Barring a major trade, no decision will have more effect on the Portland Trail Blazers in the Summer of 2018 than their response to the free agency of center Jusuf Nurkic. Come July, Portland’s biggest restricted free agent will be eligible for a raise from the paltry $2.9 million salary he earned in 2017-18. The increase could amount to anything from a $4.1 million single-year qualifying offer to a cap-wrecking (and likely franchise-wrecking) $25 million maximum deal. In the seemingly-endless buffet of options in between those two extremes, several options make sense. The bigger question at hand may be which party gets to decide the matter, the Blazers or Nurkic himself?
Up until this point, the Blazers have been playing with house money on Nurkic’s contract. They traded center Mason Plumlee for him in February of 2017, knowing that they wouldn’t be re-signing Plumlee after his contract expired in June of that year. Nurkic was an experiment, essentially free of charge. Almost anything he produced would counter-balance his lightweight contract.
As it turned out, Portland got quite a deal. For a season and a spring, Nurkic has put up respectable numbers as a starting center. This year he averaged a career-high 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, maintaining a 50% shooting clip despite extending his range towards the perimeter. His per-minute production is also at a career-high level in points and nearly so in rebounds. His defensive numbers remain solid. Personal fouls—a disaster early in his career—remain high but have moderated enough to allow him a comfortable 26 minutes per game average. He’s clearly the best Jusuf Nurkic he’s ever been, and at 23, he has plenty of room to grow further.
Even so, concerns remain. Nurkic’s decent defensive numbers belie a season in which his work on that end of the floor was inconsistent. At times he proved an inspired help defender, occasionally blocking shots with authority. Out in space, however, Nurkic looked like a duck in Jell-o, unable to threaten or contain at the arc, equally unable to get back to the painted area once drawn out. He just didn’t fit. Size was part of the story, but effort also came into play. When he wasn’t an important cog in the early-season offense, his entire game went limp. His developing offense shows promise, but he’s not ready to assume a primary scoring role and may never become that player. Though Nurkic averaged a clear career-high in minutes played, he was often on the bench during crunch time with the game on the line.
In short, Nurkic is a player you like, but not a player you trust. Sometimes that kind of guy becomes a solid option when surrounded by stars and the right role players. Sometimes that kind of guy becomes a tantalizing coach-killer, always seeming like he should be better than he turns out to be when the impact doesn’t match the wrapping paper.
Changing Situation, Simple Rule
None of the above was an issue when Nurkic’s price tag remained low. That era ends in July. Quadruple his salary and the former no-lose situation all of a sudden presents several ways to go wrong.
No matter what complexities plague the evaluation, though, the overriding mantra of the summer remains simple: the Blazers cannot afford to lose Nurkic for nothing. They do not have a ready replacement at center. Nurkic remains one of President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey’s crowning achievements, the most significant since drafting CJ McCollum. Giving him up without recompense would call into question the viability of the franchise’s overall plan.
Most damning of all, losing Nurkic would give the Blazers zero cap flexibility. With or without Nurkic, their guaranteed contracts already push them well over the projected $101 million 2018-19 salary cap. The only added benefit of Nurkic’s departure would be freedom to use cap exceptions without getting as close to the luxury tax apron, a de facto hard cap once such exceptions are employed. Any player the Blazers could reasonably sign with such exceptions would be of less value than Nurkic himself. They’d likely get worse in that scenario, while spending nearly as much money.
Since Nurkic is a restricted free agent, the Blazers might not have control over how much he makes. It’s not likely that an opposing team will make an insane offer, but it only takes one. Portland could not only get shoved past the tax threshold matching a big offer, they could be brought to the brink of the apron in one swoop...meaning that their next signing would take them over. This would severely hamper Portland’s ability to get better beyond the Nurkic re-signing.
An offer sheet would also implode Portland’s ability to use Nurkic in a sign-and-trade, which is prohibited by rule if the player has accepted an offer as a restricted free agent. The chances of such a deal are slim anyway. Sign-and-trades are all but dead due to economic factors and a rule about Base Year Compensation which makes matching salaries difficult. Depending on the player coming in return, Nurkic might be able to squeeze under the bar, though. If the Blazers don’t want to commit to him long-term, this would be about the only way they could get immediate value out of his departure.
