The big question that Trail Blazer fans had going into the NBA restart in Orlando was originally,”Who will start at center?” By now, though, there is no doubt about that answer -- Jusuf Nurkic is going to be there. He owns that spot.
But the answer to that question has led to another question that hasn’t yet been answered: “Who will be starting alongside him?”
I assumed all along that it was Zach Collins’ position. He opened this season (it seems so long ago) as the starter at power forward and is, presumptively, the team’s power forward of the future.
But Trail Blazer Coach Terry Stotts says he has still not made up his mind about that decision. He wants to see Hassan Whiteside alongside Nurkic in a scrimmage and revealed that he was going to start Whiteside in Thursday’s scrimmage until last-minute Achilles soreness forced Whiteside into street clothes.
Understand that Whiteside would not be playing power forward. If he plays alongside Nurkic, it will be with the more mobile Bosnian at power forward and Whiteside at his normal center spot.
“Mostly, I’m going to play forward with Whiteside in,” Nurkic said after Thursday’s scrimmage. “(With Collins at power forward) we mix it. Me and Zach, we’re going to switch a lot of things. We’re going to read a lot of things. “Four and five are going to be the same thing for us. When we’re on the court together, we’re going to help each other. I thought we looked great (Thursday), to be honest.”
Stotts is taking a neutral position at this point.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” Stotts said Thursday. “I had every intention of starting Hassan tonight with Nurk, to get a look at that. But with him being hurt, or not being available, he will start one of these next two scrimmages.”
And what happens when the eight-game seeding games begin?
“I haven't made up my mind what we will do against Memphis,” Stotts said. “But I want to see Nurk and Hassan out there together and I’ll make up my mind after that. At this point, I'll just keep an open mind about it.”
The Portland coach is in a difficult position. Whiteside has been his starting center all season and leads the league in blocked shots. And with Nurkic back, Whiteside could have bailed on the seeding games, using his pending free agency as an excuse and just staying home.
But he stayed loyal to the team and it would be a tough call for the coach to relegate him to the bench. So I believe Stotts is making every effort to give Whiteside a chance to win a starting berth.
But there are a lot of factors at work with this decision:
Collins is likely this team’s starting power forward next season and for many years after that. He needs time playing with Nurkic and the other starters.
Whiteside may use his free agency to land somewhere else next season, so why should he be anything but a backup?
And another consideration would be Whiteside’s feelings about starting. If he doesn’t start, with free agency ahead and what he has given the Trail Blazers this season, would he pout? Would he be a problem? Without him, the Blazers would once again be down to two playable bigs.
And what about using Nurkic as the power forward? He can probably handle the job, but is it beneficial to him and the team to play him there for long periods?
The mathematics of playing time can be figured out so that Nurkic and Whiteside would be on the court together only about 10 minutes per game, allowing for rest for each player. But should those minutes be at the start of a game?
Stotts has a difficult call ahead. Should Collins lose a starting job because of an injury? Should Whiteside lose his starting job because someone else is coming back from an injury?
There are a lot of questions and Stotts is the one tasked with providing the answers.
It’s not easy being a coach.