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A Pressing Issue for the Trail Blazers Heading into NBA Free Agency

The Blazers have made moves, but they haven’t solved all their problems yet.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Based on their moves so far in the 2022 off-season, the Portland Trail Blazers will field a more talented and diverse lineup in their upcoming campaign than they have at any time since 2014-15. They’ve added depth and talent at nearly every position, fulfilling their promise to build a strong lineup around perennial NBA All-Star Damian Lillard.

The Blazers are not done tinkering yet. The NBA free agency, trade, and signing period will commence next week. Portland still might make major moves. They might also nibble around the edges with cap exceptions and minor deals.

What might those be, and why?

Let’s assume—for the sake of argument and prioritizing future moves—that the Blazers are looking at the following rotation, mentioning only major players:

Point Guard—Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons

Shooting Guard—Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson

Small Forward—Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, Greg Brown III

Power Forward—Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford

Center—Jusuf Nurkic

Clearly Portland still has work to do. Today and tomorrow, we’re going to talk about two systemic issues the Blazers still need to resolve if they want this lineup to contend. Neither one involves adding huge, “name-level” talent to the roster, but each is critical to the Blazers’ eventual success.

The first issue is made obvious by the chart above. The Blazers have no true depth at center. They’re expected to retain Jusuf Nurkic, a good—occasionally brilliant—middle man. Nurkic has much to recommend him. He’s big. He passes. He defends well inside the arc. His offense is efficient within ten feet of the hoop. At 27, he’s entering his prime.

Outside of a couple of multi-month stretches—see also: “Nurk Fever”—Nurkic has not been consistent during his eight-year career with the Blazers and Denver Nuggets. Health has been an issue. He has not topped 70 apperances in a season since 2018-19. He’s only made that mark twice in his career. He’s averaged 51 games per year. Even dropping 2019-20, when he played only 8 games, he’s averaging only 57 games per season.

The Blazers can construct a deep, interlocking rotation at the smaller four positions. That seems to be their goal; they are, perhaps, just one move away from optimizing it. But if the construct rests on Nurkic’s health, they are no better off than they were in 2018-19, when they played one of the best brands of basketball in the NBA, but ultimately got housed in the Western Conference Finals by the Golden State Warriors. Despite the unprecedented run past Oklahoma City and Denver in the prior rounds, Nurkic’s tragic leg fracture scuttled Portland’s fast track towards significance that season. They can’t invest money and trade resources only to risk it happening again.

(P.S. Even if you forecast Nurk remaining perfectly healthy, he gets into foul trouble enough to require an emergency-parachute replacement on the roster.)

Fortunately for Portland, centers come cheaper on the free agent market than most other positions. They also have an extra wing or two to dangle, should they opt to trade for one. They don’t need a starting center if they retain Nurkic. He’s more than adequate. They do need a reserve center who can play significant minutes, and who can start credibly without borking the rest of the lineup. Getting a non-passing, non-scoring, 10-minute-per-game emergency center won’t do. They need a real second pivot to feel secure over the long haul. They won’t need to eat into Nurkic’s time or touches to support their second-unit center. Nurk will probably cede enough on his own to make the move viable.

Tomorrow: One other concern the Blazers will need to address heading into the new year.