Every Trail Blazers fan knows the story of Jusuf Nurkic: The 21-year old Bosnian Beast arrived in Portland via midseason trade and immediately turned around a disappointing season by averaging 15.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks as the Blazers surged to a 14-6 record.
Now comes the tough part — the cash-strapped Blazers are going to have to negotiate a new contract with their 22-year old center next summer. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward negotiation, but there are some complications that could make it more fraught than President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey would like.
Here are the outside factors which may influence the deal between Nurkic and the Blazers:
Salaries of Other Players
The free agency windfall of 2016 was not replicated in 2017, but several non-superstars still signed massive contracts this summer. Paul Millsap — a player with similar stats to Nurkic, but a decade older — signed a 3-year, $90 million contract with the Nuggets. Otto Porter Jr., a third option for the Wizards, signed a maximum contract. The aging Serge Ibaka and oft-injured Danilo Gallinari both signed 3-year, $65 million contracts.
In short, the market is still booming for elite secondary options. If Nurkic continues to play well, he will be expecting a max or near max offer from the Blazers.
The Tristan Thompson/Allen Crabbe Principle
Last summer Olshey matched on Allen Crabbe’s overpriced offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets. At the time, the Blazers had no cap space so paying extra to retain Crabbe made sense as the additional salary didn’t have any impact on Portland’s ability to sign free agents and they would have no way to replace Crabbe if he was allowed to leave, argued Olshey. The Cavaliers similarly signed Tristan Thompson to a massive contract two years ago.
The Blazers will be in the same situation with Nurkic. They already have more than $100 million in guaranteed contracts through 2020 so they won’t have cap space in the near future to sign new players, with or without Nurkic on the books. This means Nurkic, much like Thompson, can play hardball in negotiations knowing that the Blazers ultimately have no way to replace him and must meet his demands or become significantly worse on the court.
Nurkic will also be on a team with a player who signed a 4-year, $106 million extension after only one season of solid play (CJ McCollum), and a role player who makes $18 million (Evan Turner). The Blazers have had no problem opening their checkbook for lesser players in the very recent past, so they will not have the luxury of being stingy as they may risk alienating their starting center if he feels the team is undervaluing him relative to his co-workers.
If the Blazers do end up in a stalemate with Nurkic it’s unclear how the fiery center will respond. He clearly plays with a chip on his shoulder, holding a grudge against the Nuggets for benching him in favor of rival Nikola Jokic:
Nurkic did not respond well after being benched in Denver. He gained weight when his playing time decreased during the 2015-16 season, lost 35 pounds last summer, and then let his conditioning slip again during the season before being traded to Portland. Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp sums up Nurkic’s time in Denver:
Most people in Denver knew he was talented, but people begin to question his effort and conditioning, and he spent most of this season going through the motions. This is probably why the Nuggets had to give him away before the trade deadline. In a league that's getting smaller and faster every year, not many teams needed an inefficient low-post scorer who can't stay in shape and doesn't always play hard.
While Nurkic is clearly very happy in Portland now, it’s unclear how a perceived slight during contract negotiations would affect him. Can the Blazers afford to nickel and dime a crucial player with a history of attitude problems? It’s possible, maybe even probable, that a long term negotiation would have no impact on Nurkic’s psyche, but does Olshey really want to take that risk?
The Nurk-lear Option
Nurkic will be a restricted free agent next summer, so the Blazers could let him seek out other offers but remain confident that they won’t lose their only proven big man. Olshey risks, however, inheriting an unfriendly contract stocked with trade kickers, front-loaded salary, and option years.
Blazers fans also witnessed this season the negative psychological impact that forcing a player to stay can have. It makes sense for the Blazers to maintain full control of these negotiations, from both a fiscal and psychological perspective.
Nurkic May Have Saved Neil Olshey’s Job
It’s no exaggeration to say that Nurkic may have saved Olshey’s job. Before the trade, the Blazers had only two bona fide starters and a collection of overpaid role players. Now they have a “big 3” and, depending on your perspective, a solid future.
In contrast, imagine the last six months without Nurkic on the team. The most likely scenario involves missing the playoffs, committing to Mason Plumlee as a starting center, and trading Allen Crabbe for nothing. That reality does not look good for Olshey. Throw in the massive popularity of Nurkic fever, and Nurkic’s agent has some visceral “You owe my client” arguments at his disposal.
If Nurkic stays healthy and performs well he will be justified in demanding a massive salary, in line with what his peers have made. The Blazers will have to tread lightly during negotiations or risk alienating one of the franchise’s cult heroes. The Bosnian Beast is going to get paid.