After exceeding expectations the previous year, the Trail Blazers entered the 2016-17 season with hopes of moving up the NBA’s pecking order. Those hopes were in the rearview mirror by midseason, however, as an exposed Portland squad stumbled out to a 23-31 record before shipping Mason Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
After inserting the 22-year-old Bosnian into the rotation, the Blazers were victorious in 14 of their next 20 contests, good for the fourth-best record in the NBA over that span. Nurkic put up an impressive stat line of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game after his arrival—making him one of the leading catalysts for Portland’s late-season revival.
Nurkic’s massive jump in production goes beyond merely receiving more playing time, as his per-36 numbers suggest his fit alongside his new teammates could be a recipe for long-term success. Outside of his seamless transition into the Blazers’ system, the former Nuggets big man seemed to recapture his motivation after stepping out from behind Nikola Jokic’s shadow in Denver.
Buoyed by the arrival of Nurkic and some added rest over the All-Star break, Portland bounced back in several statistical categories over the course of the 20 games their new center participated in. The Blazers went from having the fifth-worst defensive rating in the league to claiming a rating that ranked inside the top half of the league. The Blazers even managed to improve their already impressive scoring attack, as they recorded an offensive rating of 110.6, good for the fifth-best offense in the NBA during that stretch.
Portland’s late-season run combined with the addition of a bonafide low-post threat eventually gave birth to the phenomenon known as “Nurk Fever.” Two games stand above the rest when trying to incapsulate the craze into a tight narrative: his unbelievable double-double against Philadelphia on Blazer’s Edge Night in early-March, and when the talented center crossed the 30-point scoring threshold for the first time in his career against his former team in a crucial victory over the Nuggets later on the same month.
The good fortune Portland enjoyed with Nurkic in the lineup abruptly came to an end, however, when a non-displaced fibular fracture sidelined the big fella for the final seven regular season games. His absence proved to be too much for the Blazers to overcome against the Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs, as the lumbering center was only able to make a limited appearance in Game 3 of the eventual sweep.
Plumlee’s 54-game performance as a Blazer has largely been forgotten due to Nurkic’s instant success in Portland, but the former Blue Devil is still in line for a handsome payday this summer. Now on the cusp of becoming a restricted free agent, Plumlee flirted with averaging a double-double in his stint with the Blazers in 2016-17, while also chipping in four assists per game in the process. That type of production should capture the attention of several potential suitors when negotiations get underway later this summer.
Portland’s President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey effectively dodged another tricky contract decision by trading Plumlee before the season’s conclusion, but he will have a tougher time escaping negotiations when Nurkic becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018. With the Blazers facing serious hurdles when it comes to their payroll for the foreseeable future, Nurkic’s continued improvement will be vital to Portland’s success going forward.
If Nurkic can rehab his leg over the summer and maintain his current level of motivation, more big things could be on the way next season. A full training camp and offseason alongside coach Terry Stotts’ staff has the potential to pay major dividends when the 2017-18 campaign kicks off.