The Portland Trail Blazers entered the season with a Big Three of sorts, dependent on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to provide the firepower, while Jusuf Nurkic was expected to emerge as the third option the Blazers so desperately needed. Yet, the season has not turned out well for Portland, even when that core plays well. And when they don’t—like McCollum going for 1-14 from the field in a loss to the 76ers—the flawed roster doesn’t have enough pop despite emerging role players like Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton.
The question arises if the Big Three is good enough to compete when there are multiple stars to a team nowadays, and Nurkic is not in that category. CBS Sports’ Matt Moore takes a deep-dive on the roster’s construction, noting Nurkic’s impact defensively:
There's a key element here, which is that when it comes to rim protector, their presence is more important than their actual performance. It's a reverse gravity effect, where instead of a shooter drawing the defense constantly away from the play, a rim protector with Nurkic's size deters drives, which in turn helps the perimeter defenders stay home. When you don't have to constantly worry about collapsing, it helps your defense in ways that don't get captured by the box score.
But there is also bad that comes with the big man this season. Moore points to Nurkic’s poor post-up numbers and ineffectiveness on offense:
But overall, the Blazers have roughly the same net rating (it's actually .1 points per 100 possessions worse) with Nurkic on court vs. off. Everything he does counterbalances everything else he does. With McCollum, whose net differential is worse, you can specifically point to the amount of time he spends with guard Pat Connaughton. With Nurkic, it's more muddled.
Should the Blazers re-sign Nurkic? Some will say yes, some will say no, and his performance this season is a cause of that. He’s just as likely to drop an egg of a game as he is to be the big man Portland needs. Still, there is the chance someone in free agency offers Nurk a huge deal, and the Blazers may be faced with a tough decision:
If the Blazers were to re-sign Nurkic on a deal anywhere above eight figures across any more than two years, they'd be in "cap hell" for the foreseeable future, with no true way to get out of it. Even if Zach Collins develops, Connaughton keeps improving on what has been a good season despite his on/off numbers, and Caleb Swanigan continues to develop on his great raw talent, they're still only projected to be ... here.
Moore doesn’t offer answers, although he told the Blazer’s Edge Podcast in November he’d see what McCollum could draw in a trade to get Lillard better-fitting players, just food for thought on Portland’s murky future:
It's not that the Big Three combo isn't working, because it is. The Blazers are 13-10, and that lineup has worked. But the constraints of how that team is built puts limits on their future.
Is Nurkic a must-sign this offseason? Do you believe in a team led by Lillard and McCollum? Or is it finally time for a major shake up in Portland? Let us know in the comments.