The Portland Trail Blazers have dominated the bubble’s news cycle with birthday parties and Skinny Melo, but perhaps nothing has incited more conversation than the potential frontcourt pairing of Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. Playing one traditional center isn’t a guarantee anymore, let alone trotting out two seven footers who rarely shoot from beyond the short midrange.
Nonetheless, comments from players and coaches gave it merit.
Jusuf Nurkić says he expects to play some minutes at power forward, presumably alongside Hassan Whiteside at center.— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) July 3, 2020
Stotts says "in all likelihood" Melo and Nurk will start. Hasn't decided whether Collins will start at 4. Also hasn't ruled out starting Nurk and Whiteside together. "Why not? It'll give you guys something to write about."— Sean Highkin (@highkin) July 1, 2020
The initial reaction from fans was polarizing. Two thought processes emerged: the double big lineup is genius and the double big lineup is a failure waiting to happen. I entered the writing process for this story believing the latter—the Blazers have struggled in the past with below average shooters peppering the perimeter, imagine what will ensue with non-shooters trying to space the floor.
I now find myself in a slightly more moderate position. I think the pairing could succeed in limited minutes provided the right complementary players, specific offensive actions and a different defensive scheme. But that’s a lot to figure out in a few weeks of practice and three scrimmages for players unfamiliar with one another.
Offensively, Portland is no stranger to shooting woes at the forward position plaguing Damian Lillard’s pick and roll, especially in playoff scenarios. Last season, Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless shot 34.3% and 27.5%, respectively, from three. Nurkic, across his entire career, is 3/42 from deep, and Whiteside is 8/25. We don’t got shooters.
Stopping an uber effective Lillard from scoring at the rim is better defense than staying with any of those four guys on the perimeter. In essence, the Blazers can’t stick one of Whiteside or Nurkic in the corner or on the wing and let the other play as normal.
There are a couple alternatives that keep both centers inside the arc and don’t allow their defenders to play free safety. One: use Nurkic like the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors used Draymond Green.
In this role, Nurkic is the screen-setter for Lillard just like in Portland’s usual offense. But instead of having three shooters on the perimeter waiting for a kickout, there will only be two and Whiteside will set up camp in the dunker’s spot. If Lillard can’t create his own space—likely because the defenders blitzed the screen – he can find Nurkic slow rolling. Nurkic takes one or two dribbles to the free throw line and gives the opposing center a decision: step out and stop his drive, conceding the lob to Whiteside, or stay on Whiteside and let Nurkic barrel down the lane for a dunk.
Nurkic’s passing and decision-making abilities aren’t on par with Green’s, which isn’t a knock at all. But they’re better than Whiteside’s. Conversely, Whiteside’s verticality is nearly unmatched, making him the perfect target for alley-oops. It might not have the aesthetic of Golden State’s offense, but it could work.
Two: use Whiteside in the pick and roll and situate Nurkic on the strongside block. If the defenders blitz Lillard, he can find Nurkic in the post as a bailout. Whiteside continues his roll and gives the weakside wing a choice: step in front of Whiteside and sacrifice the skip pass to the corner shooter or stay in the corner and let Nurkic find Whiteside on the roll for an uncontested finish at the rim.
If the defense switches or doesn’t blitz Lillard in either of these scenarios, he’ll have his routine pick and roll setup but with even less spacing. That puts pressure on him to be a decision maker as well as to draw fouls.
In any case, Nurkic and Whiteside need to be active screeners both on and off the ball. They don’t attract defenders without the ball and certainly can’t space the floor, so they must free up their better scoring teammates with screens and constant movement.
Despite both centers being elite rim protectors, the pairing causes problems for Portland’s defense.
In the halfcourt, opponents exploit pick and rolls with Whiteside or Nurkic defending because the Blazers sag their bigs. The Milwaukee Bucks have seen success doing so with one Lopez brother at a time, but that’s because their guard defenders have the defensive acumen and wingspans to go over screens and still contest from behind.
However, it was hinted by Whiteside that Portland’s defense will apply more ball pressure. In the two big lineup, one can pressure the ball knowing the other is behind him to defend the rim, but that leaves a shooter open for a kick-out pass. Two steps forward, two steps back.
Away from pick and roll sets, Portland’s perimeter defenders—now a shorter rotation with Trevor Ariza not playing—can try to run opponents off the three-point line. In theory, doing so funnels them into Whiteside and Nurkic in the paint and encourages the shooter to pull up for a midrange jumper.
The Blazers didn’t exhibit effective communication or the ability to scramble and find the open man this year. If they want to run guys off the arc, that will more times than not lead to a scramble defensively. Nurkic and Whiteside are hesitant to get out to the perimeter, so the initial hustle to prevent a three-pointer will lead to another, possibly even better, three-point attempt.
Teams will also try to run in transition when they secure a rebound. Bigs are generally slower to get down the floor and tend to fall back into the paint to stop a drive attempt against the disorganized defense. But if both do that, the opposing power forward can trail the ball handler and is free to set a screen or spot up for three.
There will be a lot of lineup experimentation in the bubble with Ariza out and Zach Collins and Nurkic healthy. Even after trying to persuade myself the double big lineup could be one of those experiments, too much has to go right for it to work. Teams already attack traditional centers when only one is on the court—I can’t see the situation improving by putting another out there.
Alone, Nurkic and Whiteside each successfully defend the paint and discourage opponents from shooting at the rim. The optimal surrounding lineup for them contains four perimeter defenders. Offensively, the standard pick and roll functions best with one big body setting the screen and four shooters spacing the floor.
Birthday parties and Skinny Melo are in at the Disney World bubble, but the double big lineup should be out.