As the 2021-22 NBA regular season approaches and training camp winds down across the league, we’ll be taking a look at the player on each team that holds the key to unlocking their potential. For the Portland Trail Blazers, that player is newly acquired forward Larry Nance Jr.
In late August, the Blazers were part of a three-team deal, with many focusing heavily on the decision by the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire Lauri Markkanen. Within that swap, Portland turned Derrick Jones Jr., along with a draft pick, into Nance, aiming to upgrade the team’s frontcourt. That move came on the heels of the Blazers posting the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating last season, allowing more than 1.15 points per possession.
Portland’s roster, headlined by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, is not constructed in a way that inspires defensive belief. However, the Blazers truly cratered a year ago, especially when a deploying a second unit that featured Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter. Nance can’t and won’t fix everything, but the Cleveland Cavaliers were nearly eight points better per 100 possessions defensively when Nance was on the floor a season ago. On top of that, Nance is highly versatile, with the ability to play both forward spots and even flash to center if and when new Portland head coach Chauncey Billups wants to send a small-ball unit onto the floor.
Since leaving the Lakers in his third season, Nance has been off the radar nationally, but his maturation defensively has been notable, and he is also a positive offensive player. The 27-year-old has posted a 58.8 percent true shooting mark across the past two seasons, developing into an adequate three-point shooter and keeping pressure on the opposition near the rim. Nance is a capable rebounder on both ends, and he should help the Blazers to unlock lineup versatility surrounding Lillard, McCollum, and Norman Powell.
It remains to be seen as to what kind of role the Blazers envision for their newly-acquired forward, but the price Portland paid seems to indicate lofty expectations. The Blazers do have starting-caliber forwards in Powell and Robert Covington, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nance garner starts at the power forward spot, in addition to his role as a super-sub that checks multiple boxes. It would be fair to say that Portland also had real belief that Jones could help them in a similar way a year ago but, in short, Nance is far more accomplished and proven in his role, and the Blazers acquiring an upper-tier defender at that spot cannot be overlooked in the team’s quest to make life better for Lillard while winning at a high level.