’s Covington, but it’s close.
Covington makes sense with the starters because his strengths — shooting, with no real playmaking ability — don’t clash with Lillard and McCollum.
Lillard and McCollum need floor spacers that spread opposing defenses. We’re not saying Nance Jr. couldn’t fill that roll — he could. And if Covington was to go down with injury, he could more than competently fill that void.
But Nance Jr.’s playmaking and defense are likely to be more vital to the second unit, which will have at least one of Lillard or McCollum off the court at any given time.
He will still get his chance to play with starters, likely to be called upon at the end of games. Fans should be salivating at the prospect of Nance Jr. and Nurkic manning the two big frontcourt positions, facilitating and putting teammates in scoring positions.
Last season, the Blazers’ second unit included Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter: great offensive players but complete non-factors on defense. Nance and Cody Zeller as the two main replacements will be a resounding improvement, and hopefully helping the Blazers avoid any early second and later third quarter blowouts.
He’ll also be providing veteran and vocal leadership to young players like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little.
Nance Jr. could arguably be a more versatile and effective member for this Blazers roster and Covington is a really effective NBA player.
But Nance Jr. will clearly be a more impactful contributor off the bench, helping the roster’s younger and less capable players quell opponents on the defensive end while facilitating and scoring at the other.
His presence will also help Covington, who last year shouldered a lot of the burden on defense, particularly during the two-months Nurkic spent convalescing.
Based purely on merit, there’s a good chance Nance Jr. would start over Covington, but this team needs the latter to share the floor with the likes of Lillard, McCollum, Powell and Nurkic.