Cody Zeller has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Portland Trail Blazers during this young and slightly underwhelming NBA season. Signed to Portland on a veteran minimum contract with little-to-no fanfare, the “Big Handsome” has bounded into the hearts of Blazers fans with heady and energetic play. After eight years as a starter with the Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats, Zeller has seamlessly slotted into Portland’s reserve center role — behind everyone’s favorite polarizing Bosnian Jusuf Nurkic.
A fortnight ago, I wrote about the Blazers’ shallow frontcourt, with Larry Nance Jr. and Robert Covington the only two players — other than Nurkic and Zeller — capable but unsustainably able to play minutes at the five. That thinness is compounded by the injury-prone history of the Blazers big men.
Unfortunately, the Blazers are limited in how they address this. Like many things in life money is a barrier. And when a team is on track to pay repeater tax next season, a front office might want to do everything it can to spend less, not more.
With 14 regularly-rostered players, the team’s current payroll sits roughly $3 million over the luxury tax — thank you Andrew Nicholson ($2.8 million) who is unbelievably still being paid by Portland.
Let’s just sit and think about that. Nicholson, and Nicholson alone, is the reason Portland is in line to pay luxury tax this season. Ugh.
Anyway. The best way for this team to get under the tax this season is relinquishing an expiring contract before or at February’s trade deadline.
Nurkic, Covington, and soon-to-be restricted free agent Anfernee Simons are the team’s expiring contracts above that $3 million mark.
The Blazers are not parting with Simons who is now delivering on all the promise promoted since draft night 2018.
Nurkic and Covington are each on roughly $12 million this season, which means that if the Blazers were to trade one, they’d have to take back no more than $9 million in any deal.
Covington would almost certainly be a valuable acquisition for another franchise preferring wins over loses. He also has a backup who could more than capably fill his starters minutes in Nance Jr. However this will almost certainly decimate any power forward depth the Blazers might have behind him.
Similarly with Nurkic, any deal would need to include frontcourt reinforcements coming back while also making the payroll cheaper. Not the easiest of tasks.
Nurkic is almost four years younger than Covington and, in theory, does more for this current incarnation of the Blazers. He’s also not so old that he couldn’t integrate with a younger time still working it’s way up the standings. But unlike Covington, Nurkic’s mercurial nature could be enough to give interested teams a moment’s pause.
Because honestly, the fact that pundits have even discussed moving on from Nurkic — regarded by some as this roster’s second most important player — is a sign that his sometimes erratic and injury-prone issues might be better left to someone else.
Having said all that, the key reason the Blazers should move Nurkic ahead of Covington is....
Nurkic has employed Klutch Sports as his representation, meaning he wants to get paid when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Remember when he name dropped Klutch founder Rich Paul during his frustration-filled final press conference after last season’s disappointing loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Not sure Portland’s already bloated payroll has room for a center who might have the talent to bring in the big bucks but who can also suffer through stretches of discipline-free disappointment.
As a result, and I hate saying it, but it’s probably more prudent to make moving the big Bosnian the team’s first priority at the deadline — if getting under the tax is the priority.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea, the teasing glimpses, the theory of Nurkic, as most Blazers fans do. However, the Nurkic we’ve seen in reality is consistently clear of the idealized version we all have in our minds.
For the purposes of this piece, I’m not going to rollout the trade machine and spin the wheel on possible Nurkic-centered deals. Let’s just assume he yields a player(s), at least one of which is capable of playing minutes at the five.
Nurkic and Zeller
Nurkic has had one less year in the league than Zeller, beating him out in almost every career average through his more versatile style of play, which opens up more opportunities on both sides of the ball.
Yes, Zeller is no stranger to starting lineups, but with athletic and skill limitations he’s probably better suited as an above-average reserve.
He is however a true veteran in the sense of years served and the fact that he’s clearly a better player above the shoulders. While Zeller doesn’t facilitate, protect the rim or spread the floor, he knows who he is and plays to his strengths.
He’s a hell of screener, he can pass, finish at the rim and defend at an above average level. He’s able to put himself and others in strong scoring positions without having the physical attributes others possess. In that sense he’s the anti-Nurkic because he gets the best out of every sceric of skill.
While I’ve never met the man, Zeller comes across as a mature, level-headed player, capable of mentoring, supporting and nurturing young players around him. He’s the ultimate back-up five. And if he manages to stay healthy he’ll contribute on and off the court.
But, what then? If you’re trading Nurkic, who starts at center? Cough, cough, Mo Bamba, cough, cough.
OK so maybe I’ll put one trade idea out there.
Bamba is starting to show on all the potential his high lottery selection promised. If you don’t believe me, check out The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor’s assessment of the seven footer earlier this week.
Folks, Bamba has arrived. So far this season, the no. 6 pick in 2018 is averaging career highs across the board: 11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.0 blocks in 31.9 minutes.
To Bamba’s credit, he has improved his body so he can withstand contact in the paint. And he’s finally shooting a high percentage from 3. Consistent minutes certainly helps though.
On defense, he’s straight-up hustling. Many young bigs take years to show good awareness on defense, and at 23, Bamba looks more comfortable than ever. He has good positioning in the pick-and-roll, and he uses his 7-foot-10 wingspan to block or alter shots inside. Bamba still needs to get much stronger. Bigs can still back him down and overpower him on the post. Bamba has made significant progress, but there’s still so much more room to grow.
What? A 7’10 wingspan? Holy cow.
He’s also averaging 40 percent from three on 3.9 shots a game.
Ok, so here we go, I’ll propose Nurkic for the two Mos - Bamba and Wagner. This reinforces Portland’s thinnish big man core, including a player possibly already contributing at Nurkic’s level with room to grow.
Obviously, the Orlando Magic need to agree to the trade but if there was a team with room to sign Nurkic to his desired deal next offseason, it’s the franchise closest to Disney World. Oh, and through this deal, the Blazers get under the tax, saving $4.4 million with two young players at positions of need. Bamba is a restricted free agent next summer and Wagner has one further year.
With a starting lineup of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Bamba, the Blazers are probably slightly better with a heck of a lot of room for growth.
Quick caveat, this deal can’t be executed until November 21, thanks to Wagner’s contract.
Again, I love Nurkic. He was the pleasant surprise this team needed four and a half years ago, but through inconsistency and now with the threat of a big payday — someone will pay it — the Blazers might be best to get something back in return now while they can.
If Zeller was able to have a larger influence on both sides of the ball, the Blazers might have been able to accept non-starters in exchange for Nurkic. But he’s not and they can’t, which means any deal needs to bring back a player capable of playing with the starters.
Zeller is the perfect backup big and been one of the better stories this year. But perhaps, for financial, balance and consistency purpose, he should be playing understudy to another Blazer big man.