The NBA Trade Deadline is about a month away and talk is starting to percolate. Multiple teams lie within shouting distance of each other and conference leaders, making the 2023 Trade Season more interesting than most. Almost anybody could be a buyer or seller, and even the best teams are in the market to get better, separating themselves from the pack.
The Portland Trail Blazers stand among the “almost, but not quite” candidates. One school of thought says that they should make a move to get into contention now, since the distance is relatively slight. Another says that if they aren’t excelling among these peers, they’re not likely to in the future. Both approaches suggest the same thing: change it up, make a move.
The hot topic in Portland this week appears to be trading center Jusuf Nurkic. He’s having a fine season at 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. He’s even developed a three-point shot. But the Blazers need more and the center spot appears to be one of the places they could get it.
This gives rise to questions like the one in today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag:
I’m listening to the buzz this week. It seems like trading Nurk is a thing now. First do you think it’s real and would the Blazers do it? Second do you think it’s a good idea yourself? Third who would they get to replace him? I know Deandre Ayton and the big names but if we can’t get that kind of deal then who?
I don’t think the Blazers would look to trade Nurkic cavalierly. They don’t have big issues with him. He’s a good, all-around center who occasionally becomes great. If he doesn’t stretch entirely across their enormous center gap, he does enough things to cover most of it.
Keep in mind, they don’t have deep reserves or any size at power forward. It’s not like they can slide over Jerami Grant or Justise Winslow into the position. Drew Eubanks will go hard at whatever they ask him to do, but 35 minutes per night as a starter with no reasonable back-up might be beyond his capabilities.
If the Blazers trade Nurkic, they’re building for the future, not bolstering the present. It’s not likely they’re going to get a better center—particularly a better defensive center—in a direct exchange. Nurkic himself, or packaged with minor pieces, wouldn’t draw that kind of player. Josh Hart probably wouldn’t get a star when combined with Nurkic. Nurkic and Simons would be an overpay for anyone south of Ayton’s level. The talent match and numbers just don’t add up for the centers we know, or suspect, are available.
That makes it far more likely that the Blazers would move Nurkic (with or without company) for a player at another frontcourt position, waving the white flag on contending this year, vowing to patch the center hole in the summer. I don’t find that scenario probable. It won’t be compelling to Damian Lillard. It’ll set back team cohesion another year. But it’s more likely than Portland finding a deal that brings in a Super Center who magically solves all their problems.
Personally, I’d be on board for either of these scenarios: big-center move and building for the future alike. Portland’s Pokemon has evolved, but it’s not in final form yet. I like several of the abilities in this intermediate stage, but it’s obvious they’re not ready to battle the big boys. If they can get a great piece going forward, they have to be ready to sacrifice some of their middle players now. Nurkic is one of those.
As for replacement centers, it’d depend on who they got in the Nurkic deal. If it were a center-for-center trade, you’d have your answer right there. Whomever they brought in would presumably be the pivot of tomorrow. But again, who’s trading away those star 7-footers right now?
But let’s say the Blazers moved Nurkic and someone else for a forward or wing. They might be able to look towards the Orlando Magic for big men capable of filling the gap.
The Magic just got first-overall pick Paolo Banchero to man their power forward position for the next generation. Right now they’re 14-24, headed for the lottery. If they liked Nurkic next to Banchero, that would be one thing. If Portland could entice them with other players, maybe the Blazers could get help in addition to Nurkic, keeping him but getting more depth behind.
That’s just at the trade deadline. What happens this summer? If the Magic somehow repeated their lottery luck and got Victor Wembanyana, all bets are off. Their incumbent centers are going to go on sale. If it came about, that could be a bonanza for the Blazers.
Wendell Carter, Jr. is by far the most exciting name among those incumbents, but Mo Bamba wouldn’t be awful for the Blazers, and Bol Bol plays in Orlando too. Carter, Jr. is the only starter in that group, but the bench would get deeper for Portland with either of the other two on the roster.
Bamba makes $10 million this season and has a non-guaranteed contract for the same amount next year. Even if the Blazers didn’t trade for him, he might be available next summer on the open market. He’d be a good get. Bol makes $2 million under the same terms, but the Magic aren’t likely to cut him, given his production.
Carter, Jr. is on an attractive contract through 2026, stepping down from $14 million this year, declining by a million dollars each year thereafter. He would be the real prize: a young center with potential to develop into a defensive stopper. Orlando knows that, though. Absent Wemby, he won’t come cheap.
There are other options out there, of course, ranging from dreamy to meh. But keep in mind that centers below the star level aren’t prized in today’s NBA. The Blazers should be able to fill in their backup needs outside of a trade, and may be able to find a diamond in the rough, even. Again, don’t dismiss the possibility of Nurkic being dealt as part of a package to fill another position, then centers coming in later signings, drafts, or trades.
As I argued a couple weeks ago, Portland might not need a jack-of-all-trades center in order to prosper. If they can get good enough at the other four positions, a defensive-minded shot-blocker and rebounder might be enough to fulfill their needs. They could lose six of Nurkic’s points, most of his passing, and his three-point shot if they had a better backstop behind them on the other end. Their current lineup has more scoring potential to tap. They don’t have size, agility, or confidence defending in the lane.
The Blazers wouldn’t give up Nurkic just to downgrade into a specialist, but acquiring the specialist without losing him or upgrading elsewhere via a Nurkic trade while specializing the center position with his replacement are both live options.
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