As evidenced in their double-overtime Game 5 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the 2021 NBA Playoffs—despite 55 points from Damian Lillard—the Portland Trail Blazers’ success isn’t necessarily tied to that of their star player. Lillard can’t do it alone. Entering the 2021-22 campaign with the team’s core largely still intact from a season ago, the Blazers will need more from their supporting cast to reach the next level. While the team has lofty expectations for Lillard’s backcourt mates CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, the true x-factor for Portland’s success will be the play of their big man, Jusuf Nurkic.
Injuries have plagued the past few seasons for the Bosnian Beast. He was limited to just 37 games in 2021 due to a broken wrist, after missing most of the season prior due to a broken leg. The team was marginally better with him in the lineup (22-15 with and 20-15 without), but that doesn’t tell the real story. When the big man finally got into a rhythm by late April, after missing two months and working his way back into playing shape, it correlated with the team flipping a switch. Portland won 10 of its final 12 games to solidify their playoff position, the only two losses also being the only games of the stretch that Nurk failed to score in double figures.
His importance also came into effect during Portland’s first round playoff matchup against the Nuggets. Outside of the series-closing Game 6, he fouled out in every game the Blazers lost. His inability to stay on the floor down the stretch was a major factor in the series defeat. Conversely, his emergence down the stretch gave the team an entirely different look at both ends of the floor. His passing, efficient scoring, screening, and versatile defense helped to transform the Blazers from a fringe play-in contender to a bona fide playoff team in just a few short weeks.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets series showed that health isn’t the only thing keeping Nurkic from being at his best. His lack of focus led to a number of unnecessary fouls, limiting his impact on the game, and keeping him off the court in crucial situations. He can’t help getting hurt, but he can do more to ensure that the Blazers are getting the best version of him when he is on the floor. He’s going to need to harness some of his trademark emotion, and play a smarter game to make sure his talent is maximized.
Adding to the importance of Nurkic this season is the fact that Cody Zeller is currently Portland’s only other true center under contract. Zeller is a perfectly adequate backup, and certainly a defensive upgrade over Enes Kanter, but hasn’t played more than 60 games in a season since 2017. He’s only played 82 games once, his rookie year. In other words, there’s not much depth at the position. That makes it all the more important that Nurkic not only stay healthy, but log significant minutes throughout the season, all while playing at a consistently high level. That’s a tall order, but likely a necessary one.
Perhaps new coach Chauncey Billups’ most important task, aside from improving Portland’s lackluster defense, will be to keep Nurkic motivated, confident, and focused. All of these are intertwined, and are key to his success. Nurk has struggled throughout his career with compounding one mistake or bad stretch into a more prolonged ineffectiveness, taking him off of his game. He plays with emotion, but the same emotion he thrives off of can lead to his undoing. It will be up to Billups and Nurkic to develop a chemistry and work together to help the big man be the best version of himself.
The Blazers, as currently constructed, need Nurk at his best if they are to have any shot at a deep run. He’s shown that he’s capable of doing that in stretches, but his consistency will be key for Portland to truly take the next step and avoid another early playoff exit this season. No other one player’s individual performance will likely have a bigger impact on the team’s overall success. The Blazers are Lillard’s team, but will need the big man to thrive in his role to in order to meet their expectations.