If the 2018 NBA Playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that versatility is becoming more important with every passing year. Both offensive and defensive flexibility are paramount to any successful contender. Players who are unable to bring that on both ends of the floor are increasingly finding themselves riding the bench in postseason play. The teams who decide to pay these players big money have come to regret it as well, as a large percentage of their salary cap gets tied up in a guy who isn’t a net positive in a playoff series.
The center position, in particular, has undergone a complete overhaul over the past few years. Throughout NBA history, the biggest player on the floor had one job: dominate the paint on both ends of the floor. Protect the rim, rebound the ball, set screens, and score inside...those were the instructions given to anybody north of 7’0. For multiple decades, those players were a major part of their teams’ regular season and postseason success. Today, the center position, like almost every other spot on the floor, is more about being able to do everything else. Top-tier centers need to be able to have at least a modicum of success handling the ball, passing, and switching onto perimeter players, in addition to their previous duties. The game is changing before our eyes and the league is being forced to adapt or be left behind.
Jusuf Nurkic is going to be a restricted free agent in July. Neil Olshey and his staff will have an important decision in front of them: how much is Nurkic, a relic of a previous era, worth to a Trail Blazers team trying to compete credibly in the Western Conference playoffs? Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA and Nurkic doesn’t bring enough of it to the table to be worth starter-level money. But how would he react to receiving less than $10 million per season and perhaps being relegated to a bench role at some point down the line? Nurkic has proven himself to be ornery in the past regarding a reduced role, but if Portland is to succeed across multiple postseason matchups, he may not factor in to the on-court product in a major way.
On the offensive end of the floor, Nurkic does the traditional big man stuff well enough: he hits a majority of his shots around the rim (though that fell off this this year), gets in on the offensive glass (ditto), and sets good screens for star teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. He even flashes some passing ability from time to time, which does bring Blazers extra versatility to the Trail Blazers offense. However, the things he doesn’t do bring down his overall offensive value. He can’t shoot outside the painted area. He requires a healthy dose of post-ups to keep him happy. He offers none of the ball-handling and dribble handoff (DHO) prowess Horford brings to the table. Nurkic’s production was below average across the board on the offensive end this past season and he doesn’t bring enough when the ball isn’t in his hands to make him a true offensive threat.
Defensively, the case for Nurkic is more about individual preferences than absolute truths one way or the other. The Trail Blazers were very good overall, and opponents generally shot much worse at the rim whenever, Nurkic was in the game. The trade-offs when comparing a classic big man to a more versatile, switching big like Horford aren’t as one-sided as they are on the offensive end. Nurkic’s rim protection and post defense anchor Portland’s scheme the same way Horford’s all-world communication and switching anchor Boston’s. While it’s no contest that Horford is the better defensive player overall because his rim protection and post defense are at Nurkic’s level in addition to everything else he does, the overall player profile is the key; would it be better for Portland to try to replace Nurkic with a Horford-lite player on the market or in the draft, or does Nurkic bring enough defensively to outweigh his modest offensive production?
In the era of flexibility, running it back with Nurkic for another three or four years solidifies the Trail Blazers, both on their books and on the court, as a team who can really only win one way. Getting through four playoff series to win a championship requires one of two things: either you have such a distinct talent advantage that nothing else matters (the Cleveland Cavaliers approach from the past few years) or you adapt to every series and every game using a roster full of versatile players (the Boston Celtics’ approach this year and going forward). Portland can lock themselves into the former and hope that Lillard and McCollum continue to develop into dominating superstars despite already being in their late 20s, or they can begin the pivot toward the future by letting Nurkic walk and taking a small step back in order to become more flexible going forward.
There’s no right answer here. Staying competitive throughout their stars’ primes is massively important, but at some point, throwing good money after bad to try to stay competitive in a league that has grown beyond some of their higher-paid players may be a fruitless endeavor.