The Portland Trail Blazers are prepping for their first 2022 preseason game tonight as the journey towards the start of the regular season progresses apace. Optimism reigns at the start of a new year, with a new lineup and new potential configurations breathing life into what had become a fairly stale roster.
That same sense of newness also opens up questions for the Blazers that simply didn’t exist for the last decade when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained pillars of constancy.
Over the next couple weeks, we’re going to examine some of those questions, particularly ones highlighted as important by Blazer’s Edge staff and readers.
In our inaugural post, we asked how Lillard would fare following abdominal surgery and his 32nd birthday. Next we talked about the arrival of starting power forward Jerami Grant, who operates in the territory between good and great, seemingly with a long-term lease, and explored the single gift Anfernee Simons needs to bring to the table in order to make a difference.
Today we take a look at the fourth guaranteed member of the starting lineup, center Jusuf Nurkic.
Jusuf Nurkic has experienced multiple highs and lows during his five and a half year tenure in Portland. From the early Nurk Fever days of 2016-17 to the devastating leg injury in 2019, Nurkic has ranged from viable second option to, “What exactly is going on here?” Sometimes the Blazers have gotten multiple Nurks in a single season. He can be Portland’s most active defender, a nice channel for offense, a devastating pick-setter and rebounder. He can also be the basketball version of beige wall paint, drifting without much effect except to highlight everything around him by contrast.
To be fair, the franchise has used Nurkic in varying ways over the years. He’s played a key role in a seemingly-unstoppable pick-and-roll attack. He’s also been asked to set those same picks and disappear, heading for the potential offensive rebound on somebody else’s shot. He’s been used as a key hub in the halfcourt offense, half of Portland’s plays designed for the ball to go inside, through his hands. He’s also been ignored completely, asked to clear the lane so guards can penetrate or stand at the three-point arc to receive threes he’s not great at. Every time the Blazers redesign their offense, Nurk gets to pack up and move.
This has been true less frequently, but still dramatically, on defense. For most of Nurkic’s time in Portland, he was asked to drop into the lane, providing a backstop against penetration and assisting on interior action. The later Terry Stotts era saw him roaming more, tasked with getting out to the three-point arc. Chauncey Billups has mixed the two approaches. Nurkic has been in the unenviable position of being maybe the second best (occasionally the best) overall defender in the lineup, but not having the defense designed around his strengths.
Systemic switches and injuries, plus maybe sporadic effort from time to time, have turned Nurkic into a kind of chameleon, a center who could do almost anything, but doesn’t always appear as such. It’s like the pistons are firing but the connection to the drive train isn’t secure.
All of that said, the Blazers have gotten a different Jusuf Nurkic over the past couple seasons. Once upon a time, instability in Nurk’s individual situation got magnified on the court. Nurkic appeared to find new dedication to his team upon returning from his leg injury. The team rewarded him this off-season with a four-year contract extension. They appear to be at a place of equilibrium, or close than they have been. If the pitch isn’t quite Nurk Fever-esque, at least it’s reliable.
What the Blazers will do with that reliability is the question. Nurkic doesn’t belong running the offense or taking volume shots, but he can’t be ignored either. He’s not capable of locking down the middle himself on defense or closing out at the arc regularly, but without him actively defending, Portland has no hope of stopping anybody. There just aren’t alternatives.
For the Blazers, starting Jusuf Nurkic at center has been like having a really nice tool, but not quite understanding the project they were supposed to use it on.
That has to change this season.
Portland has committed to Nurk for the long haul now. They’ve brought on active, mobile defenders in Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, and Nassir Little, but left out any name-value players over 6’8. Nurkic’s “big man” compatriots include Drew Eubanks, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford, and Jabari Walker. They’re going to get service out of those players—likely above expectations—but those four cannot alter the course of the franchise. Nurk still can.
How the Blazers use Nurkic will be one of the bigger questions facing them this season. They’ve cleared the field for him, but to do what?
A secondary question: how will he gel with Grant at power forward? Looking at the rotation, Nurkic appears to have free rein in the lane on both ends. Will the ball touch his fingers? Will his teammates stop penetration well enough to let him make a difference and stay out of foul trouble? Nurk is also the only big-time rebounder in the starting lineup, as Grant sure isn’t. Will he really be called upon to carry that load alone? If so, how will he defend and rebound? If not, where will the help come from systemically?
Theoretically, Nurkic should be no better than fourth on the options chart. His singular physical attributes and unique role are going to make his position a focal point, elevating his importance beyond the norm. If they give their center a defined role he’s capable of fulfilling, he seems poised to give whatever is needed, even if his touches and prominence are muted. If they send him chasing shooters on defense and allow him to fade into obscurity on offense, their frontcourt may disappear along with him, leaving half of a team and no chance to excel.
To this point, the Blazers and Nurkic have been like a passive-aggressive couple trying to decide where to have dinner. “You decide! I don’t care, you decide!” Portland broke that impasse with Nurkic’s contract extension this summer. It’s time for them to go all the way, picking a spot for the big man to function, prosper, and ultimately, get fed.