Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic makes life easier — could it be championship-level easier?

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Portland Trail Blazers remained competitive even without Jusuf Nurkic. But now that their elite big man is back, just how positive can we get in discussing Portland’s future?

“When I get back, life is going to be easier…”

It was a simple phrase that Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic threw out to Carmelo Anthony, but those who’ve evaluated the way Nurkic plays, know he could’ve been talking to just about anyone in the state of Oregon.

Not that anyone’s keeping track or anything (we certainly are), but it’s been 32 days since the Blazers last stepped foot on the court. And it’ll probably be another 32 and some change before they do so again.

Finding patience has been difficult, but finding positives hasn’t. When the NBA season resumes, Nurkic, who had already been on recoup, will have had a full year and then some to regain form. Coinciding with having a fully-healthy roster for the first time this season, the Blazers will be operating with a bench as deep as the Pacific Ocean — and if the season starts in say, June, is Nurkic even on it?

The Bosnian Beast serves as an intriguing topic today because of how easy he makes everyone else around him. Since joining the Blazers at the trade deadline in 2017, only ten centers league wide have produced a higher percentage of assists. And for a team of offensive stars that have been denigrated for percentages and efficiency (or lack thereof), easier looks in abundance could rectify that.

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So first, let’s give credit where credit is due. The second Hassan Whiteside became a household name, he became largely underappreciated by the masses. We’ve discussed him in detail, and regardless of how this season plays out, his body of work likely ensures he either receives starter-level minutes in Portland, or something even bigger elsewhere. He’s filled in admirably as a stopgap. But seeing how the likes of Anthony and Ariza coalesce with Nurkic is certainly something worth wondering.

Portland seldom used low-post offense as a conduit for generating offense, especially through Whiteside. They averaged only about two post-ups a quarter (8.5 per game, No. 16 in the NBA), which eliminated one of the things that made Portland’s 2018-19 offense flow so gracefully.

Last year, Portland had the No. 6 ranked offense, despite having just the 18th fastest pace in the NBA. One of the reasons for that came within Nurkic’s Divac-esque over-the-shoulder touch passes in the post that rewarded offensively limited players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless some of the easiest looks of their basketball lives. To understand just how impactful passes out of the post were in Stotts’ offense last season, consider this:

Off-ball cut statistics for Portland:

  • 2018-19: 9.0 percent frequency, 12.8 points per game
  • 2019-20: 5.7 percent frequency, 7.8 points per game

In 2018-19, the only team that used — and had more success on — these cuts were the Golden State Warriors. Portland had to, ironically, cut this part of their scheme in half. It gave the Blazers an extra offensive avenue, should defenses be intent on cutting down C.J. McCollum isolations or Damian Lillard pick-and-roll opportunities. Portland as a whole is down 12.2 percent in assists, compared to last year.

This isn’t to say that there’s no fit for Whiteside here. In fact, it’d be quite the spectacle, should the Blazers meet up with say, the Lakers, providing us with some two-big matchups (Los Angeles has run the McGee-Davis lineup for a whopping 765 minutes). It wouldn’t quite be of the Divac-Webber mold, where both bigs can pass at an elite level, but Nurkic has proven he makes whoever is on the floor better in some way.

There’s always the negative crowd, though; some might not see Nurkic’s 3.2 assists per game as anything worth writing home about. But he ranked among the top-10 in potential assists and points created on those assists. Perhaps this is what Jusuf Nurkic meant when he told Anthony life would become much easier. Enjoy this pass, and then come back to me.

Or, how about this?

Lillard and Nurkic worked to produce one of the NBA’s premier short pick-and-roll duos in the association. But when Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t feeding Lillard, about one-fourth of his passes went to Portland’s swingmen.

Over a two year span, those shooters benefitted. Evan Turner was 6-of-13 on 3-point attempts (always a good sign). Harkless shot above his normal rate (7-of-19, 37 percent). Adding in the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, and every other swingman from 2017-18 to 2018-19, they hit at a 34.6 percent clip. And Nurkic, Aminu, and Harkless together produced a 117.3 offensive rating, and blitzed teams by 9.8 points per 100 possessions.

Imagine how differently things could be with two solidified knockdown shooters in Anthony and Ariza.

Portland can also toggle along Whiteside and Nurkic, and have a top-tier interior defense. But it’s everywhere else beyond that part of the floor that help is needed. When the season resumes, it’s hard not to imagine that the Blazers find themselves in a position to have more offense within their second unit.

For comedy’s sake, here’s a statistic: there are 11 individual players who score more than Portland’s bench as a group. But now, having the opportunity to roll through the home

stretch with perhaps Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr., and whatever the Blazers do in the frontcourt (think Zach Collins, Whiteside or Nurkic, Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, and some of their young projects) there are buckets to be had.

I’m not directly saying that Nurkic’s return puts Portland on a list of potential paper champions, but more teams should figure to agree with LeBron James — that the Blazers aren’t a team you want to be facing in a must-win game:

Next. Five non-Jordan, non-Durant stars the Blazers missed on drafting. dark

And after all that this season has presented, who would’ve thought?