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Is Jusuf Nurkić Helping the Trail Blazers Turn the Corner?

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Nurkomania is sweeping across Portland. How meaningful was the Nurkić deal? Are brighter days around the corner? 

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

As your Portland Trail Blazers questions come here to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, we scramble to answer them. Right now there’s no topic hotter than the one we tackle today. No fewer than a dozen variations of this question have come in during the last week. So...for the herds of new Jusuf Nurkić fans, this one’s for you.

Dave,

I find myself beginning to hope again. The Jusef Nurkic deal looks pretty great right now. He’s more than I hoped. Will 3 draft picks this year and Nurkic be enough for the Blazers to finally turn that elusive corner? I’m not hoping for this year but next year and maybe a future run.

Rudy

Hey hey hey! Nurkić is looking good early on! As my podcast co-host Dan Marang predicted, his footwork is great...somewhat of a lost art among big men. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a classic center with any offensive fluidity in a Portland uniform. Even in today’s perimeter-happy NBA, a space-eater in the middle pays dividends. How nice is it to see a guy catch within three feet of the hoop and not have to hold your breath wondering which side of the rim the ensuing chip shot will spray off of?

I’m slightly more concerned about the defense, though the early numbers certainly don’t support that concern. I’m generally a fan of keeping a guy near the rim but it doesn’t appear that Nurkić will be helping on high screens any time soon. I’m not sure his conditioning will sustain him throughout the entire game. Eventually opponents are going to game plan for those two weaknesses. It might not matter much this year unless the Blazers make the playoffs. (As we saw last year, preparing for a single team in a long series increases the opportunities for exploitation.) I do hope he gets in a little cardio work over the summer though.

When we’re talking “turning the corner”, though, the burden of proof becomes more demanding. When the Blazers initially signed Nurkić, we ran a comparison between him and Mason Plumlee which did not necessarily favor Nurkić. The point wasn’t that he was a bad center, rather that he wasn’t performing much better than Portland’s incumbent center did. The early returns are in and Nurkić has gone beyond the Plumlee Line in his first five games. Witness their respective numbers for Portland this season, provided by the good folks at Basketball-Reference.com:

Comparing a player to another whose data set spans ten times as many games is perilous. We’re going to need to hold onto any conclusions drawn lightly...nor will we endeavor to draw too many. We can dabble our toes in a few things though.

So far Nurkić is putting up rebound and assist numbers relatively equal to Plumlee. The latter number is especially encouraging since Plumlee’s passing was considered beneficial to Portland’s offense. The assist gains are offset somewhat by Nurkić immediately claiming the roster crown as Turnover King, but overall he’s offsetting the loss of Plumlee nicely in these areas.

So far Nurkić blows Plumlee out of the water in scoring efficiency. Both centers are fine at the cup but Plumlee shot only 38% for the Blazers between 3-10 feet. Nurkić shoots 55% from that range. Add in 74% shooting from the foul line and Nurkić’s True Shooting Percentage flies through the roof. He leads all Portland’s regular rotation players in that category. Plumlee was 7th of 11.

So far Nurkić’s defensive numbers also compare favorably to Plumlee, such as they are. (Defensive metrics are spotty even at the best of times.)

All of this indicates what we’ve just said, that there’s no reason to dislike this trade yet. But when we talk about “turning the corner” and whether Nurkić is a player to help the Blazers do it, we also have to acknowledge that so far his contributions aren’t that far above Plumlee’s. If we didn’t think Mason would be a turn-the-corner guy, there’s no case yet to think Nurkić will be.

Note also that many of Nurk’s Portland numbers soar a billion miles above his previous career highs. That opens the possibility that he’s having a nice 10-day streak and may return to earth. It also indicates that at this point, even ultra-peak Nurkić won’t necessarily transform the team’s fortunes. In the last five games the Blazers haven’t scored more, held opponents to fewer points, or won more. Those factors remain largely unchanged despite Nurkić’s different, and welcome, skill set.

(Alert for those who will say but for an overtime loss in Detroit Portland would be 3-2 instead of 2-3 and have a winning percentage of .600 instead of .400: we wouldn’t have made much of it either way. The point is, it’s not like they’ve suddenly become a different team with Nurkić on the floor and ripped off five convincing wins in a row, leading us to a place where “turn the corner” might have some meaning, however premature.)

As the question’s author identifies, the wildcards in this equation are Portland’s 2017 first-round draft picks. They have three, one of which was acquired in the Nurkić-Plumlee deal itself. If that pick—to be determined by the record of the Memphis Grizzlies—turns into any kind of serviceable player, the Blazers should look good coming out of their center swap. If the Blazers can pull a star out of their drafting hat, presumably with their own pick, we might be in position to consider whether turning the corner is a real possibility.

For that reason Portland fans do have a purchase on the measured optimism denied them as this season spiraled south. It’s still a fingernail grip; the roster has multiple flaws and their cap situation is the ugliest imaginable. But there’s a non-zero chance that in two years the Jusuf Nurkić deal could be viewed as the first step of getting the team back to respectability. Given the way the last 6 months have treated the Blazers, non-zero is good enough.

Thanks for the question, Rudy! Keep ‘em coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard