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As Jusuf Nurkic Goes, So Go The Blazers

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A look at how the Blazers are better with Jusuf Nurkic on the floor.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There are few NBA players that have dealt with worse injury luck recently than Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic. Dating back to his horrific leg injury back in 2019, the Bosnian Beast has played in just 39 regular season games over the course of two seasons. Just this year, he’s dealt with a broken wrist, a calf strain, and knee inflammation. All of those injuries forced him to miss at least some time, although the knee inflammation was reportedly not too serious.

It’s a bummer that the past two years have been so injury-riddled because both before and in between those injuries we’ve seen glimpses of just how good Nurk can be. Before his injury in the 2018-19 season, Nurkic was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest while being a menace inside. In his return in the bubble, Nurkic averaged either career-highs or near-career-highs in points (17.6), rebounds (10.3), and blocks (2.0). The bubble was a small sample size, but it was still impressive.

This year has been an up-and-down season for both the Blazers and Nurkic. There have been stretches of solid play and stretches of horrid basketball from both parties. But one thing has become abundantly clear: the Blazers will only go as far as Jusuf Nurkic can take them.

Nurkic’s value to the Blazers mostly derives from what he does defensively. As I mentioned last week, Nurkic and Robert Covington have been two bright spots in what has been a wholly disappointing defensive season from Portland. The team ranks 29th in defensive rating per NBA.com at 115.6.

But when Nurkic is on the floor, they’re better. The two most frequently used lineups that feature Nurkic have defensive ratings of 103.1 and 106.8 respectively, much better than usual. Most importantly, the starting lineup of Nurkic with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell is the lineup that holds the 103.1 mark. That lineup also boasts a 116.9 offensive rating (around the whole team’s rating at 116.7) and a net rating of +13.8.

That’s not all because of Nurkic. Norman Powell has been an upgrade overall (I wrote about that too) and has boosted Portland’s chances at a deeper playoff run. But the better defensive numbers can mostly be attributed to Nurkic. Using two stats to calculate plus-minus from my last article — defensive estimated plus-minus and DARKO projections — Nurkic has been legitimately solid this year. His defensive EPM is a solid +2.2 and his DARKO sits at +2.5. That Darko projection is good for fifth best in the NBA.

When looking at his numbers on Cleaning the Glass, the hypothesis that Nurkic enhances Portland defensively is supported. The starting lineup noted earlier gives up only 103.4 points per 100 possessions, good for the 81st percentile among lineups at least 100 possessions played.

When Nurkic is on the floor, teams score 10.2 points less per 100 possessions (98th percentile), shoot 1.4% worse (78th percentile) and turn the ball over 3.0% more (97th percentile). Teams also grab offensive rebounds at a rate that is 4.8% lower than usual (96th percentile).

What makes Nurkic such an effective defender? It’s not that he’s a blocking machine gobbling up shots like there’s no tomorrow. His block percentage of 2.2% pretty modestly ranks in the 68th percentile, even after gobbling up four blocks against Cleveland last night. His steal rate is high at 1.7% (80th percentile), but that’s not the thing that makes him a defensive force either. What really makes it work is that he is good at deterring those who attack him in the paint.

Here’s a quick example. Justice Winslow gets to the paint off a fun little play design from the Grizzlies. It’s all fun and games until there’s the giant that is Jusuf Nurkic there stopping Winslow in his tracks. Winslow has to stop, opts for a difficult turnaround jumper, and still isn’t able to get off a viable shot as Nurkic contests it.

Just one more example of the good. Here’s Malcolm Brogdon driving from up top. He gets by Covington, but Nurkic is right there to force Brogdon to adjust. Brogdon dishes it to JaKarr Sampson, who is met by four long limbs looming over him, with Covington officially getting credited with the block. When Nurkic and Covington have you surrounded, you’re just fresh out of luck.

Nurkic isn’t perfect on the defensive end. You could argue that with the personnel surrounding him that he’s actually put in a position to fail most of the time. The Blazers lack point-of-attack defenders, guys who can get up into a ball-handler’s grill and make life difficult for an attacker. Instead, the Blazers tend to have revolving doors on the perimeter defensively. That’s realistically the main thing that holds Portland (and Nurkic) back.

But let’s shift gears to offense. I wrote a while back that offensively it’s been a tough year for Nurkic. He’s gotten more comfortable, finally breaking the 20-point barrier in these past couple of weeks, but the struggles finishing are still noticeable. His effective field goal percentage of 52.9% and two-point percentage of 51.9% rank in the 26th and 23rd percentile respectively. That’s just plain bad.

It’s also right around where he’s been for his career, which isn’t exactly a good thing. What has been most disappointing this season has still been his shooting at the rim. He’s making those shots at a rate of 56%, which puts him in the ninth percentile among bigs. That’s bad. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

But the truth is that while the Blazers need Nurkic to be a more consistent finisher at the rim, offense is still not really where they need him to excel. On offense, the main things that he has to do are a) screen the heck out of anyone and everyone, b) finish at the rim, and c) make the occasional dime pass from the elbow or the wing.

The good news is that he has been good at at least two of those three things. His 4.5 screen assists per game is good for eighth in the NBA and his 11.2 screen assist points ranks sixth. While he seems to forget that he’s a 7-foot 280-pound beast when trying to finish at the rim, he remembers it when trying to free a teammate up for an easy shot.

As for the passing, his assist percentage of 19.6% is great among bigs, putting him in the 92nd percentile. He’s able to play pinpoint passes when needed, either floating it over the defense or throwing a nice bounce pass into traffic. He’s not going to make a bunch of passes in the short roll or on the move, but if he’s got his feet set, he can put together a nice pass or two.

This is a clip I used a while back, but it’s worth using again because it illustrates something that Nurk does really well. He waits patiently for the opening to present itself and then drops a nice pass to Lillard cutting from the corner. It’s the kind of action that I love to see Portland do, and when the starters are out there, you have four guys who can competently do that kind of action.

No matter how you slice it up, Nurkic makes the Blazers better. They have an efficiency differential of +4.6 per Cleaning the Glass, a number good enough to add 11 wins for the Blazers over the course of 82 games. His contributions on both ends of the floor are highly valuable to this ball club.

The biggest questions are how consistently is he going to be able to do it and for how long. The first question pertains to his health. We’ve seen the Blazers have to do some form of injury management with Nurk in his return, but the games where you can “manage” him are disappearing. Soon the playoffs will come, and they’ll need him for every single game.

It’s also not just playing in games; it’s playing in them for an extended period of time. Nurk hasn’t played more than 30 minutes twice this season. Both of those games came before his wrist injury. The reality is that while Enes Kanter has been a pretty solid backup big for the Blazers, his defensive deficiencies make him a prime target for exploitation. Realistically, they might need 32 to 35 minutes from Nurk a night to have a chance at a deeper playoff run.

Damian Lillard is the engine that keeps the Blazers running. CJ McCollum and Norman Powell make it so that the offense is operating efficiently while Robert Covington is their Swiss Army Knife on defense. But if there’s one player that is most important to the success of the Blazers, it’s Jusuf Nurkic.