Jusuf Nurkic is going to make the difference for the Portland Trail Blazers for better or worse. That’s the conclusion that Justin Verrier of The Ringer reached in his “Best Case, Worst Case” Preview of Portland’s upcoming season. After praising the talents of starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Verrier details the difference Nurkic could make in his “Best Case” argument:
The difference, one way or another, is Jusuf Nurkic. After an up-and-down two-plus seasons in Denver, Nurkic—an Ent with touch around the basket—looked like a modern George Mikan at times, even flirting with a quadruple-double in just his eighth game with the team. All told, the Blazers were 14-6 when Nurkic played (which wasn’t often after April 1), with a plus-9.6 net rating, per NBA.com/Stats, and, more importantly, a respectable defense (103.7 defensive rating, which would have been good for fifth-best in the league).
Verrier equates Portland’s best-case scenario with their squad from two years ago, led by LaMarcus Aldridge, which made the second round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs. The worst case turns out to be Portland’s performance last year before Nurkic arrived via a trade with the Denver Nuggets.
Even as Portland was basking in its newly refurbished open-concept offense two seasons ago, stepping over an injury-tattered Clippers team in Round 1 and giving the Warriors a firm nudge in Round 2, it felt like the team was bumping up against its ceiling. That certainly came to bear last season, when a few injuries and a still-leaky defense put the Blazers on the brink of the lottery before the Nurkic trade helped lift them over the morass fighting for the West’s 8-spot.
He also questioned Portland’s moves in the Summer of 2016:
But breaking the bank to not lose assets for nothing looks more and more like a case of outsmarting yourself, especially with the salary cap leveling off last summer. Shelling out $57 million a year for Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, and Allen Crabbe—the latter of whom was surgically removed this offseason, for the price of $2.84 million in dead money for the next seven years—has the feel of buying high on Beanie Babies right before the market bottomed out.
Ultimately, Verrier ends up undecided about Portland’s prospects and significance, but he knows who to reference in the process:
Ultimately, it’s fine. The Blazers are still scrappy. The comments section of Blazer’s Edge is still, um, animated. But breaking back into the playoffs in a tough field already seems like little more than a moral victory for a team with heavy early-aughts Hawks vibes.