In the aftermath of a Blazers practice on Wednesday afternoon, Pau Gasol sweated through a workout that was part shooting drill, part conditioning. With one coach guarding him and another rebounding, the 39-year-old dribbled into midrange jumpers and stepped into catch-and-shoot 3s. Gasol hasn’t played in an NBA game since March, as he’s been recovering from a fractured left foot, but when he does return, Portland will need whatever miles he has left on his odometer. With Jusuf Nurkic out until at least February after breaking his leg in March, and the recent news that Zach Collins will miss at least four months due to shoulder surgery, the Blazers are already in adjustment mode, and looking for help even at the bottom of their depth chart.
Don’t expect Blazers to sign another player in wake of Zach Collins surgery. Considering tax ramifications and what is out there, Blazers likely to be patient and wait for Pau Gasol to finish rehab. Gasol increasing work load, but no target date on return.— Jason Quick (@jwquick) November 4, 2019
“Last year, when Nurk went out, we had a team that we had for four years. We’d all been together so it was like, ‘OK, plug this guy in, let’s make up for that hole by committee,’” Damian Lillard said Wednesday, citing the continuity the team thrived on last season as it made a run to the Western Conference finals. “Everyone was just the same. Now, you have Nurk out and a whole new team, so it’s just different. ... It’s going to take time.”
After four seasons that featured the same core group of players, the Blazers went through a mild makeover this offseason. Portland let Al-Farouq Aminu walk in free agency, traded Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, and traded Mo Harkless and Meyers Leonard away in a four-team deal that brought Hassan Whiteside to Portland. Now those new additions—along with Gasol when he returns—are being asked to make an outsize impact on a team they’ve been a part of for just seven games.
The trickle-down effect of the Collins injury has impacted the entire roster. Skal Labissière has been asked to play center; Rodney Hood has moved to power forward; and even Mario Hezonja has seen a few minutes at center. On Wednesday, as the coaches put Hezonja and Whiteside (playing as the 4 and 5, respectively) through a set where Hezonja gets the ball at the top of the 3-point arc, an assistant coach explained that last season, defenders would sag off Harkless, who shot 27.5 percent from 3, in similar situations. Hezonja, meanwhile, is shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Hezonja said he doesn’t “give a shit” about his role, but was disappointed when he heard Collins was injured. Now he has to help fill out the team’s frontcourt depth just four seasons after entering the league as a shooting guard. “I’ve gained 40-50 pounds in a couple of years and suddenly I’m at the 4. Then this year I’m playing some 5,” he says. “It just shows the growth that NBA does to a player.”
Hood has also seen his role shape-shift this season, moving over to the 4 at times instead of occupying the wing position he’s held for most of his career. “I wish I would have known back in May,” Hood says with a laugh. “I probably would have put on 20 pounds.”
Even so, Hood knows it’s all-hands-on-deck right now. “It may take some time but we just gotta figure out what our identity is now without Zach,” he says. “The reality is Zach is not going to play for us probably the rest of the season so we just gotta deal with it … It may take a few games, it may take a few weeks.”
Eighty-two games is a long road, but time is still of the essence for Portland, which came into this season with more than just playoff aspirations. Coach Terry Stotts may be able to get by with patchwork rotations for now, but even if initial reports suggest the Blazers aren’t looking to add a big man with their open 15th roster spot (it would cost them in luxury tax money), teams around the league reportedly expect Portland to be active on the trade market. This early in the season, it’s hard to project whom the Blazers might pursue, but there are some options that make sense.
Kevin Love is averaging 18.9 points and 14.4 rebounds a game in Cleveland, though his production may as well be happening in another league for how much attention it’s getting. From a narrative perspective, Love makes sense with the Blazers—he did grow up in Oregon, after all. But the basketball fit is trickier. Yes, Love would be another big body who can rebound and score, and he would likely gel well with both CJ McCollum and Lillard on offense. But Love is not known for his defense, which is what the Blazers need most right now. Portland currently ranks no. 21 in defensive rating, allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions.
Whiteside, for his part, says he wants to fill the defensive void by blocking more shots—he led the NBA in 2015-16 with 3.7 blocks per game. But even though the Miami Heat cast-off is making early contributions, averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds and shooting a career-high 66 percent from the field, Lillard says Whiteside needs more time to fully assimilate. Plus, Portland’s defensive success with Collins on the floor came from his versatility and movement, not shot-blocking.
Danilo Gallinari is another trade candidate who could fit in well with this team. He would be the perfect stretch 4 to play with Portland’s deadly backcourt. And while it’s unclear what Oklahoma City’s ultimate goals are for this season, Gallinari and his expiring contract could be a tasty asset for Sam Presti to try to swap for another first-round pick.
In the East, the Knicks are overrun with power forwards and don’t have any lofty goals this season (or at least, they shouldn’t). Moving a player like Bobby Portis, who has been off to a strong start, or even a veteran like Taj Gibson could give New York an additional asset. Neither player moves the Blazers’ championship needle, but both are capable of contributing right away.
Then there are the dreamier scenarios. Draymond Green seems like he’d be an ideal fit next to McCollum and Lillard, but he can’t be traded until four days before the deadline, and the Warriors have yet to give any indication that they would even be willing to listen to offers. If Indiana ever decides to punt on the Domantas Sabonis–Myles Turner pairing, I imagine the Blazers would gladly take either of them. The question, though, is what they would be willing to give up in return. A Sabonis or Turner trade might have to include Anfernee Simons, who Portland is very high on, as well as a pick, if not more.
Collins was supposed to have a breakout year and show off the effectiveness of Portland’s lauded development system. Now that system will have to work overtime to make up for what the team has lost—and external help may still be necessary. Just seven games in, the Blazers are already on the clock. And it’s ticking fast.