When Jusuf Nurkic signed his four-year contract extension worth $70 million in July 2022, fan opinions were a mixed bag. Some thought the contract was just right while others thought it was an overpay for a player who has dealt with some injuries and has had his effort on the court questioned.
With Portland needing to make big moves this offseason to try and put a contending team around Damian Lillard, many fans are wondering if The Bosnian Beast needs to go or if can he be the starting center on a Blazers championship team.
One year into his deal, the big question is: Is he worth $17.5 million per year?
The case for Jusuf Nurkic
Nurkic is a top-20 center whose playstyle compliments Dame when both are healthy and motivated. When he’s trying, Nurk can set strong screens in the pick-and-roll for shooters to get open and is an above-average defender.
Nurkic was a top-8 rebounder in the 2021-22 season and had been top-15 twice before that. He’s also a good passer for his size.
Many fans contribute Nurkic’s recent lackluster defense to his broken leg in 2019. They say it was a poor decision to give $17.5 million per year to a player who hasn’t been the same since a major injury.
Those same fans will say he’s often injured while forgetting that, outside of his freak injury in 2019 that kept him out for a season and a half, he’s been held out of games on a tanking team about as often as he’s been held out because of an actual injury.
Nurk would likely have played more games if the team was winning.
When looking at the 28-year-old’s defense season over season, his performance was strong after returning from his broken leg and started to decline when coach Chauncey Billups was hired as head coach, changing the team’s defensive scheme.
Billups asked Nurkic to play more defense on the perimeter than in the paint, which likely contributed to his downslide, as evidenced by Reddit user Piano9717:
Jusuf Nurkic defensive rating per season compared to the average center’s defensive rating (minimum 20 minutes per game) pre-Billups:
- Nurkic – 103.1 DRtg; average – 107.4; 88th percentile league-wide
- Nurkic – 106.5 DRtg; average – 108.7; 72nd percentile league-wide
- – Broken leg
- Nurkic – 108.2 DRtg; average – 111; 81st percentile league-wide
Since Billups’ hiring:
- Nurkic – 110.1 DRtg; average – 110.3; 55th percentile league-wide
- Nurkic – 113.8 DRtg; average – 112.9; 37th percentile league-wide
During the 2020-21 season, the five-man lineup of Lillard/CJ McCollum/Norman Powell/Robert Covington/Nurkic played 370 minutes and had a defensive rating of 104.8, which ranked in the 73rd percentile league-wide.
That same five-man lineup played 274 minutes under Billups in 2021-22 and finished with a defensive rating of 111.2, which ranked in the 31st percentile in the NBA.
The difference in the entire defense’s performance under Billups indicates that Nurk’s decline in defense is more likely due to scheme and overall team performance than anything else.
Nurkic’s contract isn’t as extreme as some make it out to be, either.
He signed his deal in 2022, so we can compare him to other centers who signed in 2021 or 2022 for around the same salary.
In 2021, Steven Adams signed with the Memphis Grizzlies for $17.5 million per year. In 2022, Mitchell Robinson and Jonas Valanciunas signed for $15 million per year with the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans, respectively.
Since 2021, Adams has been better defensively but worse offensively. Robinson has been better defensively but significantly worse offensively. Valanciunas has been slightly better defensively and much worse offensively.
Each player has his strengths and weaknesses, but none of the three have vastly outperformed Nurkic.
The final point for Nurk’s case is that he’s been shouldering the entire responsibility of frontcourt defense and rebounding this season. Drew Eubanks is a fun player, but his height makes him a better third-string center than a backup running heavy minutes.
Jerami Grant has been a revelation at power forward, but he’s more of a stretch four than a huge rebounding and interior defense threat.
Nurk isn’t durable enough to be a 30-plus mpg player carrying the entire frontcourt. With a better backup and on a winning team, his weaknesses and effort questions are no longer a problem.
Based on Nurkic’s performance and contract, he is worth the money as a top-20 center that can play into the top-10 when motivated and healthy. He may not be an All-Star, but he is still a valuable player for the Trail Blazers.
His contract is fair, and he is being paid what he deserves when compared to other centers making similar money. While there are other centers in the league putting up better numbers, it’s important to look at Nurkic’s overall value to the team and the league.
Nurkic is a solid player, and his contract reflects that.
If the Blazers can greatly improve the center position by acquiring a player like Joel Embiid or Deandre Ayton, they obviously should. If they acquire a star player at another position and get a backup center that balances out Nurkic’s weaknesses, he can be a starter on a championship-contending team.