Just a day after being linked to center Jahlil Okafor, the Portland Trail Blazers traded Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for center Jusuf Nurkic and the rights to Memphis’ first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
While he is turnover-prone and not a great defender in terms of advanced metrics, Nurkic, 22, demonstrated loads of potential in Denver before falling off a cliff after losing his minutes to rising star Nikola Jokic. In particular, Nurkic is a solid rebounder and has a big, imposing body with the physical tools to potentially be a solid defender. He’s not nearly as athletic as Plumlee is but, at 7-feet tall and 280 pounds, he makes up for it in size.
Here’s a highlight reel:
On the offensive end, Nurkic has potential as a post scorer and shows flashes of solid footwork but doesn’t run the floor well, seldom getting to the rim with explosiveness. Nurkic prefers to bang with his man and finish with the baby hook or drop-step. Touted as a decent free-throw shooter coming into the league, Nurkic started poorly and has regressed from the foul line each season, hitting 63 percent in his rookie year and shooting an abysmal 49 percent this season - lower than Plumlee’s 57 percent.
Nurkic also struggles with unforced turnovers, committing them on a 19.1 per 100 possessions basis. The great majority of these are related to hands issues such as not being able to handle tough passes and getting stripped while working in the post. He doesn’t, however, tend to throw the ball away despite being a willing passer, and he’s an average to above-average at kicking it out of the post, though he pales in comparison to Plumlee in that regard.
Nurkic spent the season burning his bridges in Denver, but he actually did show improvement in several key areas. He’s notorious for getting into foul trouble and, after two seasons where he averaged more than six fouls per 36 minutes, has cut that rate to an acceptable 3.9 per 36.
The ultimate problem for Nurkic is that he didn’t handle his demotion with the Nuggets well. After losing his spot to Jokic, who for all intents and purposes looks like a star in the making, he allegedly began to sulk and his performance suffered. After complaining to the media, pouting, and reportedly putting on weight during the season, he has worn out his welcome with fans. Portland is certainly betting that a change of scenery will bring “the Bosnian Bear” back on track. At only 22 years old, Portland’s hope is that these are issues that will not carry over to a team likely to give him a much larger role and a chance, night-in and night-out, to prove himself.
Going forward this season, the Blazers will miss Plumlee’s passing from the elbows. With Turner recovering from the broken hand he suffered last week for at least another four weeks, it will be interesting to see how coach Terry Stotts chooses to tweak the offense to fit his current active roster that has lost so much playmaking but added a decent post threat.
Ultimately this is a move that makes sense for both teams. Denver is eager to make a playoff push and, with Plumlee in the fold, the team can maintain its high-post facilitation style of play even when Jokic is on the bench; a luxury the team did not have before now. Denver is also far enough below the salary cap that this move should enable them to improve their on-court performance, rid themselves of a malcontent, and afford to have full control over whether or not to retain Plumlee’s services after the season, all in one fell swoop.
For the Blazers, this was a move toward the future. With the team at 23-31 and near luxury tax territory, it was incredibly unlikely that Portland would be able or willing to extend Plumlee at the end of the season at the amount of money he is likely to command. He’s a fine player who excels at facilitating and is by all accounts an excellent teammate, but Portland needed to get some sort of asset for him in what is likely a lost season.
With Nurkic, Portland has, if nothing else, kicked the “starting center’s pending restricted free agency” situation down the road another 12 months. Consider that he is four years younger than Plumlee and has vast untapped potential in terms of interior size and offensive presence, and the move makes perfect sense. Portland desperately needs some old-school toughness in the paint and, in spite of his flaws, Nurkic provides that in spades. Take into account Portland adding additional flexibility via a third 2017 first-round pick in the deal - one that is likely to sit between No. 19 and No. 23 - and the deal becomes a no-brainer.