PORTLAND, Ore. — With training camp opening in four days and the start of the regular season less than a month away, it's time to check in on the Portland Trail Blazers.
Welcome to 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature. Every Thursday, three members of the KGW News sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon.
This week's questions (below) focus on Jusuf Nurkic, Neil Olshey and training camp position battles:
Meet our panelists
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
1. Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic has reportedly lost 34 pounds this offseason, dropping from 309 to 275 pounds, according to a report from CSNNW’s Jason Quick. Nurkic is reportedly more agile and has added spin moves and a step-back jumper to his offensive repertoire. What are your expectations for Nurkic this coming season?
Hanson: My expectation is he gives the Blazers similar numbers as he did in the 20 games he played last season. If he can play 30-35 minutes per game and average 15 points and 10 rebounds, all Blazers fans should be happy. Last season he averaged nearly 30 minutes a game. Maybe he can play a few more minutes this year but I don’t expect that number to go up much. The number Blazers fans should be concerned about with Nurkic is the number of games he plays. If he can play more than 60 games, put up 15 and 10 on a nightly basis, and give the team an interior presence, the Blazers should find themselves in the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
Cowley: In 20 games last season with the Blazers, not only was Nurkic overweight and out of shape, he also had to learn new offensive and defensive schemes, and get used to a new coaching staff and teammates. Despite all that, Nurkic averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal per game with the Blazers, a stat line that no other player in the NBA averaged last season. Barring an injury, it's hard to imagine Nurkic taking a step back this season. He's healthy, he's lighter, he's more agile, and he's motivated to prove his doubters wrong. It doesn't hurt that it's a contract year. Nurkic may have fallen out of favor in Denver, but whenever he was given minutes and a consistent role, he excelled. In the games in which Nurkic played 26 minutes or more during his three seasons in Denver, he averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals per game. Nurkic will get all the minutes he can handle in Portland, and he's going to thrive.
Sanchez: Blazers fans should feel good about this. It’s clear the Blazers are a better team with Nurk on the floor. He has to stay healthy in order to do so. Losing more than 30 pounds should help lessen the toll on his lower body, which means more playing time for the Bosnian Beast. Let’s not get too excited about the step-back jumper or improved jumped shot. That’s great, but I’d rather hear about his help-side defense, blocked shots and rebounding, because that’s what this team was missing before he got here. Bottom line, seeing him lose that type of weight means he wants to be here and he knows how important he is to this team. If he can produce the way he did through 20 games last year, the Blazers will be above .500 in the standings.
2. The Blazers recently extended general manager Neil Olshey through the 2021 season. Does Olshey’s performance during his first six years in Portland justify a contract extension? Why or why not?
Hanson: I’d say yes but I could see why someone would disagree. He overpaid for Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner, and put the Blazers in a tough spot in terms of building a team around star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The Blazers had the second highest payroll in the league last season and were far from competing for a championship. But he deserves credit for drafting and keeping Lillard and McCollum in Portland. He also deserves credit for getting Nurkic and a first-round pick in exchange for Mason Plumlee. In the end, the Blazers have been to the playoffs each of the last four years, won a series in two those seasons, and have the face of their franchise who the community adores. Things could be better, but Olshey has built a strong foundation.
Cowley: Yes, Olshey deserves the contract extension. The Blazers made it clear how they feel about their general manager when they denied the Atlanta Hawks' request to interview him after last season. Olshey's track record in Portland has more hits than misses. He drafted Lillard and McCollum and traded for Nurkic. Building a Big 3 through two smart draft selections and a steal of a trade is enough to shield him from too much criticism. The contracts he gave Crabbe, Turner and Leonard during the 2016 offseason were too expensive, but it's not like Olshey was the only general manager who made bad decisions that summer. At this point, Olshey deserves the opportunity to see this through and try to build a roster around Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic that can contend for more than first-round playoff exits.
Sanchez: What have you done for me lately? Isn’t that how it goes in sports? Olshey’s move to trade Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic took some of the heat off his seat. The surge of “Nurkic Fever” in Rip City was refreshing. The way the team ended the season gave fans a reason to look forward to the 2017-18 campaign. One thing I’ve quickly learned in my time living here is that free agents don’t want to come to PDX. Reports that Olshey went after Carmelo Anthony and Paul George this offseason went a long way in the public-perception department. Clearing up some of the salary cap mess with the Allen Crabbe move helped too. If first-round picks Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins don’t work out, it’s worth revisiting this question. For now, I’m good with Olshey’s contract extension.
Swoosh. pic.twitter.com/JPAPexghlG— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) September 14, 2017
3. The starting positions at point guard, shooting guard and center are set for the Blazers, but the two forward positions are more fluid. Which is the more interesting training camp position battle, small forward or power forward, and why?
Hanson: Power forward. And it’s all because of what Caleb Swanigan did during Summer League. He was just the fourth player ever to average a double-double in the NBA Summer League. The others were Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Marreese Speights. It’s hard to not to get excited about a guy who puts himself in the same company as Love and Griffin. Swanigan seemed to have a real sense of the game and showed flashes of being a skillful passer, which should only help the Blazers get better looks at the rim. I don’t expect Swanigan to be the starting power forward when the season begins. But I will be very interested to see if he can continue his strong Summer League play into the preseason and regular season.
Cowley: Aminu and Harkless are probably Portland's fourth- and fifth-best players, so regardless of who starts, those two should probably play the most minutes at the two forward positions. A void of top-level talent at those two positions, though, makes it hard to categorize the training camp position battles as interesting. And that's what's wrong with the Blazers' roster. Portland has a legitimate Big 3 in Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, but it's such a steep drop in talent after that. Unless Olshey is able to trade for another star, Portland needs at least one of their veteran forwards like Harkless, Aminu or Turner to take a big step forward, or see a young player like Noah Vonleh have a breakout season. If that doesn't happen, this Portland team may struggle to be anything more than a middle-of-the-road team in a tougher-than-ever Western Conference.
Sanchez: This one is fun to think about because there are a lot of options for Terry Stotts to sort through. I think Maurice Harkless is a lock at the small forward position, but the 4-spot is a guessing game. Al-Farouq Aminu seems like the front-runner for that job, but the way Noah Vonleh ended the year playing valuable minutes, makes him a contender too. Will Ed Davis be the guy from the 2015-16 season? If so, maybe he makes a run at it. Oh, and don’t forget about the two first-round draft picks either. I know it’s just summer league, but after that performance, Caleb Swanigan could be the guy we’re talking about a few months from now. What if Zach Collins plays like the Top-10 pick Blazers brass believes he is? Fun discussion I think we’ll be having all season long.
If you'd like to submit a Blazers question for our panel to answer in next week's edition of 3-on-3, send it here.