Portland Trail Blazers: Examining the Jusuf Nurkic paradox

The Portland Trail Blazers have played arguably their best stretch of basketball this season within the last couple of weeks, despite missing Damian Lillard, Norman Powell, and Larry Nance Jr. This upswing can be accredited to the inspired plays of Anfernee Simons, Robert Covington, and a rejuvenated Jusuf Nurkic. Their performances during this shorthanded stretch have led the team to a 6-4 record in their last 10 games, including a 4-2 showing within a daunting six-game road trip.

In that 10-game period, Nurk has averaged 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists while locking up the Blazers’ paint on defense. It’s always a joy to watch the Bosnian Beast in his element: coming over from the weakside to stifle attackers with his size and verticality, facilitating out of the high-post, and banging down low with opposing bigs for tough buckets.

Unfortunately, watching good Nurkic basketball can also be incredibly infuriating for Portland Trail Blazers fans who have grown accustomed to his few highs and his recently more common lows. In the first 33 games he played this season, he put up 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per night comparatively. While his counting numbers have experienced a boon, it’s his effort on the defensive end that’s been the most apparent difference between the two stretches.

Al Horford, Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics

Al Horford, Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Why the Portland Trail Blazers need to move on from Jusuf Nurkic

His increase in scoring can be written off as increased opportunity due to Dame, Norm, and CJ McCollum‘s absences for many of the games. However, it’s curious as to why Nurk has appeared to be a better defender with many of his top teammates sidelined.

This can be attributed to Nurkic’s ego; his refusal to engage defensively when he’s not actively involved in the offense.

Through the early season, Head Coach Chauncey Billups worked hard to get Nurk going early in games, knowing that his focus may falter if his touches wane. Watch how the Trail Blazers cleared out to get their center a low block touch on their first possession of this matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.

At his best, Nurkic can be a secondary offensive hub for the Trail Blazers and an effective enforcer on the other end of the court. This complex he has where he needs to be a primary focus on offense, though, is holding back Portland from taking the next step.

Nurk can be a top-10 center in the league, but only if he’s used as a second or third option on the court. With the Trail Blazers myriad players that excel with the ball in their hands, though, it’s counterproductive to funnel touches into Nurk in the key.

Damian Lillard and at least Anfernee Simons will be around for the long haul. With those two guards featured in the offense, there just won’t be enough touches to keep Nurkic happy — especially if Norman Powell will be the Trail Blazers’ third guard.

With such a perimeter-oriented attack, Portland is best off having a more traditional center in the middle; one that’s happy to protect the paint and either finish off dump-offs or lobs on offense.

Nurk has developed Monta Ellis syndrome: a condition in which he’s only effective with the ball in his hands, but giving him the rock will rarely be the best option for a championship-contending team.

The Trail Blazers have three options moving forward:

  1. Convince Nurkic to accept a more traditional role in the offense when Damian Lillard returns
  2. Change the system and have Dame, Ant, CJ, Norm, or whatever other on-ball scorers are on the team sacrifice their touches to install Nurk as the primary offensive hub
  3. Trade the Bosnian Beast and bring in a screen-and-roll, two-way big

The fact that the third option is clearly the easiest to accomplish, compounded with Nurk’s expiring contract, points to the fact that this will likely be his last season with the Portland Trail Blazers.