The turning point for the Trail Blazers this season came when they traded Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic. Prior to the deal, they were struggling to keep themselves in the playoff race with a 23-32 record. Since then, however, they’ve gone 13-6 to pushthemselves one game ahead of the Nuggets for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Nurkic has had a tremendous impact on their success during that span. The Trail Blazers go from outscoring teams by 8.9points per 100 possessions to being at a stalemate with opponents when he takes a seat on the bench.They’ve also been +86in Nurkic’s 522minutes as a Blazer compared to Plumlee’s +19 in his 1,516 minutes with them this season. It’s only a small sample size of 19games, but Nurkic has been a driving force in their late-season push for the playoffs.
FLASHBACK: SN hands out grades forPlumlee-Nurkic deal
A big reason for Nurkic’s success in Portland is he gives the Blazers an inside-out element they’ve been missing for quite some time. While they’ve always been a team built around the offensive firepower of C.J. McCollum and Lillard, he’s another scoring threat opposing teams have to respect in the half court. Nurkic is averaging 15.0points and 10.4rebounds in 29.1minutes per game with the Blazers, which putshim in the top 10 for both scoring and rebounding amongst centers this season. Extend those numbers to 36 minutes, and they jump to a dominant 18.6points and 12.8rebounds per game.
For what it’s worth, of centers who have played at least 30 games this season, only Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokic, Hassan Whiteside and Nikola Vucevic are averaging at least 17 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes.
Nurkic scores the bulk of his points out of the pick-and-roll, making him a perfect fit with Lillard, who ranks behind only James Harden and Kemba Walker in pick-and-roll scoring. Nurkicscored1.14points per possessionas the roll man in Denver to rank in the 75.9percentile, thoughhe can be a volume scorer in those situations. His agility and soft touch at his size makes him incredibly tough to stop when he’s diving to the basket.
Nurkic is also an excellent offensive rebounder. His offensive rebounding rate(12.3percent) is similar to Hassan Whiteside, Steve Adams and Tyson Chandler. Nurkic turns a lot of those second chance opportunities into points for himself with an average of 2.8points per game offputbacks. With the amount of attention Lillard and McCollum garner in the pick-and-roll, it’s easy for him to sneak behind the defense for deep rebounding position.
As The Ringer noted, Nurkic’s value as a roll man extends far beyond his own scoring numbers. Being the excellent screen setter he is, Nurkic has opened up a lot of looks for Lillard and McCollum by simply taking their defender out of the play. He’s averaging 5.4 screen assists per game since joining the Blazers on Feb. 15, which ranks fifth in the NBA behind Cody Zeller, Rudy Gobert, Tristan Thompson and Marcin Gortat. He generated 9.0 screen assists alone in the Blazers’ win against the Heat on March 19 when Lillard scored 49 points.
Nurkic also spends a lot of time with his back to the basket. He’s scoring nearly 20 percent of his points in the post and averages 0.93points per possession to rank in the 64.0 percentile. Those aren’t great by any standard, but he’s been more comfortable on the block now that he has more floor spacing around him.
Plus, he has an array of moves he can choose from, like this:
By being a threat in those areas, as well as someone who is comfortable taking long 2-pointers, Nurkic gives the Blazers the third scorer they’ve been lacking. It’s sort of what they were expecting from Evan Turner when they signed him to a $70 million contract: Nurkic can take some of the scoring pressure off of Lillard and McCollum, who combine for 50.0 points per game, by forcing the defense to respect his ability to create a good shotfor himself every time down the court.
Nurkic combines that scoring ability with some elite passing for his position. Since joining the Blazers, he ranks sixth amongst centers in points created by assists with 7.7 per game. That’s not far off of what Plumlee averaged in a Blazers uniformthis season. Considering Plumlee’s greatest strength to the Blazers was his ability to act as a Draymond Green-like facilitator from the center position, they haven’t lost much production by replacing him with Nurkic.
It’s not like Nurkic is only generating his assists out of the post either. He has proven the ability to find open teammates with his back to the basket when the defense collapses ...
... but he’s also showcased his vision on the roll.
More importantly, the Blazers are amongthe league leaders in shot attempts offcuts and hand-offs this season. By having a 7-footer who can score and pass in those situations, it makes the Blazers much harder to defend because they have to account for his ability to do both.
It basically boils down to Nurkic being able to do everything Plumlee can, only better. He’s a threat to score in the the post and pick-and-roll, he’s a better playmaker than anyone expected and he can knock down a shot from outside the paint if he’s left open. Put that alongside two of the best backcourt scorers in the NBA, and it’s no wonder the Blazers have taken a leap following the trade deadline. The question now becomes whetherthis is a honeymoon period for Nurkic or if this is the start of something special.
Because if it’s the latter, the Blazers walked away from the trade deadline with an absolute steal.