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What To Do With The Enigmatic Jusuf Nurkic

The Bosnian big man remains a Blazer post trade deadline but his pending free agency poses a few questions.

Portland Trail Blazers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers had a busy trade deadline, clearing space and collecting assets as they prepare for what will likely be a very busy offseason. An offseason that will decide the fate of Jusuf Nurkic, who again hits unrestricted free agency this summer.

If you believed the pre-deadline rumblings, the big Bosnian was likely floated in deals by Joe Cronin as the Interim general manager worked to overhaul almost half the roster. But as the clock struck noon on Thursday, Nurkic remained on the roster with the now temporarily-tanking Blazers, left with two options come July. Should he stay or should he go?

As far as reaching the preferred price the Nurkic-backed Klutch Sports will likely demand, the Blazers now have space. The only question is, to pay or not to pay? His existing $48 million contract comes to an end after four years filled with a few beastly highs and some bone-shattering lows.

The rollercoaster run will likely have a say in how much he’s paid despite Nurkic’s confidence in Rich Paul. The one thing he has in his favor is that Nurkic is probably the best unrestricted center to hit the market this year, with Serge Ibaka, Tristan Thompson and Thomas Bryant his closest competition.

The only thing is that with the roster likely in flux for at least the next six months, the team may not see Nurkic as its desired big man moving forward. At the moment we know Damian Lillard is committed to the franchise, which suggests he’ll lineup for the Blazers on opening night in October aged 32.

Behind Lillard, the only two real certainties are Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little, young players who’ve shown they belong on this team and in the NBA. Beyond that, who knows? Particularly given the fact that we don’t even know what kind of first round pick(s) the Blazers will earn and execute/trade on draft night.

Cronin seems hellbent on finding players that fit better around Lillard. Names that are able to compensate for his defensive shortcomings while offering offensive talent and flexibility on the other side of the ball.

Nurkic is solid at what he does, a massive human being with nice enough footwork, instincts, defense and touch but lacking the athleticism you might see in a Myles Turner, who was rumored to be in the Blazers’ sights before the deadline.

As far as age goes, Nurkic will turn 28 before the season starts. But with his injury history, including that gruesome leg break in March 2019, he might not be as spry as your average 28-year-old.

So we’ve touched on the physical and financial factors. In the spirit of prudence, we wouldn’t be doing our due diligence here if we didn’t consider what happens between the big man’s ears.

Part of his charm is his mercurial and fiery nature. But those two traits have also been his downfall when the going gets tough. Let’s put it this way, you probably don’t need a polygraph to know when he’s upset, angry or just generally disinterested.

This bad body language can lead to apathy, unforced errors and, most devastatingly, losses in a bad Nurkic night can directly correlate with a bad Blazers night.

So, when push comes to shove, there’s really only two reasons why Nurkic is still a Blazer. Either Cronin couldn’t find a trade partner offering the players, picks or cap space he was looking for or the Blazers see Nurkic on the team beyond this season.

I tend to believe the latter. For the simple fact that if Nurkic wasn’t in the team’s future plans, he would have been dealt before Thursday to, at least, retain an asset.

How far should the Blazers go if they want him back?

This is not an easy question to answer. While the Blazers will have considerable cap space when the clock strikes midnight on July 1, some of this will go to re-signing Simons with the rest going to the big and small fishes Cronin is allegedly targeting to fill out the roster.

Yes, the Blazers will be spending money regardless, but what Cronin knows all too well is how detrimental doling out bad contracts can be and the work required to redress them.

If the Blazers still believe Nurkic can be this team’s starting center, I would hope they offer no more than three years — preferably two with a team option on the third — at no more than $14 million a year.

For two reasons. While the money might be higher than you’d like, the shortness of the deal, makes it an easier contract to move if the Blazers decide six-to-12 months down the track that they’ve changed their mind.

The second, and perhaps more contentious, is the fact that outside the Joel Embiids, Nikola Jokics and Deandre Aytons of this world, serviceable starting centers aren’t that hard to come by. Some may disagree with this but you only have to look at what a player like Bismack Biyombo has done after signing a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns this season.

This point is emphasized when you look at the dearth of difference-making 3 and D wings and forwards available across the league. It’s simple supply and demand and for a team that struggles to lure free agents, they can’t be spending their entire wad unnecessarily.

Conclusion

Personally, I like what the front office has done over the past week. Many don’t and that’s fine. But the one thing I ask of those who disagree with me is to, at least, give Cronin the chance to deliver this offseason. He’s boldly reopened opportunities for this team to improve, making hard decisions his predecessor refused to acknowledge.

The fact that Nurkic is still on this team poses interesting questions about what this team is willing to do this summer and beyond. As mentioned, the Blazers would have certainly traded Nurkic for literally anything, if they knew they weren’t going to retain him in free agency.

But clearly, Cronin needs to be wary of free agency with Nurkic likely attracting offers from across the league, not necessarily because he’s a star, but because the options at his position aren’t particularly awe inspiring this year.

Nurkic has a clear connection with this team, particularly Lillard. The pair share a bond that will at least give the big man pause about leaving. But he has to come back under the right circumstances.

Cronin cannot overpay Nurkic just because there aren’t better options. There are plenty of affordable and serviceable big man out there that won’t eat into the team’s recently cleansed books.

All fiscal priorities should go to the forward positions, specifically the four. Retaining Nurkic on a contract no larger than $14 million a year will allow the Blazers to finally balance the roster with frontcourt players that complement its potent backcourt.