Jusuf Nurkic has found a new life in Portland, and the Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season.
The deal between the Blazers and Denver Nuggets that swapped Mason Plumlee and Nurkic was one of the first big deals conducted this season, and, for the most part, the two guys are similar players. With Plumlee, Portland had a big who could run the offense and anchor the defense, despite the Blazers being among the worst teams in the league in the latter category. Now, with Nurkic, the offense hasn’t missed a step, and it’s better because they have a more versatile seven-footer.
In his rookie year with Nuggets, Nurkic looked good in limited minutes and routinely had flashes on both ends of the court. He was gaining steam and could’ve worked his way into the rotation long-term, but that fizzled out this season. He and Nikola Jokic were splitting time at the same position, and Jokic was making it clear that he was the better player. Instead of having a young guy with potential wilt away on the bench, Denver decided to part ways with him, and the Pacific Northwest has reenergized the Bosnian Beast.
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Terry Stots has given Nurkic a more pronounced role, and Portland has three legitimate options on the floor for a majority of the game. And it certainly helps Nurkic that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are two huge threats. Now that he’s in a position to play his game on both ends of the court, Nurkic has become one of the league’s most impactful players.
Thus far, he’s spent eight games with Portland and is averaging 16.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals. He’s one of four players to score at least 100 points, grab 75 boards and hand out 30 dimes, according to NBA.com, and he’s plus-49 in those contests, second only to LeBron James‘ plus-52. If I wanted to make that list even smaller, I’d add 10 steals and 10 blocks to the criteria and then Nurkic is suddenly by himself.
The Blazers’ three-man-offense is dismantling defenses, and they’ve won four games in a row after beating the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night. (Oh, by the way, Nurkic had 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks.) It’s their longest winning streak this season, and the offense is up 4.6 points a night over their season average. What’s paramount, though, is how Nurkic fits the puzzle perfectly and the offense hasn’t had to change to accommodate him. Conversely, he didn’t need to change, either.
Portland is not a pick-and-roll-heavy team even though they have the personnel to do it. Instead, their offense infuses tons of cuts and dribble handoffs with isolation — regarding total possessions, they rank fifth, third and eighth, respectively. When there’s offense dominated by movement, having a big who can pass is huge. He draws shot blockers away from the rim and gives small players easier finishes, usually with just one man covering them.
And just like that, the Trail Blazers get six easy points off of backcourt cuts.
As averse as the team is to running pick-and-roll sets, they can run them with more efficiency because Nurkic is a viable scoring option. Plumlee’s offensive lethality gets more and more laughable the further he gets from the hoop, so anything that isn’t a lob doesn’t need to get contested. Nurkic has a sweet touch inside the free throw line and is willing and able to make the extra pass.
What a luxury that is. The offense has been subtly transformed since the Blazers made the move, but scoring was never the issue for Portland. An inability to stop opponents is their killer and, unfortunately, it hasn’t changed much with the new addition. With Nurkic on the floor, the Blazers’ are 3.4 points per 100 possessions better, but their defensive rating is a ghastly 109.2. One guy isn’t going to transform a defense that’s been garbage all year long, but it’s a stepping stone. Now they have a legitimate anchor who can protect the rim. The next step is putting guys on the perimeter.
By no means is Portland a new-look team, but they have looked better since making this trade. Nurkic isn’t even 23-years-old while Plumlee turned 27 at the beginning of March. The room to develop is tremendous, and he’s going to fly under the radar playing on the West Coast. Neil Oshay and Stots haven’t made any attempts to split up their core, and Nurkic adds another incredible piece who can take the league by storm.
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