Plenty of questions haunt the play, roster construction, and forecast for the 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers. However, one thing is becoming very clear as the season unfolds: getting Jusuf Nurkic involved in the offense is one of the best things Portland can do.
In 2017-18 the Blazers looked to feature Nurkic early and often in games; his usage rate skyrocketed out of the gate. His looks came straight out of the LaMarcus Aldridge-era playbook: action above the break with Nurkic sliding down off a pindown and into a cozy spot in the mid-to-deep post. The result became what many of us termed the “flailing push shot” which made folks question the strategy.
This was more about execution than the soundness of the strategy. First, Nurkic needed to learn how big he truly is, how to control himself in the post and to be patient. He came late to the game AND he’s a throwback big with a propensity for the post. It has and it will take him a while to really figure things out.
To Nurkic’s credit he has learned from that experience. In 2018-19 the push shots are almost entirely gone. Both and footwork and pace under the rim are controlled and precise. He’s picking his spots much better. When this happens, Portland’s offense starts humming on all cylinders. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum threatening jumpers, teams have been hesitant to send help at Nurkic.
Case in point: Thursday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors. Draymond Green stood as good of a chance at handling Nurkic in the paint as your token Star Trek redshirts of handling this week’s Big Foozle. Nurkic patiently went to work on the shorter and MUCH lighter Green. Bodying him enough to get Green off balance and then hitting him with a series of post spins, fakes, and step-throughs on his way to a season high 27 points.
As Nurkic racked up the points, the Warriors’ defense started to dig, cheat, and even send doubles at him. It led to countless one-pass WIDE open looks that Portland was able to cast away freely. When things are going really well, one extra pass turns a good shot into a great shot.
That’s really the crux of it. On a team limited to three or four potential ball handlers and/or creators, Nurkic becomes a hub in the middle of the floor - his teammates serving as the spokes. Just think about the countless times Lillard and Maurice Harkless have cut off of Nurkic in the mid-post for easy finishes at the rim, or the times opponents have backed off Nurkic in the midrange, allowing for him to see the whole floor and throw a precise pass to someone cutting or coming off a screen on the other side of the floor.
The numbers back this up and bear it out too. In games where Nurkic’s usage rate is at 25 percent or better, the Blazers are 12-2. It’s not just touches, but where he’s getting them. Typically, Nurkic is one of the top two in touches per night with a big chunk of them coming off of early clock action in dribble handoff scenarios. Those are the bread and butter of the Blazers offense. However, moving Nurkic deeper into the paint and allowing him to assess the floor himself has proved ewarding tactic.
By nearly every metric, when Nurkic gets the ball more frequently at the elbow and in the paint the Blazers do better. In Blazers wins, Nurkic is getting his hands on the ball more often in those areas- in losses, less so.
I’m not saying that the entire offense needs to go THROUGH Nurkic, but revolving the attack around him is a damn good idea.