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Why the Trail Blazers Might Consider a DeAndre Jordan Trade and What it Means for Jusuf Nurkic

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The Clippers are looking to make moves, and the Blazers have been rumored to have an interest in DeAndre Jordan. What does this mean for Jusuf Nurkic?

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers traded Blake Griffin! And now they’re trying to trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams!

Yesterday’s flurry of activity lends credence to the rumors from last week that the Trail Blazers had reached out to the Clippers to discuss a trade for Jordan, and increases the (admittedly remote) odds of such a deal actually happening.

But why would the Blazers trade for Jordan? And what would the transaction look like?

Trade for Jordan? Nurkic is Gone

First and foremost, any trade that sends Jordan to Portland would center around Jusuf Nurkic. The Clippers reportedly want young prospects or draft picks in exchange for their starting center. The Blazers, who are low on talent themselves, will be hesitant to include a draft pick in the deal.

With first round picks unlikely, and multiple picks out of the questions, Portland has only one young player with significant upside: Nurkic. Theoretically CJ McCollum would also be of interest to the Clippers, but Portland’s general manager Neil Olshey isn’t going to trade McCollum for a player on an expiring contract.

Nurkic’s restricted free agent status would appeal to the Clippers as they would be able to prevent Nurkic from leaving this summer, whereas Jordan will have complete flexibility as an unrestricted free agent. For the Clippers, a Nurkic/Jordan swap would be an opportunity to seamlessly transition from one starting center to another.

From the Blazers’ perspective, even if they could somehow pry Jordan away without giving up Nurkic (a virtual impossibility), it would create significant lineup problems. Nurkic would immediately become the backup center — a role which he has not exactly appreciated in the past, and Ed Davis, an extremely effective backup, would be pushed out of the rotation entirely. For a team that’s finally found its rhythm, the chemistry fallout of trying to play both Jordan and Nurkic could be devastating.

The Blazers would have the chance to hedge their bets by first trying to sign Jordan and then matching any offer made to Nurkic — but, again, they’d be risking paying big money to Nurkic after trying to replace him. That would carry significant risk that Denver-era Nurkic would return.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Nurkic’s Inconsistent Play a Factor?

Nurkic has been inconsistent this season. In the last seven games, he’s had two monster games of 19 points and 17 rebounds and 19 points and 12 rebounds. In the other five games he’s averaged 9.0 points and 5.8 rebounds. Ouch.

It’s unclear whether his issues come from a lack of motivation — Stotts has appeared to bench him for unenthusiastic play more than once — or discomfort in his current role, but the bottom line is that he’s been unreliable on a game-by-game basis. The Blazers may be worried about signing a long term contract with a player who’s unable or unwilling to show up every night, even in a contract year. Fourteen points and 8 rebounds are respectable numbers for a starting center, but it’d be risky to commit near-max salary for those averages.

If the Blazers’ front office has concerns about matching the Evan-Tuerner-esque offers Nurkic may get this offseason, exploring trades now, rather than risking losing him for nothing, makes complete sense. The tradeoff is that Jordan will likely decline his player option and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which also carries substantial risk for the Blazers.

On-Court Consequences of a Nurkic/Jordan Swap

From an on-court perspective Jordan would significantly transform the Blazers’ playing style. Jordan can’t create his own shot around the rim, but he is an elite finisher when guards create opportunities for him, converting on 69 percent of shots within five feet of the hoop. Nurkic, in contrast, has notoriously struggled to hit layups, or dunk the ball at all, averaging a miserable 55.2 percent around the rim.

Jordan isn’t able to post up like Nurkic is, but his length and athleticism would create opportunities for the Blazers’ guards when defenses try to trap. Damian Lillard is already an elite scorer as the ball handler in a pick and roll (1.07 points per possession, fifth among players with at least 50 possessions) and would become even more effective with a center who could do this:

Lillard hasn’t thrown a lot of alley-oop passes in his career, but that’s been because of personnel and not necessarily a lack of ability. He’s never played with anyone as athletic and effective as Jordan around the rim.

On the defensive end, the Blazers often have Nurkic play conservatively around the rim, similar to Robin Lopez’s role. This creates a dead zone in the middle of the floor that good scorers can exploit.

The defensive style that Nurkic forces Portland to play does not fit with the modern NBA’s move toward using super mobile centers who can handle themselves on the perimeter. A week ago, the Blazers were forced to play Al-Farouq Aminu against Karl-Anthony Towns, presumably fearing that Nurkic would not be able to follow Towns around on the perimeter. That did not work so well:

Jordan has more range, length, and mobility than Nurkic — he’s no Jordan Bell but he’s better equipped to follow another big man out to the 3-point line. Jordan is also a strong shot blocker, further improving Portland’s rim protection, relative to Nurkic. Overall, Jordan could add a dynamic to Portland’s defense that BlazersManiacs haven’t seen since Rasheed Wallace.

Could a Nurkic/Jordan trade happen with the current cap rules?

There is a caveat: Jordan makes $22.6 million this season while Nurkic’s salary is only $2.9 million. Matching salaries for any trade centering on Nurkic and Jordan will be difficult as the Clippers will be hesitant to take on multiyear contracts that will jeopardize maximum cap space this summer. Even if LA liked Maurice Harkless’ game, for example, they probably wouldn’t want to sacrifice $10 million in potential cap space this summer for him.

A likely scenario involves a third team, operating under the cap, taking salary from Portland (Harkless and an RFA?) in exchange for an asset or two from the Clippers or Blazers. Of course, both the Blazers and Clippers would be loathe to surrender extra assets, so it would take substantial negotiation to make this work. The Blazers could also try to use their trade exception to generate a series of multiple moves that make a Jordan/Nurkic trade easier but that becomes VERY complicated.

Bottom Line

A Nurkic for Jordan trade makes sense for the Blazers if they fear that Nurkic will receive a substantial offer in restricted free agency and don’t wish to match it. Jordan would add new dynamics to Portland’s offense and defense that would immediately improve the team. However, pulling off the trade would be difficult because of their disparate salaries, and the Blazers would be taking a huge risk given Jordan’s pending unrestricted free agent status this summer.

Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA