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The Critical Conundrum of Jusuf Nurkic

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Everyone knows who Portland’s starting center is. How they’ll use him? That’s another matter.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

When people talk about the Portland Trail Blazers, 90% of the conversation surrounds Damian Lillard. Appropriately so! Lillard is one of three consistent All-NBA-level players the Blazers have fielded in the history of their franchise.

The other 10% of Blazers talk belongs to CJ McCollum, and more than half of that is about potential trades. Is McCollum really the most critical player in Portland’s potential success story, though? If not, who is? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave Dave Dave,

Damian Lillard is the most important player we have and there’s nobody else close. We know this. Who’s next? I’m not asking about talent. I mean who’s the difference maker after Lillard or the player who can change the season by growing or doing better?

Robert

The most pivotal issue facing the Trail Blazers this season is obviously the status of Lillard. They have little control over that at this point and honestly, I don’t believe there’s much room for pivoting anymore. What will be, will be.

The most pivotal player remains Jusuf Nurkic. It’s the same as it was last year, but for different reasons.

In 2020-21, Nurkic was tabbed as the near-star whose season would determine whether the Blazers could rise to the top of the league or not. In 2021-22, it’s more a matter of, “What are they going to do with this guy?”

Nurkic finished last year frustrated with his role. He was Portland’s primary defender in the middle of the court, yet he received little help on that end and relatively few touches in recompense on the offensive side of the floor.

New Head Coach Chauncey Billups has commented that he intends to make more use of Nurkic, but the center’s ultimate utility remains in question. He’s a study in contradictions.

Nurkic is the only real passer among Portland’s big men, with an asterisk that Larry Nance. Jr. could probably fill some of that role if given the center of the floor and sufficient touches. Because of Albert Einstein (dang him), Nance, Jr. and Nurkic cannot occupy the same space on the floor at the same time. Nurkic will be the ball-mover in the middle, if Portland has one.

Ball movement to whom, though? Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell are all torrid scorers, but none of them is a catch-and-shoot guy. Robert Covington is, but it’s hard to see the Blazers boosting a Nurkic-Covington offensive attack with those three scoring guards on the floor.

Portland could use more direct interior offense, but this is precisely where Nurkic falls apart. Even when he’s a good finisher (and he’s not, always), he’s a slow one. The offense bogs down when he dribbles. Because of his unpredictability, teammates can’t move to attack when he has it down low without gumming up his potential scoring chances. It becomes a hardwood version of a four-way stop, with everybody wondering who should go through the intersection first.

That leave’s Nurkic’s useful strengths the same as they were last year: defend hard, rebound, become a useful decoy on offense. Yet that’s the exact role he complained about, the one that Billups promised to pry him out of.

Nurkic’s contract also causes a quandary. He’s on the last year of his deal.

If he doesn’t play well, the Blazers won’t want him back. If that’s the case, why bother featuring him?

If he does play well, what does Portland do with him? Nurkic is dissatisfied with his $12 million salary this season, perhaps rightfully so. If he finally shines and remains injury-free, will the Blazers be willing to re-sign their unrestricted free agent at $18-20 million per year? That would put them into the luxury tax with just nine players signed, keeping them there for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the Blazers might dump Nurkic mid-season. They could acquire a new center, start a rebuild, or simply try to duck under the luxury tax threshold by moving him.

I’m trying to think of another player on the roster that could move in so many different directions, surrounded by so much uncertainty. Nobody else is close. That’s why Nurkic will provide one of the most interesting subtexts of Portland’s season. He’s the most pivotal player on Portland’s roster, if no longer one of the most important.

Thanks for the question, Robert! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com!