Today marks one week since the Portland Trail Blazers lost center Jusuf Nurkic to a season-ending leg injury. That’s nowhere near catchy enough to qualify for inclusion in the Barenaked Ladies song of the same name, but the subject has been dominating the attention of Blazers fans, and by extension, Blazer’s Edge, ever since.
Today we put the topic to bed with a wrap-up question from the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. We could have chosen at least 40 on the topic, but this one does a decent job of encapsulating everything, allowing us to tie it up with a bow.
What happened to Nurk was too obviously devastating. Is there any chance we’ll be all right in the playoffs anyway? What opponents are the best to face without the Beast?
The Blazers have a chance to get to the second round still, but it seems faint at this point. I don’t expect them to get swept again as long as CJ McCollum comes back from his injury. I anticipate they’ll put up a fight, based on their season-long commitment and style of play. Whether that adds up to “alright” is up to you. It’s certainly far less a standard of success than I had pegged for them before Nurkic went down.
If you want to gauge the effect, ask yourself how much of a difference Nurkic made to the Blazers this year. He was a borderline candidate for Most Improved Player. Nobody watching the team this season could miss how hard he worked to fill gaps and how seamlessly he succeeded in doing so. He was easily as important to Portland’s attack as McCollum, albeit in a more subtle way most nights.
If you agree with any of this, then you understand how profoundly his loss will affect this team. The players and the organization have to say, “We’re going to soldier on and succeed just the same.” The only way to buy into that as more than appropriate sentiment is to believe that Nurkic made zero difference to the roster. That’s incomprehensible.
The loss isn’t just a matter of talent. Nurkic’s absence will create a serious ripple effect as everybody shifts one spot higher in the rotation. It’s not going to be devastating—maybe not even that noticeable—during the regular season when preparation time is sparse. Having the underbelly of the roster exposed in the playoffs against good teams who have nothing else on their agenda than to exploit same, well... that hasn’t worked out well.
People underestimate how much Nurkic’s mobility, timing, and grit contributed to Portland’s defense. As the season wound along, the perimeter players looked as confident as they ever have, knowing Nurk was back there. Opponent straight-line drives and Portland’s shoulder-shrugging rotations dwindled to insignificance.
Enes Kanter will do a great job rebounding and offers serviceable offense subbing in for Nurk. Against opposing second units his defensive deficiencies don’t get exposed. That won’t hold true as a starter. When proficient guards drag Kanter out to the three-point arc to stop screen plays, the difference will become evident.
Kanter won’t just look worse than Nurkic on defense, McCollum and Damian Lillard will look like worse versions of themselves too.
Even if Kanter defies expectations, showing well on both ends against super-high-quality first units, he can’t play for 48 minutes. Fatigue and foul trouble will become chronic concerns.
Every player who could potentially replace Kanter is flawed. One of the glorious things about Portland’s healthy post-trade-deadline lineup is that the ball seldom fell into the hands of a non-scorer. Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, and Moe Harkless still qualified, but their looks were much easier (and mistakes much less obvious) alongside the likes of Kanter, Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and the starters. Portland minimized the number of shaky scorers on the floor at a given time. Their lesser threats were either fifth options or touched the ball in positions from which almost anybody could be expected to score credibly.
With Nurk out, the Blazers will have to play Meyers Leonard or Zach Collins more. They become the fifth options; the former fifth options become the fourth. Opponents are going to load up on the top three scorers and force shots to come from Aminu, Harkless, Layman, or the bench bigs. They would have attempted this anyway, but the injury rotation shift doubles their chances of success.
Every shot from the main guys will be guarded closer. Portland will no longer be able to hide their spotty offensive players. This is exactly how the Blazers have been eliminated from every post-season since the Aldridge era ended. Nurkic’s combination of scoring and passing, plus Kanter providing a viable outlet and offensive rebounding off the bench, would have mitigated the danger. No such luck now. The nightmare scenario is live again.
The Blazers could go with a small-ball lineup to make the offense more threatening. If they do so, they better hit threes like nobody’s business. Look how many Western Conference playoffs teams field nasty centers. Sustained bouts of small ball would leave Portland at a disadvantage against at least half of their potential opponents.
Before Nurkic went down, I would have given the Blazers a credible chance in any matchup except the Golden State Warriors. The Oklahoma City Thunder would have been the most challenging, but I wouldn’t have written off Portland even in that series. Against the other tough teams (including the Denver Nuggets) they were basically a coin flip. That’s not a strong recommendation to win a title—they would have had to flip the coin four times successfully, avoiding the Warriors in the process—but their prospects were clearly better than they had been since 2014.
With Nurkic gone, those former coin-flip matchups look like headaches:
- Paul George and Russell Westbrook always spell big trouble, now Steven Adams does as well.
- A matchup against the Houston Rockets would have pitted Portland’s Big 3 against James Harden and Chris Paul. Now it’s a straight backcourt matchup and Houston’s supporting cast is better.
- Damian Lillard’s wizardry transforms Rudy Gobert from Andre the Giant into Giant Gonzalez, but to what effect and for how long without Nurkic running Gobert around too? Eventually the Jazz will win that battle.
- Nurkic head-to-head with former teammate Nikola Jokic would have been something to see. Nurkic could have held him down while Lillard and McCollum took swipes at the rest of Denver’s roster. That won’t happen either.
The easiest opponents for the Blazers have not changed. Facing the Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs would be better than any of the aforementioned teams. Still, without Nurkic those look like good options, not great, let alone sure wins.
The dream before the injury was for Portland to end up in the opposite bracket from the Warriors and Thunder. They’d pray that somebody upset Golden State before the third round, then try to shoot the gap through to the NBA Finals. That’s not realistic anymore.
Now it almost doesn’t matter which bracket Portland ends up in; Denver and Houston are likely to be as big of a threat as anybody in the second round. The Blazers just want to draw a first-round opponent they think they can beat, then see what happens. It’s a far cry from where they were, even farther from where they want to be, but that’s where they are right now.
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