The Trail Blazers are scheduled to open training camp Sept. 27 in Santa Barbara, Calif. In the buildup to camp, The Oregonian/OregonLive will take a look at the five biggest storylines that must play out for the team to have a chance of contending during the 2022-23 NBA season, Chauncey Billups’ second as coach.
Previous posts: Damian Lillard must play like an MVP.
Today: Jusuf Nurkic must live up to his $70 million contract
The legend of the Bosnia Beast includes tales of a dominant force using his 6-foot-11, 290-pound body to exert his will over mother mortals in the pursuit of buckets.
The lore, however, also includes cautionary tales of inconsistent play, disappearing acts and injuries that have cost The Beast 127 games over the past three seasons.
These realities surrounding Nurkic placed general manager Joe Cronin and coach Chauncey Billups in a bit of a quandary last season. Nurkic was set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Blazers had to decide: Trade Nurkic, let him walk or re-sign him?
Ultimately, they chose to lock down Nurkic, 28, to a four-year, $70 million contract. An average salary of $17.5 million per year isn’t outrageous in a world where center Ruby Gobert recently received $205 million over five seasons from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Still, Nurkic’s contract represents a significant commitment from the Blazers propped up by belief in his abilities and untapped potential.
Cronin has said he believes Nurkic’s best years are ahead of him as he enters his prime. That must prove true in order for the Blazers to contend. An inconsistent Nurkic is a detriment. A consistently present and focused Nurkic can be force.
Maybe no time during his career has illustrated this more than during play at the NBA bubble in the summer of 2020, when he averaged 17.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists over eight games. Nurkic topped that off with 22 points, 21 rebounds and six assists in the play-in victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
But Nurkic followed the dominance with a slow start the following season. He certainly had memorable moments and strong stretches of play, but an early-season broken wrist cost him 35 games. Nurkic’s inconsistent play continued during the 2021-22 season as he adjusted to a new offense under coach Chauncey Billups. That all changed in January, when Nurkic put up 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 51% from the floor. In February, he averaged 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds.
In his final game of the season on Feb. 16, Nurkic recorded 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists during a win at Memphis.
Nurkic, along with Anfernee Simons, helped the Blazers win four consecutive games after the trade deadline, briefly jeopardizing the franchise’s tanking efforts. Then, following the All-Star break, Nurkic landed on the injured list with a mysterious case of plantar fasciitis and didn’t play again.
It was clear that Nurkic and the franchise had reached an agreement that the team would re-sign him. Otherwise, Nurkic would have been far better served continuing to play and elevate his value.
The Blazers are banking on Nurkic duplicating his efforts in the bubble and during his final two months of last season and, most importantly, remaining healthy. It’s been five seasons since Nurkic last put together a complete, injury-free season. Should Nurkic leave the lineup for a significant amount of time, it would be a huge blow to the Blazers. The team’s backup center, for now, is Drew Eubanks. He could serve well in a reserve role and in spot starting duty, but likely wouldn’t be an ideal option for 30 minutes a game over an extended period of time.
Should Nurkic’s body hold up, he must remain engaged and productive at both ends of the floor. Billups has repeatedly said that he wants the offense to occasionally run through Nurkic to take advantage of his versatility and playmaking abilities. Evidence of that plan played out late last season. Adding Damian Lillard back into the mix and the threat of their potent pick-and-roll execution would also return to play. In short, Nurkic should have plenty of opportunities to thrive.
Another element for Nurkic is the addition of forward Jerami Grant. Nurkic has yet to play in Portland with a forward of Grant’s versatility and athleticism. Grant is a far better finisher than Robert Covington and offers more height and finishing ability around the rim than the plethora of guards Nurkic has played with in recent years. When the offense goes through Nurkic, he would have the option to score, pass to shooters such as Lillard and Simons, or find Grant slashing to the basket, which could be a key part of the team’s attack.
Nurkic’s playmaking abilities and versatility are rare among NBA big men. He isn’t on the level of Denver’s Nikola Jokic, but Nurkic possesses some of the same abilities, minus the three-point shooting.
Should Nurkic put it all together this season, the Blazers will have one of the most complete offensive attacks in the NBA, capable of ranking among the top five scoring teams in the league. And that would certainly help them at least flirt with becoming a contender.
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronJFentress (Facebook).
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