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Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers: A Match Made Out of Necessity

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Ben Golliver of SI.com joins Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge to discuss Portland’s complex relationship with their starting center.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was the star subject of a biographical article by Ben Golliver of SI.com on Monday, The massive piece covered everything from Nurkic’s origins in Bosnia to his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Blazers. Today Ben joins us for further reflections on the pivotal, and occasionally mercurial, Portland pivot.


Dave: Let’s start at the beginning. On Monday you published a far-reaching article on Jusuf Nurkic, tracing his career from its origins in Bosnia to his Trail Blazers tenure. What stood out for you most about Nurkic’s story?

Ben: For total accountability, let’s back up to what I consider the very beginning: Portland’s trade with Denver for Nurkic. When it happened, I was not high on the deal from the Blazers’ standpoint, and my tepid Trade Grade column was thrown back in my face time and again by Blazers fans (probably Blazersedge readers!) as Nurkic Fever unfolded. Point blank: At the time of that trade, I didn’t think Nurkic had much of an NBA future. The many red flags from his time in Denver (attitude, conditioning, health, etc.) had me spooked. Ditto for his ugly advanced stats and his general profile (traditional center, no three-point range, not an elite post scorer, not an elite shot-blocker).

His play in the immediate aftermath of the trade was one of the biggest and most genuine surprises I can remember experiencing in recent years. Okay, maybe not on the level of Cleveland coming back from 3-1 in the 2016 NBA Finals, but my mind was still blown for a solid six weeks straight. This wasn’t just like a team getting a bump after firing its coach midseason, or a player finding his groove in a better opportunity. This was a cast-off turning into a one-man wrecking crew overnight. Naturally, “How did that breakout happen?” was my initial question.

To me, his reflections on his year with Zadar, a Croatian team, wound up being the most interesting thing from the interview. There were so many parallels to his Portland experience: He landed there seeking more minutes, he had pushed his way out of Cedevita Zagreb to get there, he loved the city (which happened to be smaller and on the water), and the fans sold out the building, recognized him around town and helped him learn to love the game with their passion. Lo and behold, come playoff time, Zadar eliminates Cedevita from the semifinals. The best part: he was still being paid by his former team when it happened. That’s a special type of satisfaction.

To me, this revenge triumph was the formative experience of his career because it served as total validation for his decision to push his way out, rather than bide his time and hope for minutes to open up. His entire approach to his role in Denver and his instant impact in Portland made so much more sense with that back story.

I also enjoyed the comparisons and contrasts between his experience coming to the NBA from overseas with the typical domestic experience. His single-mindedness is essentially the same attitude that gets hinted at with “AAU Culture” talk, right? He wants to play and he wants to be involved on offense, and he’s willing to go wherever those conditions are fulfilled. Is Nurkic pushing for a loan that much different than LaVar Ball threatening to home-school LaMelo, or a guy like O.J. Mayo playing for three different high schools? On the flip side, Nurkic is taking this approach this while playing against guys twice his age, while signed to a professional contract, and with a smaller window for getting scouts’ attention. Even at age 17 or 18, it’s clear there was a ticking clock in his head: “I can’t afford to be on the bench or I’ll miss my NBA chance.” That’s just totally different than what prospects in the USA go through to get to the NBA. For me, it was cool to hear, blow by blow, how a guy who grew up in Bosnia, without much contact with the sport, managed to go from being a total novice to a first-round pick in five years.

Dave: Wait. Golden State blew a 3-1 lead? Why was I not informed?

The theme you just echoed came through clearly in your article. Portland fans have seen it too. During Nurkic’s run last season, it seemed like nothing was going to get in his way. He’d cover a third of the baseline to swoop in for a majestic blocked shot. If he didn’t get all the way back down the lane recovering from a high screen, at least he’d be in the vicinity...no small defensive obstacle with that body. But then there’s the “Other Nurk” that we’re getting glimpses of, the one that might have been foreshadowed by falling out of shape and into a bench role to begin with. This Nurkic jogs down the court in transition, doesn’t move in rotation, commits obvious (truth be told, almost lazy) fouls. How do you reconcile the first, “Beat All Odds and Never Say Die” Nurkic with the second?

Ben: That sounds dangerously close to a request for full-on psychoanalysis! But I do see a handful of explanatory factors.

First, he didn’t grow up with basketball in his life. As I recounted in the story, he was essentially sent off to basketball boarding school with little prior training. To me, there’s a difference between being drawn to the sport at a young age versus having the sport choose you and then learning to love it. Second, he didn’t really grow up as a center. He started as a point forward and hit a crazy growth spurt that made all of this possible. Third, he’s making a major transition from the international game (he talked so fondly about “Zaza screens”) to the NBA game and the 82-game schedule. Fourth, the NBA game is in the midst of its own major stylistic transition towards pace and space and away from big and beefy. Fifth, he’s pretty upfront about his conditioning and weight issues, and injuries have kept him in an on-again, off-again developmental cycle since he arrived in the NBA.

Put all of that together, and I think it’s possible to draw a clear distinction between Nurkic the theoretical pragmatist (“Let’s pinpoint the best possible situation for me and try like heck to seize the moment!”) and Nurkic the actualized nightly wrecking ball. Given the mix of conditions described above, there are an awful lot of open cracks for bad habits to develop, for good habits to not be ingrained like we might expect or hope, for good European habits to not translate to good NBA habits, or for the modern NBA to make a player in his situation pay dearly for whatever skills/agility he might lack.

