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Jusuf Nurkic Trade Proved Pivotal for Nuggets, Trail Blazers

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The Athletic takes an inside look at the trade that brought Portland their starting center and confirmed Denver in theirs.

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Before the February, 2017 trade that brought center Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers, he was paired with Nikola Jokic in a big-man lineup long on height, short on experience together. With both seven-footers young and eager to play, the Nuggets had a decision to make: build the next version of the Twin Towers or move one of their bigs. When the Blazers came calling with Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets bit and the rest is history.

Now Nick Kosmider of The Athletic takes a longer look at that trade and all the details that went into it from Denver’s perspective (subscription required). As it turns out, Denver is just as happy as the Blazers are.

Prior to the move, the Nuggets were experimenting with center Jokic playing power forward next to Nurkic...a move that wasn’t bearing fruit.

The Nuggets began the 2016-17 season by losing five of their first eight games, and neither big man in the starting lineup could find any rhythm. They were averaging just 22.4 combined points, each being deferential to the other. For his part, Jokic was being thrust into increasingly difficult defensive assignments against agile power forwards. After a blowout loss to the Warriors on Nov. 11, his frustration reached a tipping point.

“Nikola came to me and said, ‘I don’t want to start anymore,’” [Nuggets Coach Mike] Malone recalled. “‘This is not going well. It’s hard on me.’ He was emotional about it. It was a really good conversation because it was an open, honest and candid conversation. So I brought Nikola off the bench for a while.”

“Jok’s game was struggling, but Jok is the kind of guy who’s not going to say something,” [forward Will] Barton added. “He’s going to do what’s best for the team. You could tell it was bothering him, and that’s why he told Coach to put him on the bench, initially. We struggled once he did that.”

As Barton identified, talent was less of a problem than willingness to sacrifice.

“We had no pecking order,” Barton said. “I feel like we were just as talented as we are now, but there was no pecking order, no one willing to sacrifice. Literally, almost every member of the team that was playing was trying to establish themselves. It’s not a selfish thing; everybody’s just trying to establish it.”

When the experiment didn’t work out and it became evident that Jokic was going to produce more at center, Nurkic was left out in the cold. He was not pleased with the situation.

​​”I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurkic told Sports Illustrated last year. “I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

When he was once again taken out of the starting lineup after that game in Dallas, Nurkic began mapping an exit strategy. He requested a trade shortly after the lineup change, and his displeasure the next couple months wasn’t hard to see.

Even though Nurkic excelled in Portland in the initial months, Kosmider relays that Denver had few regrets.

The battle, in those early months after he was traded, may have been won by Nurkic on the surface. But the Nuggets had gained a far bigger prize than the inevitable first-round playoff exit that greeted Portland. Denver had discovered its franchise player, and immediately after he lifted the starting lineup two years ago, the organization began formulating a detailed plan to build around this one-of-a-kind player.

Kosmider goes far deeper into Denver’s planning, the evolution of the team without Nurkic, and how subtraction can lead to progress.

Nurkic has averaged 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 50% with the Blazers, eclipsing his Denver numbers by a significant margin.