The problem with both of these scenarios is that they depend on the actions of other teams. That’s never a comfortable position when dealing with talent and money.
The Easy Solutions
By far the mostly likely outcome of the summer is Portland inviting Nurkic back. The comps (comparative salaries around the league) for a center at his production level shouldn’t be exorbitant. The Blazers are in for a penny with this roster; they’ll likely perceive being in for 280 pounds of Bosnian Beast worth it. But the situation could be tricky, depending on how hard Nurkic and his agent want to negotiate.
Nurkic’s advisers will be able to read Portland’s situation just as well as we can. They’ll know the Blazers don’t have a ton of options. It’s possible Nurkic won’t have many either; centers are not in high demand and he didn’t exactly distinguish himself in the playoffs. If Nurk can drum up interest, they have no incentive to give Portland a discount, even if they want him to stay. What are the Blazers going to do, let him walk for nothing?
The Blazers have to hope that Nurkic doesn’t set the free agent world on fire. That’s the only situation that puts control back in their court. At that point, they have a couple options.
If they have the stomach for it, the ideal situation might be convincing Nurkic that he needs one more year of sustained production to earn a huge payday. Signing for the one-year qualifying offer would leave Nurkic as an unrestricted free agent in the Summer of 2019, but it would also let the Blazers rent him for the low, low price of $4.1 million before making the final decision whether to buy. That would allow them to retain other free agents, if desired, or even take a chance on a mid-level-exception player (perhaps a partial one) while staying in the lower reaches of the luxury tax instead of its upper borders. In 2019, Portland’s exorbitant payroll finally begins to ebb, give or take an Al-Farouq Aminu re-signing. At that point, they could go all-in on the roster with Aminu and Nurkic or scrub plans altogether. Just as importantly, they’d only face a single year of complete tax hell before the $40 million they’re paying to Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard came off the books. The play is risky; Nurkic could leave after the season. But that could also happen this year if he gets an offer the Blazers dare not match.
Failing that, or assuming the Blazers love Nurkic enough to lock him down now, they’ll have to hope he’ll sign for a happy medium. Taking a broad stab based on finances and production, $12 million per year lies in the fuzzy, gray area between “steal” and “too much”. That’s just about what Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic makes, but Nurkic may look at Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (who also makes $12 million) and say, “I’m more valuable than this guy.” (Or, well, Meyers Leonard at $10.5 million.) Immediate tax obligation aside, if the Blazers get Nurkic for less than that amount, they probably will have done well. Once they start pushing past $15-16 million, they have to consider not only Nurkic’s future, but fiscal sanity and their long-term confidence in a roster that won 49 games but cannot achieve the slightest bit of post-season success. Anything above “Disappointed Nurkic” and below “Sweating Blazers” is probably a win for both sides.
If the Blazers do sign Nurkic outright, they would minimize the contract overhang beyond 2021, the year that McCollum and Damian Lillard come due. That, in itself, might recommend the traditional signing. At this point in his career, nobody envisions Nurkic being able to carry a team without the guards. If they’re going to gamble on Nurkic becoming part of a Big 3, they’ll need to keep the triangle intact. If Lillard or McCollum do depart at the end of their current deals, Nurkic’s expiring contract would be more valuable to a potential rebuild than two years of him as the #1 option in a suddenly-rudderless team.
The Golden Goose of the summer (again, barring a sweetheart trade) would be re-signing Nurkic to a reasonable contract, then removing the sting by trading away another player with a sizable salary, but lower production. This would secure Portland’s immediate future while alleviating the consequences of doing same. It’s not exactly a move forward, but it’d pave the way for additional moves that otherwise will seem impossible or crazy. Ideally the Blazers would like to transfer those adjectives from their cap situation to their on-court production. They might be able to do one or the other depending on how they swing with Nurkic this summer. The real trick will be doing both.