The NBA is a fragile ecosystem. Mediocre today. Things looking up tomorrow. Exhibit A: Rip City. The Blazers were irrelevant for much of the season. Yes, they had a superstar point who was dynamic, and an extraordinary shooting guard who was efficient. They had the second best back court in the West. Their matchups on the perimeter were nightmarish. But that alone cannot win games, and it brought the Blazers to the brink of non-playoff insignificance. The Blazers, despite their excitement, were one dimensional in their talent. And their defense was laughably invisible.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the summer of 2016, the Blazer front office, in their exuberance, overpaid the wrong players. After losing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers needed talented front court players to run screen and roll, set screens, defend their position and rebound and maybe make a midrange shot or two. But Neil Olshey signed Evan Turner as their answer.
Not to beat up on Turner, he is who he is. He wasn’t going to affect the Blazers weaknesses. They didn’t need more scoring. An offense-only team made the Blazers very easy to guard and their defense was skewing in the opposite direction. They didn’t have a rim protector or someone setting hellacious screens on the perimeter to help their two guards out. They didn’t do anything to better match up with the best team in the conference, the Warriors, who have dominant forwards in Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, one on offense, one on defense.
It was a lot of fighting uphill for most of the season, bad losses, ineffective on the road, sprinkled in with wins but a season that was underwater. And then the Blazers saved themselves, not to mention Blazers GM Neil Olshey picking his reputation up off the floor in February. He traded Mason Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic, because why not? Nurkic wasn’t getting adequate playing time in Denver and his big personality was not an adequate fit. The Blazers were desperate for front court help.
What they had wasn’t working. In Plumlee they had a complimentary player but they didn’t have someone who could dominate the position. They had the worst front court in the NBA. Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee were simply out-talented in most games. Even the lottery feeders were a conundrum. The Blazers had no answer for DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Tyson Chandler.
Nurkic was a gift from the heavens, two months after Christmas. He filled a huge hole on both sides of the ball, and on top of it, the Blazers got a draft pick. They have three draft picks in 2017 and can flip one of those for a veteran front court player. They still need a legitimate power forward. Because they over extended themselves last summer the Blazers are way over the cap ($132 million on the books next year) with only minimum contracts allowed unless they flip a pick for some talent.
The Blazers don’t need to go young. They need to figure out how to fill in the holes around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic and at the same time create a championship contender. The first issue is defense and getting better with their guards whose defense borders on apathetic.
But in the short term Nurkic has the Blazers in the driver seat and in control of their own destiny. Win out and they get in the playoffs. They are not contenders this year but the Blazers, with a stroke of genius and a little luck, anchored their front court. They have infected their team with energy and life and a road map for the future. Nurkic is only 22 years old.
Expertly, he fills in the LaMarcus Aldridge gap even as he is a different player with a different game. More importantly, his arrogance, infectious personality, humor and camaraderie has suffused the team and lifted their spirits. For a couple of months, the Blazers looked flat, humorless and disinterested. Losing will do that to you, make you seem tired. The Blazers felt the pressure and it showed. Now it is all about winning games with a very favorable schedule.
With Nurkic, the Blazers are 14-6. The twenty games before Nurkic, the Blazers were 9-11. The math is the math. He has been a game changer, the big that Damian Lillard needed for screen and roll. Or when Lillard wants to shake off his man, Nurkic is picking off a defender. And McCollum is always available on the wing.
It feels different in Portland because a seven foot Bosnian is in town. The Blazers now have multiple options with the versatility of Nurkic who can score off the dribble and off screen and roll, pass when doubled, run the floor on a break, rebound and talk trash while dunking. Will all that be on display in the playoffs?
Looks like it.
photo via llananba