The NBA is a fragile ecosystem. Mediocre today. Things looking up tomorrow. Exhibit A: Rip City. The Blazers were irrelevant for much of the past season. Yes, they had a superstar point (Damian Lillard) who was dynamic, and an extraordinary shooting guard (C.J. McCollum) 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. Nurkic loves him some Nurkic and he could have a little bit of an attitude when he wasn’t getting his minutes. But the Blazers, who were desperate for front court help, didn’t care.
What the Blazers 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 still needed a legitimate power forward but they were going in the right direction after treading water.
But money problems were the elephant in the room. Because the Blazers overextended themselves last summer, they were way over the cap. Even though they still had holes, the Blazers didn’t need to do what they had been doing and go young. Instead, they needed to figure out how to fill in the gaps around Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and newcomer Jusuf Nurkic, and at the same time, create a championship culture. The first issue was defense and getting better with their guards whose defense bordered on apathetic.
Five months ago, Nurkic had the Blazers in the drivers seat and in control of their own destiny. Win out and they get in the playoffs. They were not contenders but the Blazers, with a stroke of genius and a little luck, and because of Nurkic, anchored their front court. They infected their team with energy and life and a road map for the future. Nurkic was only 22 years old.
Expertly, Nurkic filled 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 suffused the team and lifted their spirits. For a couple of months, the Blazers had looked flat, humorless and disinterested. Losing will do that to you, make you seem tired. The Blazers felt the pressure and it showed.
But with Nurkic, the Blazers were a different kind of team- the scary kind. He was the player Damian Lillard needed for screen and roll. Or when Lillard wanted to shake off his man, Nurkic was picking off a defender. And McCollum was always available on the wing.
It just felt different in Portland because a seven foot Bosnian was in town. The Blazers now had 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.
But money always ruins it. Nurkic is a free agent in 2018. A restricted one but a free agent just the same. The Blazers have to make the mercurial big man feel loved and appreciated. Otherwise, he will sign an offer sheet somewhere else. If that happens, expect the ghost team to force the Blazers to give him the max.
That is the second problem. Neil Olshey overextended with bad contracts. He got rid of one burden with Allen Crabbe. Now he has to get rid of more financial burdens so his highest paid players are his best: Nurkic, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If Olshey can’t find a way to get under the cap then all he can do is sign minimum contracts and that’s not a recipe for winning. Financial sacrifice is the order of the day. You have to take less to get more.
Can the Blazers convince Nurkic to stay in Portland and not look elsewhere, to take less for the good of the team? Can Nurkic resist the golden parachute that will be out there willing to open up the vault for him? How can the financial gymnastics of Olshey positively rain upon Rip City? No one wants a Clippers situation where Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan took all the money and there was nothing left for role players.
It’s an exciting time for Rip City. It’s nervous time too.
photo via llananba