Four years removed from a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trail Blazers have become yet another example of how quickly life changes in the NBA. Following yesterday’s league-altering three-team trade — which saw Portland part ways with Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkić, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson — only a single player remains from that 2019 group, prompting a new chapter for the franchise.
Bolstered perennially by compete-with-anyone-caliber backcourts (i.e. Lillard-McCollum and Lillard-Simons), some have suggested that the largest — literally — and final piece to the Blazers’ championship contention puzzle was finding the LaMarcus Aldridge-level, low-post presence to accentuate their style.
Nurkić’s health and tendencies never allowed him to fit that bill. Yet, from 2016-17 to 2022-23, fittingly nicknamed “The Bosnian Beast,” was often as close as it came.
As he prepares for a supporting role among the Phoenix Suns’ soon-to-be-unguardable lineups, the 6-foot-11 big ends his Blazers tenure through these notes:
— 14.4 points | 9.8 rebounds | 2.8 assists | 1.2 blocks | 51-30-69% (reg. season)
— 12.4 points | 9.8 rebounds | 2.6 assists | 0.9 blocks | 49-23-76% (postseason)
— No. 10 on the Blazers’ defensive rebounds leaderboard (2,280)
— No. 4 on the Blazers’ rebounds per game leaderboard (9.8 / game)
— The first player in NBA history to post a 20-20-5-5-5 game
— The second-youngest player to record the 5x5 (behind Andrei Kirilenko)
For better or worse, Nurkić earned the reputation among Blazers observers as a bruising low-post force — sometimes too bruising, as evidenced by his owning the eighth-most fouls per game (3.2) since 2016-17 — with the requisite strength to put both the ball and his defenders in the rim.
A player of many distinctive qualities, both positive and negative, Nurkić’s Blazers run will also be remembered for him holding characteristics such as: one of the NBA’s best screeners, a big who missed a hair too many wide-open layups, one of the league’s best facilitating bigs, an elite rim protector, and one who sought to routinely add layers to his game — all of which we outline here in his 2022-23 recap.
Strengths and weaknesses pronounced, it’s also just as likely that we never got a chance to see the absolute best that Nurkić had to offer.
The broken leg just weeks before the 2019 NBA Playoffs truncated his most productive season. To that point, he was a borderline All-Star, a 15-10-3 talent on a Blazers team that was 19 games above .500. Nurkić’s later versions showcased some of those traits, though the vibe was never quite the same; among players to play at least 60 games in 2018-19, Nurkić’s net rating ranked 11th-best across the entire NBA.
On the day of Nurkić’s trade, he offered a statement that would be proven true year-in, year-out over the next six years: “I think it’s the perfect place for me. They need me, and I need them.”
Short of the ultimate goal of an NBA championship, the Nurkić-Blazers partnership proved relatively successful. The Bosnian center helped carry Portland’s postseason baton, at one point helping guide them to the NBA’s longest streak of continued postseason appearances (8). Though, in another show in how cruel timing can be: Portland made two “deep” Playoff runs in the Lillard era. Nurkić was either elsewhere (in 2015-16) or was injured, unable to contribute (2018-19).
Even so, the positive results are there. In 285 games as teammates, Nurkić and Lillard rode that formidable pick-and-roll pairing to a 163-122 record — a 57.2 win percentage and 47-win pace over an 82-game season — with enough chemistry and camaraderie to give them a chance to beat anyone, anywhere from October to April.
Nurkić went as far as to call Lillard the “best thing that ever happened” to him in life. The connection tethered so tightly that Nurkić, in the summer of 2021, boldly, fittingly, stated, “If he goes, then I leave Portland as well.”
Along the way, the two of them, along with the other 57 teammates Nurkić had as a Blazer, created a team that, despite being a tier below the Warriors and Nuggets, was almost always a must-watch.
On any given night, Nurkić was as likely to be in a profanity-laced shoving match as he was to be in the double-double column; for every missed, uncontested “bunny,” there was also the 50-50 chance that he was putting your favorite center on the ground during one of his post-ups.
Even in the games that he missed — he played in 63.4 percent of a possible 536 games as a Blazer — he remained an entertaining enforcer from the sidelines. (Remember his “Got Bricks?” shirt against the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder in 2019?)
There will be no jersey retirement for No. 27, but appreciation should follow. For all of his flaws, he had enough of that high-post passing pizzazz to make the Walton supporters smile, enough nimbleness within his wide-bodied frame for the Sabonis fans to reminisce.
Nurkić exits Portland through many footnotes, as an unfortunate “what-if,” as one of the Blazers’ great low-risk trade assets — Portland got Nurkić and a first back in 2017(!) — and as a player who was both equally perplexing to watch as he was enjoyable. But above all else, he leaves as one of the best centers to ever do it in the black-and-red threads.