The Portland Trail Blazers are still likely to make the Western Conference Playoffs, but when (or if) they arrive, the team will have a more difficult task ahead of them than previously imagined. On Friday evening, the Blazers announced that starting center Jusuf Nurkic will be out for at least the next two weeks as a result of a right leg injury.
While the 2017 NBA Playoffs technically do not begin until after the two-week timetable, injury announcements such as this one should always be taken with a grain of salt given that they provide only a timetable before re-evaluation and not for return. Nurkic, who was acquired in a deal involving Mason Plumlee in February, has been a revelation since joining the Blazers, and that makes this injury all the more devastating for both player and team.
In 20 games with the Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while appearing in only 29.2 minutes per contest. Beyond that, the 22-year-old big man boasts career highs in true shooting percentage (54.5 percent) and PER (21.1) during his short stint with Portland, and Terry Stotts has done a phenomenal job in unlocking his talents in an ideal fashion.
After Friday’s action, the Blazers hold a two-game lead over the Denver Nuggets, and that could be prohibitive for the challengers given that Portland owns the (much) easier closing schedule. In fact, Portland entered Friday evening with a 96 percent chance to make the playoffs (per FiveThirtyEight), and that came before the Nuggets lost a road game in Charlotte to drop another notch in the loss column.
Nurkic’s absence will be felt, though, and there is no way around that. Portland’s playing style is predicated on their two star guards, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but the Nuggets have put forth a top-five offense to go along with a top-ten defense in the NBA since the acquisition of Nurkic. In short, his production will be extremely difficult to match and replace, even in the short term.
Because Portland’s first-round fate is likely sealed due to a nearly impossible match-up with the presumptively top-seeded Golden State Warriors, the injury issue for Nurkic could be seen as “no big deal” from an outsider’s perspective. However, the Blazers simply aren’t the same without their budding star big man on the floor, and even if they probably would have been ousted with haste in the first round, Nurkic’s absence provides an easier path for the favorites while lessening the enjoyment of the viewing public.
It is at least theoretically possible that Nurkic could return for the playoffs, but for now, we have to assume that won’t happen, and his injury could slow a wildly entertaining end-of-season push from the Blazers.