As much as i love the NBA’s current style -- the passing, the movement, the deep bombs, and crazy lead changes -- I feel real empathy towards the traditional centers. It’s probably because I grew up hearing my father (a center on his high school team) tell me over and over about how important it is to feed the big guys. That’s just not how it works any more. Jonas Valanciunas. Greg Monroe. Jahlil Okafor. Enes Kanter. Al Jefferson. The list of skilled bigs who are far less effective in 2017 than we would have guessed as recently as 2013 or 2014 is getting really long.

Nurkic requires a balancing act. The Blazers must feed him enough to keep his total buy-in on both sides of the ball while trying to mitigate the damage done by cramped spacing and trying not to dwell too long on isolation interior offense. Because Portland’s other frontline options are so lacking, rolling with Nurkic, and the compromises his style and presence require, has usually been worth it. But not always, and I think that’s why Terry Stotts has been poking around at other looks, most obviously late in that loss to the Nets and with Meyers Leonard’s recent uptick in minutes.

Another thing I’d emphasize in defense of any traditional center who is still getting major minutes: Running around to defend pick-and-rolls and sprint out to shooters is a very difficult and very grueling job, mentally and physically. Mistakes and annoying fouls are definitely going to happen. It’s no coincidence that virtually all of the good teams have cut the minutes of their traditional centers, employed small ball centers, and/or pinpointed one-way defensive specialists to handle those chores. In that sense, I view Nurkic’s weight loss and off-season work as another sign of his “Never say die” attitude. Slimming down was absolutely a shrewd survivalist’s approach.

Finally, I think Nurkic is still discovering that what’s best for him isn’t necessarily what’s best for the team. That was the theme I tried to close on in the piece. After years of fighting for himself, and battling for low-post points and contested rebounds, it can be very hard (and perhaps even disorienting) to accept that a quicker defender or a better shooter is a preferable option in some cases. That’s a tricky pitch for any coach to make to a competitive and talented player, especially one in a contract year.

Dave, I know I’m preaching to the pastor here, but sacrifice is hard!

Dave: And it’s exponentially harder when you’re 23, have an entire career in front of you, and are at risk in a contract year. Nurkic is walking a fine line with all of this. He needs to maximize production and be seen as a valuable contributor to earn his next deal. Other things getting in the way could potentially cost him millions. As we’ve seen with multiple centers, those millions don’t necessarily come back either. If you’re not maximizing your earnings at every step in your NBA career (save perhaps the last), you’re either independently wealthy or foolish. On the other hand, if Nurkic gets branded as disaffected in yet another locale, that’s going to be seen as a pattern and potentially impact his earning potential as well.

Do you get any sense that the people in Nurkic’s circle are thinking about these things? His outward message has been, “Love Portland. Want to win.” How many other factors are in play?

Also, when the decision moment comes, how big and long of a deal would you be willing to give Nurkic, factoring in talent, position, impact, attitude, age, and injuries?

Ben: The message from both Nurkic and people close to him has been very consistent in public and private: They view Portland as the place he wants to be. And they should. Let’s imagine that Denver hadn’t traded him and he simply returned to the Nuggets as a (possibly disgruntled) back-up this season without ever displaying his Nurk Fever level of play. His asking price in that scenario is nowhere near where it currently sits. Let’s be real: his competition for minutes and the starting role in Portland is pretty limited too. By his stated standards, the Blazers represent a very good fit.

The center market has been unpredictable in recent years. Two years ago, Ian Mahinmi and Bismack Biyombo were cashing in mega deals. Then things tightened up last summer. The good news for Nurkic is that next summer’s center market isn’t all that loaded. DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan are strong headliners, but Joel Embiid has already re-signed with Philadelphia and Clint Capela has a ton of internal support in Houston. Nurkic is likely the top “attainable” target at his position, especially among under-25 players. That should play to his favor and could increase Portland’s desire to take care of him.

As Blazers fans remember from the Nicolas Batum saga, restricted free agency can get pretty dicey for a non-star who is in the process of blossoming. For Nurkic, the tricky dance of getting an outside team to put its other plans on hold, carve out enough space to make a major offer, and then wait to see whether a match comes is made even more difficult by the questions he faced in Denver and his status as a traditional center. It’s easy to envision teams with cap space putting a higher priority on versatile wings rather than a traditional center next summer if current trends hold. It’s also quite possible that outside teams turn elsewhere because conclude that Portland as highly likely to match outside offers given their other center options.

All that being said, I’m with the chorus who believes that Portland and Nurkic need each other, and that would both would be measurably worse if they couldn’t reach a deal. When it comes to terms, he’s right in the same tier with guys like Mason Plumlee (3 years, $41 million), Cody Zeller (4 years, $56 million) and Kelly Olynyk (4 years, $50 million) in terms of their play last season. (Check out this comparison if you want to see specifics.) I would assume that range would serve as his basement for negotiations as long as he continues to post career numbers and the Blazers make the playoffs.

I have to ask: At what point does he get too rich for your blood?

Dave: Ha! Welcome to the new reality of Trail Blazers cap space, my friend. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are taking up so much room that the Blazers won’t see the south side of the cap line in this decade, whether they pay Nurkic or not. They’ll be lucky if they avoid the tax threshold, although technically it’s possible if they bail out on Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless, then cheap out on the rest of the open salary slots. The money is already spent. Granted, you never want to offer a horrendous contract, but it’d be hard to outspend Nurkic’s worth given the circumstances. It’d be better to go $5 million per year over on him for a few years than to let him go, only to be left with zero space to sign anyone else anyway.


Blazer’s Edge would like to thank Ben Golliver for joining us for this discussion. Find more of his work at SI.com and follow him @BenGolliver on Twitter. Once again, be sure to check out that expansive Nurkic article if you haven’t already!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com