The Portland Trail Blazers made one of the most significant mid-season deals in franchise history last season, sending center Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for the Bosnian Beast, Jusuf Nurkic. Immediately upon arrival, Nurkic lifted spirits and point totals, resulting in an upswing in Portland victories and an eventual playoff berth. How far does the gravy train run and how important is Nurkić to Portland’s future? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
How possible/likely is it that the addition of Nurkic to the Blazers team will so improve their overall performance as to return them to the 45+ win territory? His inside scoring presence should stop teams from collapsing on Damian and CJ, and his large body presents a larger screen obstacle on Portland pick and rolls than any player since, well, Joel Przybilla . Plus, Nurk's passing ability seemed to be paying off in better opportunities for Mo and Aminu, maybe not as talented as Mason but via his combination of scoring threat and passing threat seemed overall more effective...or maybe teams will just adjust well to him?
You set the bar pretty low there. Portland won 41 last season. Imagining them winning four more with Nurkic available for the entire season isn’t a big stretch. They could probably win four more games by not sleepwalking through the first three months of the season. If Nurkic does anything they should be better off. If they’re not—if we’re asking these same questions and they’re struggling to get to .500 next spring—they have to dismantle the roster. At that point it wouldn’t be working and there wouldn’t be any reasonable expectation that it ever would.
The problem with a goal of 45 wins, or even 47, is that we’re still talking about a slightly higher grade of mediocrity. The Blazers could buy more time by winning 47 and ending up with a 6th seed because PR would sell, “Trending upward!” and everybody would believe it. I don’t think anybody could live with that being their ceiling, or even a good resting place for the next couple years. First, the roster is way too expensive for that. Second, you’re now talking about prime years of Damian Lillard’s career. How many of those go by before folks start whispering that the era has peaked?
If this incarnation of the Blazers is going to go anywhere, they need to cut major swaths through the conference within the next couple years. Dramatic improvement next season would be the best beginning. Failing that, steady progress upward—proving the PR angle true—would be an acceptable option. Either way, that win total better start with “5” heading towards “6” pretty soon.
Having established that, we can now circle back to Nurkic and ask the question that sits of the heart of everything the Blazers do (or don’t do) this summer and next: Can he improve the team to that level on his own with reasonable, likely minor, help? (“Minor” in this case means several sources of improvement: internal development, another draft pick in 2018, trades for helpful veteran role players.) If the answer to that question is affirmative, Portland’s good. Even hamstrung by high salaries, they should be able to stack pieces around their current Big Three via trades and the draft. If the answer is negative, though, what are they going to do? Adding another major player without breaking up the core seems unlikely. They’d have to hope that another team wanted to give up an exotic, high-level role player who’d become the perfect fit. If it were that easy, 30 teams would be in the Conference Finals.
Ultimately the answer to your initial question is yes, the Blazers can and should return to 45 wins next season, but that doesn’t matter. They need Nurkic, Lillard, and CJ McCollum to do far more than you’re asking. I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or not.
While we’re figuring that out, everybody lend a hand and tackle Hank’s question in expanded form. How many wins do you think Nurkic will add to Portland’s total over the next couple years, assuming no cavalry is coming over the hill to change the complexion of the roster? Weigh in below and, as always, keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org.