How Jusuf Nurkić’s extended range opens a new dimension for the Trail Blazers’ offense

Portland Trail Blazers Jusuf Nurkic (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Portland Trail Blazers Jusuf Nurkic (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /
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Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

No. 1: How Nurkic’s added range makes Damian Lillard even better

With respects to the current No. 8 seeded Memphis Grizzlies, many Blazers fans — confident in their ability to beat Memphis at somewhat-full health — have focused their attention to the Los Angeles Lakers. In a way, Damian Lillard has done the same, going on the record to say he believed Portland could beat them with great temerity.

Lakers fans (and Anthony Davis fans) gave the expected response: how could that be so, when he was swept three springs ago against Davis on a weaker Pelicans team? The deeper one evaluates that series, the more he realizes how easy life could’ve been for Lillard if his bigs at the time could’ve taken advantage of his gravitational pull on pick-and-rolls.

I tackled the film, and found a few examples. The Pelicans alternated in between “aggressive drops” — when a big comes out and helps defend a pick, but doesn’t drop completely into the paint — and absolute trapping. In whichever case, the message was clear:

We aren’t worried about those around Damian Lillard.

Because defenses actually knew Nurkić was guaranteed to roll, it allowed the likes of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis to attach themselves to him, and ensure that any shot he took, he’d be seeing four arms instead of two.

Uneducated fans simply chalk this up to Holiday locking down Lillard, and while there’s a sliver of truth to that, you don’t become the NBA’s pick-and-roll scorer by accident. Lillard averages 15.3 points per game solely off P&Rs, and generates more points per possession (1.14) than any player who averages at least 5 points per game.

In that Playoff series, Nurkic keeping Davis along the perimeter, or even forcing confusion could’ve been the difference between Lillard shooting 6-of-23 and 9-of-23, which is huge for a team with three single-digit losses. Nurkic took only four shots outside of 10-feet.

Nurkić doesn’t even need to become a Brook Lopez type. When he stretches opposing defenses vertically just a few times a game, the results speak for themselves.

The Portland Trail Blazers are 12-5 — a 58-win pace — when Nurkić takes four or more shots beyond 15-feet, per Basketball Reference’s shot finder. Intrinsically, Lillard’s numbers went up when Nurkić searched for his shot; in 16 games, the superstar guard ignited for seven 30-point games, and averaged 26.5 points, 6.5 assists and shot 44.5 percent from the field. That’s some special stuff.