The Portland Trail Blazers have had a topsy-turvy season, rattling off three-game winning streaks on three separate occasions, only to respond by losing at least three straight games immediately afterward each time. They’ve paired stellar defense with a stagnant offense for most of the year; they’ve also boasted the 4th-best offense and 25th-ranked defense over their last 10 games. The Blazers have maintained consistency on some fronts; Damian Lillard and, to a lesser extent, CJ McCollum have been models. But no player symbolizes the the ups and downs of their season more than Jusuf Nurkic.
Heading into the regular season, Nurkic’s stock was at an all-time high. He outperformed expectations by a wide margin in his 20-game stint with Portland last year and then showed up to training camp looking as fit as he ever has in his NBA career. He proclaimed on media day that he wanted the team to be “bad boys”. If any player appeared to fit the Blazers’ mold, Nurkic was it.
Curiously, Nurkic seemed to fall back into some old bad habits early on; namely rushing shots in the post and seemingly taking plays, or even entire games, off on the defensive end. Having browsed Denver Nuggets blogs after the trade that put Nurkic in a Blazer uniform, a contingent of their fans warned that this was his identity and what we saw last year was fool’s gold.
Nurkic’s first eight games weren’t pretty. He averaged more than 15 points a night, but took 12 shots a game to get there; shooting 41 percent. In November, things really started to click, as he averaged 16 points on 48 percent from the floor. But the month wasn’t without controversy. As the Blazers suffered back-to-back close losses at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets, Jusuf Nurkic spent each fourth quarter parked on the bench; allegedly due to his inability, or unwillingness, to exert maximum effort on the defensive end.
Through December and January Nurkic’s scoring has dipped slightly, his rebounding has improved, and his field goal percentage has held steady at about 47 percent. Those numbers are better than the early part of the year, but not exactly good for a player of Nurkic’s size. Most concerning, Nurkic was allegedly benched over defensive effort yet again just last week, this time losing his second-quarter minutes to Meyers Leonard in a win over the Phoenix Suns.
While Nurkic is highly skilled and has significant room to hit his ceiling, his play evokes two major questions; why does he shoot such a poor percentage, and why has head coach Terry Stotts allegedly had to bench him three times this season over effort levels?
I’m convinced that the shooting percentage question has an easy answer: Nurkic shoots poorly from the floor because he has little to no post-up game. I’m not saying he can’t develop it down the road, or he doesn’t occasionally hit shots in the post that make fans salivate, but as of now, the team runs entirely too many post plays through Nurkic. While I do like seeing him getting involved in the offense, I just don’t like how the team has been going about it. I want to see more Nurkic/Lillard pick-and-roll action, where Nurk is free to roll to the rim if the lane is open, or find baseline cutters if opponents are forced to double. Remember that play just picking opponents apart last season? We haven’t seen enough of it this year. I don’t mind Nurkic getting a touch or two in the post each half, but until he slows down his footwork and learns to use ample size to finish through contact, I’d like to see Portland go back to what worked.
The second issue is a) more concerning, and b) not as simple to solve. Why does Jusuf Nurkic, in a contract year, coming out of a bad situation in Denver to a place where says that he feels wanted, need motivation to play hard? Having been benched multiple times purely for defensive effort is (if true) not a good sign, especially for a player that is set to get his first serious pay day if he has a great season. If anything, it’s the norm to see players overachieve during a contract year, and then relax and perform closer to a baseline once they’ve gotten their money.
But there have been multiple times this season where Nurkic just can’t be bothered to play defense, or run the court hard, or go up strong and just DUNK THE BALL. His teammates have all but called it out in post-game comments, saying things like “we need Nurkic to be aggressive”, or “he needs to play mad”. You have to wonder how frustrated they are, considering how frustrated fans can get watching him. The poor shooting at least has an explanation; he can’t make a lot of the shots he’s taking. But playing hard? Closing out on defense? These things are fully within his control. And if he’s not going to do it consistently now, when he still has a chance to make the city of Portland fall in love with him and earn a massive contract setting him up with financial security that could last him the rest of his life, then when will he?
Whether we like it or not, this team will go as Nurkic goes, especially defensively. If he wants the team to “be bad boys” it’s up to him to set the tone. While we have seen it in starts and stops over the year, it’s time for Nurkic to put it together if the Blazers are going to be relevant this season. His response against the Indiana Pacers after losing minutes to Leonard in the previous game was a good sign. But like everything else with Nurkic this year, I need to see more.