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Nurkic’s Presence is Key to the Blazers’ Defensive Potential

Jusuf Nurkic’s return to full strength, alongside the Blazers’ newcomers, could help Portland reach a new level on defense.

Portland Trail Blazers v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Jusuf Nurkic returned to playing NBA basketball in 2020, and while it was only for a short time, it was a sight to behold. Nurkic showed fans of the Portland Trail Blazers exactly what they had been missing from the end of the 2018-19 season until the bubble in Orlando. It was a small sample size, but he averaged a career high in points (17.6), assists (4.0), blocks (2.0) and steals (1.4). It’s only from eight regular season bubble games, but he was effective during that stretch.

For a guy who hadn’t played basketball in a year and a half, that’s pretty amazing. But the one thing that didn’t happen in the bubble that everyone hoped would happen was that the defense didn’t become much more stout with Nurkic out there. That’s not all on Nurkic, but it became apparent that he was still working his way into game shape as defenders were able to switch shiftier guys onto him and make it miserable for Nurkic to deal with.

But Nurkic has two things going for him as we enter the 2020-21 season: More time to get back in shape and more help on the defensive end. Will both of these things help reestablish Nurkic as a defensive anchor for this team in his first full year back? What can we expect from the Bosnian Beast? And most importantly, can this team thrive defensively again the way it’s built? Let’s dive into it.

Let’s start with a quick reminder in case you forgot: Jusuf Nurkic is a very good defensive center. Statistically, he was one of the best in the league just two seasons ago. In the 2018-19 season, he ranked 10th in defensive player impact plus-minus at +2.68. That puts him in league with guys like Joel Embiid and Brook Lopez on that end, which is elite company.

The box score numbers are pretty solid too. Over his career he has averaged 1.3 blocks per game and 0.9 steals. His per 36 numbers stretch that out to about two blocks a game and 1.3 steals. Those are pretty solid defensive numbers, and you can’t talk about big box scores without mentioning his best statistical performance.

The 5x5 game where Nurkic became the first player to have 20+ points, 20+ rebounds, 5+ assists, 5+ steals and 5+ blocks is truly a joy to watch. It’s one of the most dominant big man performances in the history of the modern NBA and contains so many good Nurkic defensive plays. My personal favorites include: The De’Aaron Fox block that shows Nurkic’s recovery speed at 0:49; the poke out at 1:30 on Nemanja Bjelica; and the cap on Willie Cauley-Stein at 2:45.

Those blocks and steals are impressive, but what Nurkic does best defensively is act as a deterrent. Blocks don’t equal defensive effectiveness. We experienced that plenty this year with Hassan Whiteside in the paint. What really matters is whether or not you’re staying solid and making shots significantly harder for your opponent.

Look at this Tyler Johnson missed floater as an example of Nurkic using his size to make shots difficult. Nurkic stays wide as Johnson goes downhill in the pick and roll. Nurkic uses his size against Johnson without fouling, forcing the guard into a difficult floater without ever having to raise his arms up too high.

The same thing happens with this Jeremiah Martin pick and roll. Martin gets the corner better than Johnson and tries to attack the rim, but Nurkic attaches his body to the small guard and puts a hand up. Martin tries his best, but Nurkic has already pushed him out of the play by the time the ball leaves Martin’s hands.

This is when Nurkic is at his best. When he’s using his size to make shots nearly impossible for drivers, the Blazers look awesome. It’s something that was sorely missed this past season and should only be better as he’s had more time to recover from his horrific injury. When Nurkic is in peak game shape, he’s one of the best rim protectors in the league.

That doesn’t mean he’s perfect, though. Jusuf Nurkic is a big dude. He’s 7-feet and 290 pounds. It doesn’t really matter how good of an athlete you are; it’s really hard to move all that body in a super shifty manner. And as great as Nurkic is at protecting the rim, he struggles when he is switched onto ball-handling wings and quick guards on the perimeter.

This might not be the most fair video because no one in 17 years has really been able to adequately stop LeBron James, but it illustrates what happens when Nurkic gets forced into situations like this. The Lakers forced a switch on the wing and it puts Nurkic in a crummy spot where now he has to guard the best forward in the league. It’s not fair, but teams are going to do it to exploit that mismatch.

This is a more reasonable example: Ivica Zubac sets the awkward screen and forces the switch so Nurkic has to guard Reggie Jackson. Jackson knows he can get by Nurkic if he turns the burners on. He does just that, even though he actually misses the layup. It’s not an egregiously bad thing on Nurkic’s end; it’s just a limitation that the big guy has.

The truth is that teams took advantage of Nurkic in the bubble at times, especially late in games. It’s not because he was a bad defender in Orlando; he had plenty of nice moments where he redirected shots and averaged a career high in blocks. But Portland had to play Nurkic more minutes than they wanted to because he was the only reliable paint defender on the team, and it would lead to a lot of plays like this one.

This bear hug foul is what you have to do when you’re the last resort against LeBron James. This one happened early in the game, but it wasn’t uncommon to see this in the fourth quarter. At a certain point there’s only so much you can do to stop the other team from driving it on you for another easy layup. As Nurkic wore down, this was the best option for Portland’s opponents.

We can point out every little thing that Nurkic didn’t do well in the bubble, but that doesn’t change these three things: He was coming off an injury, it’s a small sample size, and boy did his teammates not particularly help. It’s no secret that the 2019-20 Portland Trail Blazers were one of the worst teams defensively, ranking 27th among all teams in defensive rating.

When Nurkic returned in the bubble, it didn’t get much better. Their defensive rating of 120.4 ranked third to last among bubble participants. But that wasn’t Nurkic’s fault. Without Trevor Ariza — who is at least a competent wing defender — Portland had zero reliable perimeter defenders outside of Gary Trent Jr., and it constantly put Nurkic in a difficult position where he was the last hope. It was obvious how much it exhausted him at times.

Luckily, help is on the way for Nurkic. The Blazers went out and got some quality wing defenders this offseason in Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Covington is the kind of player Portland has needed for years now and Jones Jr. is a better defender than any wing that Portland ran out last year. In fact, in the year where Nurkic ranked 10th in DPIPM, Covington ranked eighth. The only two forwards ahead of him were Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Those two guys along with Gary Trent Jr. don’t have to be as good as Giannis and Draymond in order to give Nurkic the necessary leeway to operate as a defensive anchor. The defensive problems started for Nurkic as teams blew by guys like Mario Hezonja and Carmelo Anthony, forcing Nurkic to foul. That’s not going to be nearly as frequent of an occurrence with Covington and Jones.

One final thing: Both Covington and Jones are excellent weakside help defenders. Covington has been one of the best for years and Jones has come along in his own right as well, utilitzing his absurd athletic talents. More likely than not there will be a couple times a game where Nurkic unfairly is forced to guard a shifty wing or is switched onto a guard. When he gets blown by in those situations, he’ll at least have help from one of those guys. This team is built to really help Nurk.

Taking everything into account, this Blazer squad feels like it’s set to have one of its best defensive seasons since 2017-18. That year, Portland finished in the top 10 in defensive rating for the first and only time in the Terry Stotts era. It was also Jusuf Nurkic’s first full season with the Blazers, who they paired with Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless to achieve such heights. Now they can do that again with Covington and Jones, with the Bosnian Beast right in the middle.