No team overachieved more than last year’s Portland Trail Blazers. Yet, for all the circles Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum run around opponents, no team seems more stagnant. Handicapped by poor roster construction and salary cap rigidity, Portland has reached its ceiling. Now, they’re entrusting Jusuf Nurkic with a sledgehammer to crash through it.
This summer, the Blazers established Nurkic as their third franchise cornerstone, signing him to a four-year, $48 million deal in early July. Whether he’s effective enough to wield that sledgehammer and carry this contract is up in the air.
After acquiring Nurkic in 2017, the Blazers went 14-6 with him in the lineup to wiggle their way into the eighth seed as Nurkic Fever swept over Portland. Fans fell in love with his bravado and cockiness, which peaked when Nurkic, with the Moda Center buzzing, wished his former team a “happy summer” after Portland knocked off Denver 122-113 behind Nurkic’s career-high 33 points and 16 rebounds.
He became the low-post presence the Blazers longed for next to Lillard and McCollum, averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals in just 29.2 minutes a night. Underscoring his importance was his plus-11.2 on-off split, the second-best mark on the team during those 20 games.
Expectations were towering for Nurkic entering the 2017-18 season, especially after he dropped 35 pounds over the summer while maintaining 270-pound strength, hoping to alleviate some of his conditioning issues. But almost as quickly as Nurkic Fever was injected into the city, it turned sour. Many of the maddening tendencies that spoiled Nurkic’s tenure in Denver reared their head last year: mercurial play and engagement, inefficient offense, and sloppy turnovers.
For the Blazers to fend off the ever-growing calls to rebuild, he’ll need to emerge as a better complementary offensive threat.
After propelling the Blazers’ offensive rating from 107.6 to 113.3 with him on the floor in 2016-17, the pendulum swung last season as Portland’s offense was 1.8 points better sans Nurkic. Furthermore, his Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus dipped from minus-0.19 to minus-1.36.
One way to cater toward Nurkic’s skill set is to station him on the elbows. Last year, his per-36-minute assist numbers fell from 3.9 to 2.5 as he shifted to a feature role down low with the majority of his assists coming on simple dribble handoffs or within the flow of the offense. Yet in his first stint with Portland, Nurkic exhibited adroit passing, zipping dimes to cutters from the high post. Rekindling that vision might enable him to morph back into an offensive positive:
However, Nurkic lacks the requisite range to consistently lure opponents out of the paint, which limits his effectiveness on the elbows. Couple that with his fascination for midrange jumpers and oversaturating the offense with elbow touches for him might bog down Portland’s attack even more.
Simply reverting back to his bland, anachronistic low-post offense isn’t a solution, either. Among the 32 players who tallied at least 150 post-ups last season, Nurkic ranked 31st in points per possession (0.77). He doesn’t boast a diverse scoring arsenal, though feeding him opportunities remains the best route to ensuring he stays engaged defensively, where he anchors Portland. Diagramming increased off-ball actions and drawing upon his interior passing chops is another way to unearth his facilitating malleability:
Portland’s offense isn’t headlined by movement and deploying Nurkic, who’s prone to cramming passes into tight alleys, as a playmaker could potentially overextend his duties. Rather, the Blazers cash their paychecks through the pick and roll, ranking third in ball-handler frequency and second in efficiency (0.95 PPP) last season, spearheaded by Lillard (1.05 PPP, 94th percentile) and McCollum (0.92 PPP, 78th percentile).
Nurkic, without the threat of a jumper or the fluidity to slither around bigs awaiting him at the rim, struggled to emulate that prosperity, producing just 1.02 PPP (39th percentile) as a roll man. He often pinballed his way into charges or burped up floaters, ignoring his dictatorial physical profile:
Even without emerging as a pick-and-pop merchant or improving his finishing at the rim (61 percent last season, 21st percentile among bigs), Nurkic has the opportunity to embed another dimension into his roll game. If Portland spreads the floor and he displays better decision making and patience, the potential exists to unleash his underutilized short-roll passing:
Some of Nurkic’s waning effectiveness last season was beyond his control. In 2016-17, he exhibited synergy with Lillard, McCollum and Maurice Harkless on their raids to the rim, whirling passes from the high and low post. Yet last season, Lillard only had 37 cuts result in a shot or turnover (69 a year prior); McCollum 45 (28); Harkless 47 (88). Other ingredients like ugly long twos (37.9 percent on 182 midrange attempts) and turnovers (143 assists to 183 giveaways) were poured directly into the pot by Nurkic.
And, when he did operate from the elbows, he was often too liberal with his passing:
Prior to being dealt, Nurkic showed flashes where he put together all his traits and looked the part of a future star, though consistency never prevailed. Perhaps his 20-game stretch with the Blazers was another example of that and 2017-18 is more emblematic of who he’ll be throughout the duration of his new contract. But for Portland’s sake, it’ll need him to be more.
Defensively, Nurkic has the tools to deliver, serving as a high-level rim protector and rebounder, even if the scope of his impact is primarily constrained to the paint. Offensively, he and Portland should embrace his passing that once delighted the city. Weaving his playmaking skills into an outlined offensive role, as opposed to succumbing to black hole post-ups, might just be the key to unleashing him.
At times last season, Nurkic was benched in favor of rookie Zach Collins or veteran grinder Ed Davis late in games. With the Western Conference only growing stingier, the Blazers must ensure the third banana in their Big Three is closing out contests. Otherwise, Nurkic Fever will no longer have a positive connotation. It’ll simply be the way Portland fans describe rooting for a team who’s capped out financially until 2020 and stuck relying on a starting center struggling to put it together five years into his career.