The Portland Trail Blazers will open their 2022-23 regular season schedule this week, taking on the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, their opening night. Before we get to Game 1, we’re going to preview the new year, including updating you on all the things that have changed since the Blazers last took the floor, completing a 27-win season.
We started the series yesterday with a look at Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers backcourt. Earlier today we went over the forwards, starting and reserve. Now we move to the big men, the centers. What’s new this year and what do the Blazers need?
The plural “s” in the title of this article may be misleading. The Blazers don’t really have centers, at least not proven ones. They have Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast stands on an island, the lone seven-footer capable of starting. He’s practically the lone seven-footer, period. And he’s technically only 6’11.
Last season Nurkic averaged 15.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists for the Blazers in 56 appearances. After injuries decimated the roster around him, Nurkic became a major part of Portland’s attack, joining Anfernee Simons in proving his value. Both starters got contract extensions over the summer. In Nurkic’s case, this leads to the question, “Now what do we do with him?”
The quandary doesn’t hinge on Nurkic’s talent alone. Since 2016, Nurkic has shown he’s capable of scoring, rebounding, and even defending well. He just hasn’t done them all at once, consistently.
Nurkic flourishes rolling through the center of the court in the pick and roll game. When he catches on the move with a seam in front of him, his offense can be devastating. His deep shooting (26.8% last year) doesn’t follow suit. Nor does his slow-developing post offense. Nurkic does a couple, reasonable things. The Blazers need him to do many.
On defense, Nurkic is a willing help man, able to eat space and pinch opposing scorers if he has another defender accompanying. He’s ok defending post centers straight up unless they’re super huge or supremely talented. He doesn’t have great lateral motion and he’s not a shot blocker at all. When opposing teams lure him into screens, the Blazers can’t switch. The smaller man will get by or shoot over Nurk. But staying put leaves the opposing dribbler with a step on Portland’s guard defenders. Half the time, those guards can’t stop penetration even from equal footing. This leaves Nurkic scrambling to chase someone else’s man, a sure recipe for futility and fouls. Nor can Nurkic close at the three-point arc. Once again, Nurkic does a couple, reasonable things. The Blazers need him to do many.
The answer to, “What do we do with him?” is clearly, “Too much.”
In one, semi-plausible scenario, starting forwards Jerami Grant and Josh Hart—both mobile defenders—leap to Nurkic’s aid, helping cut off the middle and somehow returning to the three-point arc to prevent a rain of rainbows descending on Portland’s head.
In another, likely-more-plausible scenario, the forwards can’t cover the gap completely, leaving Nurkic on his island. In this case, his playing time will be limited by whistles and exhaustion.
The preseason test run revealed far more of the latter than the former. And did we mention that Nurkic is Portland’s only proven center? It’s not a pretty scenario for the Blazers.
Behind Nurkic stand Drew Eubanks and Oliver Sarr. Eubanks played 71 games last season for the Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs. He excelled in Portland, shooting 64.6% from the field, scoring 14.5 points per game. But his playing time came courtesy of the same injuries that allowed Nurkic to come to the fore, only worse. The Blazers lost almost all those games. Sarr is a 23-year-old sophomore who appeared in 22 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The biggest question facing the Blazers at center is the one mentioned above: can Jusuf Nurkic stay healthy, energized, and out of foul trouble enough to play?
The second one is like it: how will the Blazers maximize Nurkic’s effectiveness while still covering the floor on both ends?
But there’s a third, and it’s just as scary. Can Nurkic carry Portland’s rebounding load? Grant is not a good rebounder. Hart is for his size, but he’s not in position to. Nurkic might need to get 17 rebounds per game just to keep the Blazers even. That’s a tall order, even for the tallest guy on the floor.
If Nurkic doesn’t turn into the next coming of Wilt Chamberlain on the glass, Portland’s probably going to get waxed on a nightly basis. Losing control of rebounding means losing control of tempo and the defensive side of the floor. The Blazers can’t afford that.
Stay tuned today and tomorrow as we continue the countdown towards tip off in Game 1 of the new season!