The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season was a year defined by high ambitions and unmet expectations. The team saw a regression to the norm after shocking the league just a year prior, but there is plenty of talent on the roster that can help it improve.
Ahead of 2017-18, Oregon Sports News’ Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be breaking down the strengths, weaknesses and recent showings from each and every Trail Blazers player. Today we take a look at a man who single-handedly sparked an epidemic around Portland. The dude known as the Bosnian Beast gave an entire city Nurkic Fever, and now fans are banking on his production translating to a full season.
The 2016-17 campaign was a tale of two seasons for Nurkic. On the surface, that’s painfully obvious:
2016-17 Stats (Denver Nuggets)
2016-17 Stats (Portland Trail Blazers)
The question, of course, is: What gives?
Before the trade that brought him to Portland, Nurkic had fallen out of favor in Denver. His initial move to the bench came following his rookie season (2014-15) when he underwent surgery on his left knee. However, his struggle to regain a spot on the court had less to do with his recovery and everything to do with the emergence of Nikola Jokic.
With Jokic establishing himself as one of the best young centers in the game, Nurk was summoned to reserve duties. The Nuggets tried to preserve his talent by starting him alongside The Joker, but it was a failed experiment that led to the just yet hapless decision to (all but) remove him from the rotation ahead of the Feb. 13 trade.
Once in Portland, it was game on—and it’s a good thing too. He joined the Blazers with a reputation for being moody and out of shape, and more importantly, he was replacing one of the league’s better playmaking centers (and surprising fan favorites) in Mason Plumlee.
In 20 games with Portland, Nurkic revitalized his young career. By year’s end, he ranked No. 1 on the team in defensive rating, fourth in VORP (value over replacement player), second in box plus/minus and had the top usage percentage on the roster of anyone not named Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum.
In the words of the great Maximus Decimus Meridius: Are you not entertained?! Try these on for size:
Nurkic also led the Blazers in block percentage at 5.2. That number extrapolated over the course of a full season would have put him at No. 3 in the league behind only a burgeoning star in Myles Turner (No. 2) and a Stifel Tower in Rudy Gobert (No. 1).
Not buying into block percentage? Maybe defensive box plus/minus is more your speed. The 7-foot, 280-pounder recorded a 3.8 in the category, which put him ahead of No. 2 on the roster Al-Farouq Aminu (1.2). For context, that 2.6 difference between first and second was the same distance between second and 10th on the roster (Shabazz Napier).
Of course, there was one major thorn in Rose City. Nurkic went down yet again with a leg injury before facing off against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
What He Brings To The Table
Before we dive even deeper into what Nurkic does for the Blazers, we have to talk about how his season ended. After what most fans and analysts could describe as a brilliant 20-game stretch, the Bosnian Beast encountered a non-displaced fracture in his right leg.
So what does this talented, physically gifted behemoth of a man bring to the table? Unfortunately, a label that’s one significant health problem away from reading “injury-prone.”
For a franchise that’s been battered and bruised throughout its history—especially as far as bigs are concerned—this is worrisome. But the risk is well worth the potential reward when it comes to this particular 23-year-old.
For starters, Nurkic helps establish a defensive identity. Between opening night and a Feb. 13 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Blazers ranked 26th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). During the games Nurkic donned red and black, the team jumped to 12th in that category.
Even more important is that he’s not a one-way player. Although the Blazers were a respectable 13th overall in offensive rating most of the season, his arrival propelled them to sixth over a 20-game stretch (a stretch that also saw them go 14-6—the fourth-best record during that late-season race to the playoffs).
What To Expect in 2017-18
In today’s NBA, it’s become painfully obvious that you need a Big 3 (at least). Lillard and McCollum have proven they’re among the league’s best backcourts, but they’ve been missing that final piece.
The hope with Nurkic is that he not only gives the team its two-way identity, but that he gives the team an official Big 3—and that should happen this season without question.
But here’s where reality kicks in: Fans need to temper expectations a bit. Yes, the guy is looking like he’ll live up to the beast moniker. But the West has managed to improve, and unless someone else on the roster makes a shocking leap, Nurk alone does not a contender make.
As for Nurkic himself, he had a brilliant run late last season and there’s nothing wrong with hopping on the bandwagon. After all, he did what few are capable of doing by flipping the script on his own narrative quickly and gracefully with a single relocation.
However, believing that this success is sustainable is setting yourself up for disappointment. Only 14 players in the history of the league have posted the numbers he did with Portland over the course of an entire season (PPG, RPG, BPG, SPG).
The good news is that while Nurkic doesn’t belong in the same light as those Hall of Famers and will-be Hall of Famers (David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett to name a few), he clearly belongs at the heart of the Blazers system. The chemistry is going to grow this season, and the big man will have his first real shot at becoming a household name.
If Nurkic takes a small step back as expected, there’s no need to fret. He’s still the best center on the roster and has the potential to become one of the conference’s top players at his position. (Look for Most Improved Player consideration this season as well).
Where fretting becomes reasonable is in a reality where his injury history turns from freak accidents to frightening trend.
Assuming we don’t see that take place (*knocks on wood approximately 11,000 times*), this should be Nurkic’s coming out party on a national level.
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