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Can the Blazers Hang on Without Nurkić?

The Trail Blazers were heading into the playoffs with momentum before Jusuf Nurkić got hurt, and have now lost two in a row. Can they plug the hole in his absence?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkić’s absence played a major role in the Blazers’ recent losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. With Noah Vonleh undersized and inexperienced, Meyers Leonard hampered by injury, and Ed Davis out of the lineup entirely, Blazers coach Terry Stotts has struggled to plug the hole in the lineup left by Nurkic.

On Tuesday against the Jazz, the Blazers’ playmaking suffered dramatically as a consequence of Nurk’s absence. They finished with a season-low 10 assists, and had only five assists through three quarters. The result: 87 points.

On the surface, low assist totals may not be a cause for concern as ball movement does not correlate with winning. Further, infrequent assisting is nothing new for the Blazers. As this graph from Nylon Calculus indicates, ball movement is not a focus of Portland’s offense this season:

But the eye test reveals that the lack of ball movement/playmaking with Nurkić out is having a negative effect on the Blazers’ offense. Specifically, without Nurkić, teams are keying in on Lillard defensively and doing everything they can to remove him from the game by taking away easy shots and distribution opportunities. With CJ McCollum not yet ready to pick up the slack as a true point guard/distributor, and no reliable low-post scoring threat (i.e. Nurkić) to act as a relief valve, the Blazers’ offense is prone to long periods of ineffective play; Lillard’s 12-for-41 shooting and 9 assists over the last two games provide evidence that the opposition’s strategy has worked.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear if there is an obvious solution to this problem. For awhile Evan Turner was acting as a distributor for Portland’s offense, pairing with McCollum’s true scorer mentality to provide an effective combination. Turner has elite passing skills which led to 3.4 assists per game before the All-Star break:

Turner, however, has not yet returned to form since coming back from a broken hand.

The Blazers also lost Mason Plumlee’s playmaking in the Nurkić trade. Plumlee was a major hub of activity for the Blazers’ offense and averaged 3.9 assists per game. Plumlee and Turner, combined, accounted for about a third of the Blazers assists before Plumlee was traded. Predictably, Portland has fallen from No. 19 in the NBA in assists before the All-Star break, to No. 29 since the break.

Of course, Nurkić’s low-post scoring and passing more than made up for the playmaking that Plumlee and a healthy Turner provided. But his current absence also highlights the fact that the Blazers have very few players who can reliably create their own offense or create offense for teammates. Lillard and Nurkić are the only two who can do both, so losing even one of them goes a long way toward torpedoing Portland’s offensive attack.