With a 23-33 record at the All-Star break, Portland is in the 10th seed in the Western Conference and two games behind #8 Denver for the last playoff spot. In their next 26 games, 8 will be against five teams expected to make the playoffs in the west (OKC, SA, Houston, Utah, and Denver), and Portland will need to be a different team down the stretch if they want to get anywhere close to last seasons’ mark of 44-38, which seems like an impossible goal after Wednesday night’s lopsided loss to Utah and Monday’s overtime loss to Atlanta.
Becoming a different team doesn’t always require a big change in personnel, but in Portland’s case it would help as the team has been struggling to establish an identity this year beyond the play of their two all-star worthy guards. The second half of the 2015-16 season was fueled by Damian Lillard’s all-star snub, but the Blazers were already a .500 team and in the 7th seed in the West prior to his rampage, so hoping for a second Lillard revenge tour is not only pushing this team to be something it’s not, but also gives him two games fewer to pull off an even larger miracle.
So to help Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum do something to move this team forward and get them closer to being elite, a move needed to be made.
While some wanted to see one of Portland’s overpaid wings sent to another team in exchange for a big or a three and D wing, it wasn’t going to happen. And while we’re being honest, many of the moves GM Neil Olshey has made during his time in Portland have been important, but they’ve also been boring calculated risks that may develop later on, but nothing on the level of a “Chris Paul for a bag of chips” type of trade he pulled the trigger on during his time with the Clippers. Drafting star guards Lillard and McCollum were big hits, but there has been little help down low and a lot of building up to a really big deal. Not much for the average fan to get excited about.
That should have changed this week, when Olshey dealt popular big man Mason Plumlee and a second round pick to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick.
Standing 7’ and weighing in at 280lbs, the “Bosnian Beast” is without a doubt the best center prospect Portland has had in years. And while I’d like to avoid putting too much pressure and hype on the shoulders of the young second year player, he has the potential to be the young and scrappy Arvydas Sabonis we needed in the late 80’s, but never saw in the Rose City. Instead we got a still great but aging and declining Sabonis in the 90’s, playing on two bad knees and by then he was a shell of the international superstar he was in his younger days.
Nurkic could be the Sabonis we wanted in 1986. In 19 games this season when Nurkic played at least twenty minutes, he averaged 8.4 rebounds and 12.8 points including five games with 10 or more boards and 15 games with at least 10 points. If he stays healthy and logs around 30 minutes on a nightly basis, he has the potential to be averaging crazy numbers like 12.6 rebounds and 19.2 points per game, which would put him in elite company.
Because Nurkic was available, a guy like Plumlee became expendable, and the reasons aren’t difficult to see. In 54 games as the starter this season for Portland, Plumlee only played less than twenty minutes once (averaging 28 min per game on the season), and averaged 8 rebounds and 11.1 points, including 32 games with at least 10 points and 17 games 10 or more boards. The 2016-17 season was Plumlee’s best so far in his NBA career, and at age 26 (turning 27 next month) there is reason to believe this is the best we were going to see.
Nurkic, on the other hand, has youth on his side at age 22 and has the talent and size to take Portland to the next level. Portland needed a beast in the middle, and Nurkic gives them a young up and comer to work with that can attack the rim on both ends.
A move needed to be made, and it looks like Portland made the right deal at the right time. They got a young athletic center and a first round pick in a deep draft, it’s hard enough to come by those deals in the best of times, but Portland got lucky that Denver wanted to unload an unhappy player and felt they didn’t need their draft pick with so much youth already on the roster. Circumstances like that usually don’t just fall in your lap, but if they do, you take full advantage.
The saying goes – “work smarter, not harder”, and prior to Nurkic’s arrival Portland was exhausting themselves to be mediocre at best, and a league doormat at worst. That simply cannot be what GM Neil Olshey, Head Coach Terry Stotts, or Captain Damian Lillard hoped for this season.
With Nurkic, they should have an even brighter future, and the team can stop exhausting itself and get back to doing what we want to see much more of: