Is Jusuf Nurkic Really Struggling With The Portland Trail Blazers? Here’s What The Data Says

During the trade deadline, Portland Trail Blazers fans are looking for ways to improve their team. Of course, most fans don’t want to get rid of Damian Lillard, the franchise’s new face. We’ve also explored other possible trades in Prior posts, but this is more focused on the performance of one player. That would be starting Center Jusuf Nurkic. Let’s review how he’s played this season compared to other centers and see if a better, feasible option is available. Before that, let’s quickly check how The Bosnian Beast came to Portland.

Nurkic’s journey to the NBA started in his home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was discovered as a young basketball prodigy. He was quickly picked up by a local club team, where he honed his skills and developed his unique playing style. In 2014, he was signed by the Denver Nuggets and began his professional career in the NBA. In Denver, Nurkic quickly established himself as a solid contributor off the bench, providing energy, toughness, and scoring ability to the team. Despite his success, he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2017 in exchange for Mason Plumlee. This trade would prove to be a turning point in Nurkic’s career, as he became a key player for the Trail Blazers, helping them get to the playoffs in multiple seasons.

Fast forward to this season, and Nurkic may be regressing. Despite having Lillard on the team, I’ve written about Nurk before being the main cog in the offensive game. He initiates the offense with these high post passes, whether to the guards on the wing or a back door cutting forward. This part of his game is overlooked given his low assist numbers, thanks to impart of those assists becoming hockey assists. Regardless, fans have felt that his performance this year has been lackluster. Not counting his return from his gruesome leg injury between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the 13.8 points per game that he’s averaging now would be his lowest since the 2016-2017 season when he Was coming off the bench in Denver, averaging eight points per game before the trade that sent him over to Portland. His rebounds are also down, with the lowest total since the 2017 and 2018 seasons when he averaged nine rebounds per game. Despite this, his per 36 statistics are about career average, settling in at 18.2 points per game in 12.5 rebounds per game. 

I just threw a lot of stats at you, so I’ll put the next bunch in a chart. I like to look at player efficiency rating or per, compared to the minutes played. This accurately represents a player’s efficiency during his time out on the court. Check out the chart below:

I’ve highlighted three dots on this chart. The teal one is Nikola Jokic, who is the league’s top contender for MVP right now. His player efficiency rating, combined with his minutes played, makes him the most efficient center in the league. The next dot you’ll see is a bright red one, Nurkic. I have a line in the middle of the chart trending upwards. This line is what we stat nerds know as a trendline. This line shows what the data tends to average out to throughout.

As you can see, Nurk is below that trend line, meaning he could be more efficient for the minutes he plays. The other highlighted dot on the chart is Mitchell Robinson. he plays slightly fewer minutes but is more efficient. However, Mitchell Robinson is not a player that will be traded anytime soon, given his age (24) and contract status ($15m per year).  

We’ve established that Nurk is a league-average center for his minutes on the court. What’s even funnier is that he is the 15th highest-paid center, which would put him as the most average center in the league. In terms of player efficiency rating by starting centers, he is also 16th in the league. After patrolling the various sources that exist on centers to be traded, the only one who plays more minutes and has a better player efficiency rating than Nurk would be Deandre Ayton. For the Blazers to pull off a trade for Deandre Ayton, they would have to wager Anfernee Simons and probably Shaedon Sharpe to get him. His contract (4yr, $132.9mil), at least to me, is not worth it. Ayton is not two times better than Nurkic. 

All In all, you can tell from Nurkic’s statistics that he’s just an average center. To upgrade, the Blazers would have to trade away their future for Deandre Ayton, which isn’t worth it. I’m not disappointed in his play this year, as he’s proven to be a legit starting center in the league. If the Blazers want to make a splash, go after a forward, namely Kevin Durant.