Blazers must use trade deadline steal to help dump Jusuf Nurkic’s salary

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images)
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images) /

The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in a Jusuf Nurkic conundrum.

The franchise decided to extend the 28-year-old big man after a relatively effective stint as a pick-and-roll partner with Damian Lillard. From 2018 (his first season with the Blazers) through this year, Nurk has averaged 14.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.1 stocks (steals plus blocks).

His best statistical season came in 2018-19, when he played in 72 games and scored nearly 16 points a night while adding more than 10 rebounds and 3 assists. Nurkic has remained fairly productive since then – when he’s on the floor.

However, that’s become a struggle, and it has remained one. Since that 72-game season, the 7-footer has played in only 150 of a possible 297 games. He doesn’t fit as well in head coach Chauncey Billups’ schemes (offensively or defensively) as he did in previous coach Terry Stotts’.

Injury-related or not, Nurk has also seemed a step – maybe even two – slow this season, as evidenced by his 0.8 blocks per game, his lowest output since the 2016-17 season when he wasn’t even a full-time starter with the Denver Nuggets.

But with three years still remaining on his contract, finding a team willing to take the big man off Portland’s hands will be difficult for general manager Joe Cronin, if it hasn’t been already.

But Cronin has an ace up his sleeve as a result of what’s proving to be a sneaky-good 2023 trade deadline. If he so chooses, that ace could be packaged with Nurkic and his contract to find the declining center a new destination, which would free up some much-needed cap space entering an important offseason in Portland.

The Blazers could use their extra first-round pick as a Jusuf Nurkic trade sweetener

Cronin acquired the New York Knicks’ 2023 first rounder, which should land in the 20s in this summer’s draft, as part of the Josh Hart trade that also brought Portland a potentially useful asset in Cam Reddish.

As the Trail Blazers fall deeper into the abyss that is the bottom of the Western Conference, the odds that their own first-round pick lands closer to the top five only increases.

So this begs the question: If Cronin wants to build a contending team around the 32-year-old Damian Lillard, what use does he have for two more rookies? A top six or seven pick is worth keeping. But a second young player with presumably less upside? Not nearly as much.

Since it’s going to be next to impossible to find a team willing to take on a plodding, injury-prone center who’s being pushed out of the modern NBA and is still owed a decent chunk of money, why not send out that second pick alongside Nurkic in the hopes of tempting a tanking team with an extra pick it could use during a rebuild?

Nurk has three years left on his deal and is owed $16.9 million next season, $18.1 million in 2024-25, and $19.4 million in 2025-26. It’s a high salary for sure, but not an absolutely exorbitant one.

It becomes less intimidating when taking into account the projected cap spike likely coming in 2025. The NBA’s current TV rights deal expires after the 2024-25 season, and the new TV contract may give the league’s salary cap a nearly $50 million bump, according to Forbes.

Still, Portland needs to find a taker with enough cap space right now to accept Nurk’s salary without sending salary back to the Blazers.

Enter the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs are projected to have the most cap space in the NBA next season. San Antonio should be about $22 million under the cap, enough to fit Nurkic’s $16.9 million hit. As a rebuilding team with legitimate odds to land Victor Wembanyama with the No. 1 overall pick in July, the franchise clearly has an eye toward the future.

If they do indeed land Vic, Nurkic could be a valuable piece as a placeholder at center while the 19-year-old Frenchman finds his footing in the league. Wemby has said he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a center, so Nurk’s rebounding and interior presence could be useful even alongside Wembenyama.

San Antonio has a few other promising young pieces, like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. The organization has also acquired a horde of other future first-round picks: The Spurs have the potential to use their own pick, plus an additional first every season through 2028. That includes unprotected picks from the Atlanta Hawks in 2025 and 2027, as well as a lightly protected first rounder from Toronto in 2024 that should convey.

A few other teams – the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets – could find a way to fit Nurk into their cap, depending on what they do in the offseason, but the fit isn’t nearly as clean as it is with San Antonio.

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Removing Nurkic from the books would open up new avenues for Cronin and the Blazers to build a team to compete now. Using a second first-round pick would likely keep the Blazers handcuffed to the future, where they do not want to be while Lillard is still one of the best guards in the NBA.