The Portland Trail Blazers just suffered another major injury blow as center Robert Williams III went down with a potentially season-ending knee injury in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 5.
Williams joins Anfernee Simons (thumb surgery) on the list of walking Blazers wounded. Scoot Henderson, one centerpiece of Portland’s recently undertaken franchise rebuild, has missed the team’s last two games with an ankle issue.
Rob Will’s injury in particular, though, points to a bigger issue that’s been ailing the franchise for too long, and it should serve as a road sign to general manager Joe Cronin:
“This way to the next step in your rebuild.”
The Trail Blazers need to finally solve their big man problem for good
Considering his lengthy injury history, it wasn’t wise to hope for a full season from Williams, even as head coach Chauncey Billups kept the 26-year-old out of every other game. Still, it’s a major blow to Portland, in the short and long terms.
The Blazers are left with Deandre Ayton as the only center on the roster with legitimate NBA experience. Ayton leads the league in rebounding with an average of 13.3 per game, but hasn’t been much of a rim deterrent (1.0 blocks per game) and is 32nd in the league in scoring among centers (10.4 points per game).
Without Williams, the only true centers remaining on Billups’ roster are Moses Brown and Duop Reath. After those two, Portland is left with a familiar dilemma: No one else on the roster is taller than 6-foot-8, and the only player who’s even dabbled at the five is the 6-7, 227-pound Jabari Walker.
Last year, the Blazers had an injury-prone center in Jusuf Nurkic, and the only cover they had for him was the 6-9 Drew Eubanks.
In 2022-23, Portland finished 28th in the NBA in rebounding, 28th in defensive rating and 25th in opponent points in the paint. The year before, the Blazers were 27th in rebounding, 29th in defensive rating and 17th in opponent points in the paint. The team was middle-of-the-pack in those stats in 2020-21 but struggled to a defensive rating of 115.3 with Enes Freedom playing as the main center for most of the year.
Hassan Whiteside manned the paint for the majority of 2019-20. It was Zach Collins and Nurkic the year before, then things end up in the Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh eras.
The Trail Blazers have been struggling for far too long to lock down a franchise frontcourt centerpiece. Is Ayton the answer? Maybe. He’s only 25 years old and has the physical tools to be that guy – although he never became who the Phoenix Suns thought he could be after they took him with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
Cronin drafted Shaedon Sharpe and Henderson with back-to-back top-10 selections. It’s been a slow start for Scoot, but nothing through five games suggests the 19-year-old won’t be a star, and Sharpe has looked like Portland’s best player on numerous occasions this season. Simons is still 24 and in the middle of a team-friendly contract.
The backcourt of the future seems set. Now it’s time for Cronin and the Blazers to finally cement the frontcourt to go with it.