Jusuf Nurkic is an NBA-level starting center. I’m just not sure that he and his contract allow the Portland Trail Blazers to reach the heights. Damian Lillard and Blazers fans have their heads and hearts set.
The 28-year-old signed a four-year, $70 million deal to stay at Portland through the summer – no player options, no team options and no guarantees. This money will be deposited in the big guy’s bank account before his 32nd birthday.
Whether he deserved that amount is up for debate. Nurkic has been one of the toughest modern Blazers to score. His unpredictable nature has fans spinning the wheel every night wondering what kind of Nurkic they’re getting.
On good nights, he’s a stat machine, filling the scoring box, as seen in the second half of Monday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets. He even extended his game beyond the three-point arc, which is not to be overlooked.
When he dominates, he probably earns at least $17.5 million a year. But on, what seems to be, the most frequent bad nights – it’s not pretty. Defensive brain farts, return shots, flops, reckless fouls, arguments with referees and lazy passing have hurt this team badly.
I’ve come to the conclusion that for the Blazers to even be discussed in the same breath as the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, Nurkic needs to be traded for plays that better complement the current roster.
Typically, championship teams are made up of players of varying ability levels, but, for the most part, play up to or above their respective contracts.
Damian Lillard is a $42m player, Anfernee Simons earns his $22m this season, Josh Hart well and truly tops his $12.9m contract and Jerami Grant will be worth the full $26m extension dollars per year and more that he is likely to sign over the next few weeks.
In my eyes, Nurkic is not contributing as his contract would require. On bad nights he’s worth about a third of his current rate and on good nights he might just happen to actually win.
“But, Adrian,” I hear you ask, “don’t all NBA players have good nights and bad nights?” Absolutely, but the difference between a good night and a bad night is measured in galaxies when it comes to Nurkic. The variance for the best NBA players doesn’t move that much and the good nights always outnumber the bad.
Nurkic in Portland
As most of us remember, the Bosnian beast arrived in Portland with a bang in early 2017 after he and a Grizzlies first-rounder came from the Nuggets in exchange for Mason Plumlee.
In the remaining 20 games this season, Nurkic was a force of nature, tallying 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 assists. He was a revelation and Nurk Fever was running rampant. We all remember the Bosnian music group that wrote a track praising their compatriot.
Although the pick was initially seen as the price of the trade, at the end of the 2016-17 season it seemed the Blazers had indirectly found another starting piece that would help Lillard edge closer to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Nurkic followed well. His first full season for the Blazers ended with a first-round sweep over the New Orleans Pelicans, with Nurkic having 14.3 points, 9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 blocks throughout. the regular season.
2018-19 saw Nurkic return to the impressive production he had after arriving in Portland, averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 boards, 3.2 assists, 1 steal and 1.4 blocks. But on March 25, he collapsed under the Blazers’ basket with one of the most horrific injuries we’ve seen in basketball, suffering a compound fracture to his left tibia and fibula during a double home win over the Brooklyn Nets.
After an extended recovery from COVID, Nurkic made his return to the Orlando 2020 bubble. 4-1 against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Unfortunately, over the past two seasons and a bit, Nurkic has mixed the good with the frustrating. He still scores between 11 and 15 points per night, around 10 boards, 3 assists, a block and a steal. But it’s not there every night. A great performance is usually followed by a lackluster, almost nonchalant output.
Last summer, our hopes resurfaced. A re-signed Nurkic led a Bosnian team in the FIBA Eurobasket 2022 competition, appearing focused and aggressive. He told all of us on Media Day that he was ready to go. However, early season yields were negative. He was still not at the fitness level required of an NBA starting center, while the poor body language, lazy passing and intermittent lack of commitment were still there.
The second half of the Hornets game was enjoyable, but it was prompted by a reported article from Chauncey Billups. And this is not the first time. How can a franchise hope to rise to the top when its starting center needs a kick in the ass to get going?
It was this Jekyll and Hyde motif that angered many Blazers fans. We know he has the ability, but it’s his record of inconsistency that has trained many not to expect too much from the Bosnian great.
Please know that there is nothing I like more than the big guy going out for a big night. This may be one of the most enjoyable parts of this current incarnation of this team. But you should never expect it.
As mentioned above, Nurkic doesn’t play at the level he consistently wins. However, his contract helps the Blazers if and when they strike a deal for a big-money player. Salary matching is always an issue when executing large scale trades, especially when Portland would ideally like to retain their highest paid players i.e. Lillard, Simons and Grant.
If GM Joe Cronin is looking to bring in a player making more than $30 million — pushing all the franchise chips — Nurkic’s $15.6 million this season is a great start. Obviously, if the returning player is not a center, there will be positional issues, but that’s a problem for another time.
For me, the only way for the Blazers to go up and stay at the top of the table is to add more talent on thoughtful salaries. Serviceable centers can be had for relatively cheap if you’re not looking for All-NBA type talent in that position.
The franchise is almost certain to return to the luxury tax in 2023-24. Whether it’s Jody Allen or someone else footing the bills, the franchise surely isn’t going to put in extra money for a team with only average expectations.
What is the alternative?
I see three alternatives moving forward.
(1) Trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) for a center
(2) trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) for a player at another position of need
(3) trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) to bolster the bench with several viable reserve options for veterans.
To the first option, the obvious answer is Deandre Ayton. Some might think Nurkic has as much impact as Ayton. Of course, Ayton also had issues off the court with Suns coach Monty Williams, but when it comes time to play, he’s there to play. Oh, and he’s 24.
We don’t know if the Phoenix Suns are ready to move Ayton when he becomes eligible on Jan. 15, but if you can keep Lillard, Simons and Grant and add Ayton, you do it, every day, of, the, week. As previously proposed, Nurkic, Hart and several choices. Maybe.
For the second option, Pascal Siakam is an All-NBA talent, capable of helping this team on both sides of the ball. Like the Suns, we have no idea if the Toronto Raptors have sunk to the point where they’re ready to offload veterans. But if they were, Nurkic would probably have to be combined with Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe and a pick or two. But the addition of Siakam instantly raises the floor and the ceiling for this team.
For the third scenario, I could suggest dozens of practical, versatile role players who could be traded in a Nurkic deal, to bolster the Blazers’ bench. But I won’t because of the multitude of potential targets.
Jusuf Nurkic’s idea is unfortunately better than reality. The 28-year-old has shown snippets of All Star-like ability during his tenure at Portland but, sadly, they’re rare.
It’s really disappointing because unlike other players, Nurkic still has the ability to be one of the top five centers in this league with a few choice years still at his disposal.
As Cronin continues to revamp this roster, questions will have to be answered about whether Nurkic is mere trade pay ballast or the Blazers’ long-term answer to starting center. Honestly, for me it’s the first because I’m tired of expecting to see the Nurkic the Blazers need, instead of the unpredictable version they’re getting right now.