The Portland Trail Blazers received great news earlier this month when it was announced by the team that Jusuf Nurkic would be able to take part in the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season.
Nurkic suffered a compound fracture to his fibula and tibia when playing against the Brooklyn Nets at the back end of the 2018-19 regular season. It was an injury that would rule the center out of the lineup for over 12 months, with the 7-foot, 290-pounder taking every step possible not to rush his recovery and hurt his future prospects by coming back until the ugly break was fully healed.
Nurkic may soon be moving to number four in a tactical shift.
Nurkic to be center of ‘experimental’ activity
The 16th overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, Nurkic was averaging a double-double before his injury last season. His 15.6 points per game (74th in the league) and 10.4 rebounds per game (14th) were numbers that kept the Blazers ticking over, and while he has played most of his minutes for Portland at 5, Nurkic has also been earmarked for minutes at the 4 position.
Zach Collins has recovered from his shoulder injury to return alongside Nurkic, while Hassan Whiteside was playing major minutes this season without the other two big men available. The dual injuries were a big reason why Portland signed veteran Carmelo Anthony to play power forward, and boost their options in the area, as they struggled to rebound and create plays with their inside/outside ball movement.
A change to the Blazers’ starting lineup was inevitable even without the returning Nurkic and Collins. Starting small forward Trevor Ariza – a player who had locked down that spot following a trade close to the deadline – chose to spend time with his son instead of finishing out the season. That means that Anthony will likely be expected to play more minutes at small forward, with Gary Trent Jr. another option at what has been a problem position ever since December when Rodney Hood tore his Achilles.
Nurkic’s career stats thus far – correct as of July 2020.
Positional rivalry adds an intriguing narrative
While current NBA betting odds for 2019/20 have long favored teams like the Lakers and the Bucks, the Trail Blazers will be eager to shorten their own futures price in 2020/21. To do this, the potential ‘war for number four’ must be handled diplomatically, and with the greater good of the team in mind.
As good as Nurkic was last season, the aforementioned Whiteside has provided similar – and in some cases better – numbers during the 2019-20 campaign. He has averaged 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game. Impressively, his rebound numbers represent a career high, and his blocks per game leading the league at the start of July.
As such, Nurkic is unlikely to step straight back into the lineup at center immediately, and displace a player who has been outstanding ever since joining from the Miami Heat. Nonetheless, the tale of how Portland has become the making of him since his debut (shown below) is a story rich in romance, and there will undoubtedly be accommodations made for him in time.
This is an experiment that has been tried with Nurkic before when he played alongside Nikola Jokic in Denver. This experiment was far from a success, however, with Nurkic being traded away by the Nuggets after a shift away from muscle in the tactical agenda.
Positives of tactical switch predominate
Nurkic at the four will impact the Blazers in multiple ways. As a defensive player at the power forward spot, he will rely on his length and positioning to alter the way an offense moves the ball. In time, Portland will be inserting a defensive leader back into their lineup, and Nurkic will immediately upgrade their ability to defend.
His addition will also give Portland another great screener, and a guy who draws fouls at the rim. Such traits will open the floor for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum – who have become a great double act this year – to be even more dangerous down the stretch this season and the next.