The whirlwind that was Jusuf Nurkic’s arrival with the Portland Trail Blazers six years ago breathed a renewed sense of excitement into a franchise that was, at the time, 18 months into a rebuild. The seven-footer was the Denver Nuggets’ second choice at center following the rise of fellow Balkan dweller Nikola Jokic. Portland pried him away from Denver, along with a 2017 first-round draft pick, for center Mason Plumlee.
The accepted theory at the time was that Nurkic wasn’t even the priority in the February, 2017 deal. The pick itself was initially considered the prize.
Nurkic quickly changed the narrative in Portland, bringing energy, passing and power to a team that had previously relied on the smaller Plumlee. Even a subsequent first round playoffs sweep to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t enough to dull hope, with fans salivating at the possibilities once Nurkic completed a full season in Oregon.
Nurkic has served well, with ups and downs, over the past seven seasons. Fast forward to present day and he’s still starting at center. He’s also a prime candidate for salary ballast in potential summer deals to upgrade Portland’s roster at wing or at his own center position.
The 28-year-old has oscillated between decent and relatively poor play in recent years. Nurkic’s up-and-down nature has divided Blazers fans, with optimists clinging to the good nights and a more realistic contingent questioning his inconsistency.
When engaged, Nurkic is a post-up threat, a willing pick and roll participant, a sufficient three point shooter, with an ability and knack for executing pinpoint passes. On defense he's a rim protector and a savvy enough stopper, thanks to his size and surprisingly graceful feet.
Unfortunately, the operative words in that paragraph were "when engaged". Whether due to injury, conditioning, or matchup, we just don't see that level of engagement consistently enough.
This past season, two years after returning for a devastating broken leg that cut short his 2018-19 season and took him out for most of 2020, Nurkic played 52 games, averaging 13.3 points in 26.8 minutes, shooting 36 percent from three, with 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks.
At a cursory glance, that looks decent. A slightly deeper look calls it into question.
This season among centers, Nurkic was in the 43rd percentile in points per shot attempt, 30th percentile in two-point percentage, and 27th percentile in free throw percentage.
Among big men, the Bosnian was in the 41st percentile in effective field goal percentage, 22nd percentile at the rim, and the 52nd percentile in blocks.
While his remaining three years and $54.37 million don’t appear massive relative to other deals being doled out, it is not a positive-value deal.
It also doesn’t help that the market for centers appears to favor buyers. Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all but untouchable. Outside of that trio, there are plenty of seven-footers available on decent deals.
Given that, we need to ask the question: if the Blazers were looking to deal Nurkic, what teams could use actually him?
I’m not going to propose specific trades, as the Blazers may need to involve three or four franchises to get the big guy to any potential suitor. Who would those suitors be?
The Charlotte Hornets just missed out on the number one pick and Victor Wembanyama in the recent NBA Draft Lottery. They traded away the same Mason Plumlee at the NBA Trade Deadline to give sophomore Mark Williams more minutes at center.
If executive Mitch Kupchak wants an opportunity at the Play-In next season, he’ll probably need a more experienced big to help LaMelo Ball and either Scoot Henderson or Brandon Miller.
With a change of scenery, Nurkic might be able to re-discover his 2017 post-deadline form, supporting a talented young group.
Luka Doncic needs help and size in the middle. Dwight Powell, Christian Wood and Maxi Kleber are undersized and deficient in various areas while JaVale McGee is showing his age. Why not bring in Nurkic to man the pivot and bring in the size the franchise has been seeking?
Nurkic can help with facilitating and with his newfound three point shooting stroke may be able to stretch the floor. You’d probably still need Powell and/or Kleber to play backup minutes or start on nights where injury keeps Nurkic out.
If we’re reading the tea leaves correctly, Deandre Ayton could be done in Phoenix. Nurkic is far from an upgrade, but at half the price, the big Bosnian could fit decently next to Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.
Jock Landale is probably not good enough to start on a team contending for a title. Nurkic isn’t necessarily either, but he does have the experience to give it a go.
There’s an outside chance that this situation may also facilitate the Blazers landing Ayton, with the two franchises potentially reinvigorating distressed assets in new settings.
The Wizards currently lay claim to Daniel Gafford and Kristaps Porzingis at the two big spots. Despite standing 7’3 tall, Porzingis prefers power forward. The 6’10 Gafford is apt but new General Manager Michael Winger may look to a gargantuan Nurkic-Porzingis frontcourt as a novel approach to steer DC franchise in a new direction. It’s also the Wizards. It’d be hard to guess what they’re doing before they do it.
If the Lakers are looking for more big bodies, Nurkic might be a piece that helps Anthony Davis play his preferred power forward role.
As we saw during the playoffs, the Lakers proved more effective with Davis manning the middle. But General Manager Rob Pelinka might look back to the Lakers’ 2020 Bubble Title with Dwight Howard and McGee on the roster and see a new version in Nurk. The issue here is that Nurkic’s deal might be a bit too rich for a “just in case” scenario.
Oklahoma City Thunder
If this past season was any indication, the Thunder might be interested in winning actual basketball games again. And last year’s second overall pick Chet Holmgren looks set to take the court, most likely at power forward. Why not bring in a big man with experience, facilitating chops and a massive, imposing frame to do battle with the likes of Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic?
Unlikely (but still possible) Candidates
A move for Nurk probably only happens if the Raptors are unable to retain Jakob Poeltl via unrestricted free agency. Toronto brought back the big Austrian at the deadline after initially sending him out in the Kawhi Leonard trade back in 2018. The odds would suggest that Poeltl returns to the Raptors, but Nurkic may serve as a back up to that plan if the former is unable to come to terms with Masai Ujiri. [ed. Or he could become a throw-in as part of a larger deal.]
Mitchell Robinson doesn’t seem happy in New York. Like Nurkic, Robinson still has three years left on his contract. He may be of interest to a list of other teams, including the Blazers.
The Knicks appear keen to capitalize on this season’s Playoff berth. They might want to bring in another established center if Robinson forces his way out.
Portland and Golden State probably aren't doing a deal anytime soon following the debacle that was the Gary Payton II trade at the deadline. But if the Warriors were done playing small ball, Nurkic could be a player of interest. While Kevon Looney has done an admirable job at the center position, he still stands 6’9. With James Wiseman moved to the Detroit Pistons in that same Payton II trade, the Warriors’ depth at the bigger positions is as shallow as Portland’s.
Questions surround Jusuf Nurkic’s current worth. At this point, he’s probably a neutral asset, a decent center serving as salary ballast in a deal for a difference-maker without dragging the value of an entire package down.
But at 28, Nurkic may still be able to contribute if he’s able to get his body and mind right, playing a role that leads to winning. A few teams still need adequate two-way play at center. The trade market for Nurkic may not be robust, but if the Blazers want to make a deal, it’s there.