Jusuf Nurkic is an NBA-level starting center. I’m just not sure he and his contract allow the Portland Trail Blazers to reach the heights Damian Lillard and Blazers fans have their heads and hearts set on.
The 28-year-old put his name to a four-year, $70 million contract to stay in Portland over the summer — no player option, no team option and no non-guarantees. That money will be deposited into the big guy’s bank account before his 32nd birthday.
Whether he deserved that amount is up for debate. Nurkic has been one of the most difficult modern Blazers to rely on. His unpredictable nature prompts fans to spin the wheel every night, wondering what kind of Nurkic they get.
On the good nights, he is a statistical machine, filling up the box score, as we saw during the second half of Monday’s win against the Charlotte Hornets. He’s even expanded his game to beyond the three-point arc, which is nothing to be sneezed at.
When he’s dominating, he’s arguably earning at or more than his averaged-out $17.5 million-a-year deal. But on, what seems like, the more frequent bad nights — it’s not pretty. Defensive brain farts, flip shots, flopping, careless fouls, arguing with referees and lazy passing hurt this team severely.
I’ve come to the conclusion that for the Blazers to even be discussed in the same breath as the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, Nurkic needs to be traded for pieces that better complement the current roster.
Typically, championship teams are made up of players of varying levels of ability, but, for the most part, are playing either to or above their respective contracts.
Damian Lillard is a $42 million player, Anfernee Simons is earning his $22 million this season, Josh Hart is well and truly outperforming his $12.9 million deal and Jerami Grant will be worth all of the $26-a-year-plus million extension he likely signs over the next few weeks.
In my eyes, Nurkic is not contributing as his contract would dictate. On bad nights, he’s worth about a third of his current rate and on good nights, he might get to what he's actually earning.
“But, Adrian,” I hear you ask, “Don’t all NBA players have good and bad nights?” Absolutely, but the difference between a good night and a bad night can be measured in galaxies when it comes to Nurkic. The variance for top NBA players doesn’t move all that much and the good nights still outnumber the bad.
Nurkic in Portland
As most of us remember, the Bosnian Beast arrived in Portland with a bang in early 2017 after he and a Grizzlies first rounder came across from the Nuggets in exchange for Mason Plumlee.
Over that season's remaining 20 games, Nurkic was a force of nature, putting up 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.9 assists. He was a revelation and Nurk Fever was rife. We can all remember the Bosnian music group that penned a piece praising its fellow countryman.
Though the pick was initially considered the prize in the trade, by the end of the 2016-17 season, it felt like the Blazers had indirectly found another starting piece that would help Lillard edge closer to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Nurkic followed up well. His first full Blazers season ended in a first round sweep to the New Orleans Pelicans, with Nurkic putting up 14.3 points, 9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 blocks through the regular season.
2018-19 saw Nurkic return to the impressive production he had after first arriving in Portland, averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 boards, 3.2 assists, 1 steal and 1.4 blocks. But on March 25, he collapsed under the Blazers’ basket with one of the more gruesome injuries we’ve seen in basketball, suffering a compound fracture to his left tibia and fibula in a double overtime home win over the Brooklyn Nets.
After an extended convalescence thanks to COVID, Nurkic made his return in the 2020 Orlando Bubble. While still not in game shape, his positive presence was felt through those qualification games and the 4-1 loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Unfortunately, over the past two and a bit seasons, Nurkic has mixed the good with the frustrating. He’s still putting up between 11 and 15 points a night, around 10 boards, 3 assists, a block and a steal. But it’s not there every night. A great performance is usually followed by a lackluster, almost nonchalant outing.
Last summer, our hopes were raised again. A re-signed Nurkic led a Bosnian team through the 2022 FIBA Eurobasket competition, looking focused and aggressive. He told us all on Media Day that he was ready to go. However, early season returns proved negative. He still wasn’t up to the fitness level required of an NBA starting center, while the poor body language, the lazy passing and the intermittent lack of engagement were all still there.
The second half of the Hornets game was pleasing but it was prompted by a reported Chauncey Billups chew out. And it’s not the first time. How can a franchise pin their hopes on reaching the pinnacle when their starting center needs a kick in the ass to get going?
It’s this Jekyll and Hyde pattern that has raised the ire of many a Blazers fan. We know he has the ability, but it’s his track record of inconsistency that has trained many not to expect too much from the big Bosnian.
Please know, there’s nothing that pleases me more than the big guy breaking out for a big night. It can be one of the most enjoyable parts of this current incarnation of this team. But it should never be expected.
As mentioned above, Nurkic isn’t playing to the level he’s earning with consistency. However, his contract does help the Blazers if and when they make a deal for a player earning big money. Salary-matching is always an issue when executing large-scale trades, especially when Portland would ideally like to hold onto their better-paid players, ie Lillard, Simons and Grant.
If General Manager Joe Cronin is looking to bring in a player earning $30 million-plus —pushing all the franchise’s chips in — Nurkic’s $15.6 million this season is a great start. Obviously if the player coming back is not a center, there’d be some positional issues but that’s an issue for another time.
For me, the only way the Blazers rise and stay at the top of the standings, is adding more talent on reflective salaries. Serviceable centers can be had for relatively cheap if you’re not looking for All-NBA-type talent at that position.
The franchise is almost certain to return to the luxury tax in 2023-24. Whether it’s Jody Allen or someone else paying the bills, the franchise is surely not going to put up the extra cash for a team with only so-so expectations.
What’s the alternative?
I see three alternatives moving forward.
(1) Trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) for a center
(2) trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) for a player at another position of need
(3) trade Nurkic (and other players, picks) to reinforce the bench with multiple viable veteran reserve options.
At option one, the obvious answer is Deandre Ayton. Some might think Nurkic is just as impactful as Ayton. Sure Ayton has also had his offcourt issues with Suns Coach Monty Williams, but when it comes time to play, he’s there to play. Oh, and he’s 24.
We have no idea whether the Phoenix Suns are prepared to move Ayton when he becomes eligible on January 15 but if you’re able keep Lillard, Simons and Grant and add Ayton, you do it, every, single, day, of, the, week. As previously proposed, Nurkic, Hart and multiple picks. Maybe.
For the second option, Pascal Siakam is an All-NBA talent, able to help this team on both sides of the ball. Like the Suns, we have no idea whether the Toronto Raptors have sunk to the point where they’re prepared to offload veterans. But if they were, Nurkic would probably need to be combined with Josh Hart, Shaedon Sharpe and a pick or two. But adding Siakam instantly lifts both the floor and ceiling for this team.
For the third scenario, I could suggest dozens of handy, versatile role players that could be yielded in a Nurkic deal, in order to reinforce the Blazers bench. But I won't because of the multitude of potential targets.
The idea of Jusuf Nurkic is unfortunately better than the reality. The 28-year-old has shown snippets of near All Star ability during his Portland tenure, but, unfortunately they're few and far between.
It’s genuinely disappointing because unlike other players, Nurkic still has the ability to be a top five center in this league with a couple of prime years still at his disposal.
As Cronin continues to re-tool this roster, questions will need to be answered as to whether Nurkic is mere trade salary ballast or the Blazers’ long-term answer at starting center. Honestly, for me, it’s the former because I’m growing tired of expecting to see the Nurkic the Blazers need, instead of the unpredictable version they're currently getting.