The Portland Trail Blazers’ season changed last year during a double-overtime game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 25. Starting center, Jusuf Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his left leg with a little over two minutes left in the game.
Nurkic watched the rest of the way as Portland made a valiant effort all the way to the Western Conference Finals. However, since that series, it’s been clear how badly this group has missed the Bosnian big man.
Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins did their best to fill-in during the playoff run, but Leonard was shipped to the Miami Heat in return for Hassan Whiteside. With Nurkic likely out for the first half of this season, the team felt it needed an upgrade. Yet, Whiteside has been unable to match the production that the Trail Blazers got from any of the three players they used at the 5 a season ago.
In Nurkic, the team had the perfect complement to the star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
First, Nurkic was a great screen setter. He’s listed at seven-feet tall and weighs 276 pounds, making him one of the taller and heavier players in the entire league. Not too many guards—and even wings—want to fight through his picks. He finished 2018-19 ranked fourth in screen assist per game (five) and screen assist points per game (11.7).
Next, he was an efficient scorer as the roller. While Lillard and McCollum received most of the attention in the pick-and-roll, Nurkic was a force inside the paint. His 1.13 points per possession as the roll man was higher than Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Myles Turner, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.
But the biggest hole from his absence surprisingly comes as a playmaker.
With Portland’s offense running through their guards, many opponents have opted to blitz and trap on the perimeter when defending the pick-and-roll. This often resulted in the screener (usually Nurkic) facing a four-on-three advantage when he caught the ball. While he isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking of great passing 5s, he was exceptional for the Trail Blazers last year.
Nurkic’s 3,084 passes were second-most on the team, and 233 (third highest) of those passes became assists. He also ranked third for Portland in assist points created (545 points).
Though it is a small sample size, Whiteside ranks third on the team in passes through 15 games played, but he’s averaging 13 fewer per game than Nurkic did last season (29.3 versus 42.8). The difference in the two players assist-to-pass percentages bears this out as well. Nurkic’s number a year ago was 7.6 percent, Whiteside’s is 3.2 percent—second lowest on the team.
This is actually an improvement over his time in Miami, however, where Whiteside was considered one of the league’s true black holes on offense, despite the productive points, rebounding and block numbers.
The threat of the former Heat big in the pick-and-roll is real. He averaged 1.08 points per possession as a roller last season. The thought was that he could provide more of a vertical threat for Lillard and McCollum, but so far opponents have taken away lob opportunities and are instead forcing Whiteside to beat them with the pass.
At 8-12 so far, Portland hasn’t found the right beat yet this season.
Fit and continuity are staples of good NBA teams. The Trail Blazers stuck with Lillard and McCollum when there was outside pressure for them to move on after repeated postseason failures. Once Nurkic was brought in, things looked to be turning around. They had found a third piece to the puzzle and a third-place finish a year ago.
The ability of Nurkic to not get played off the floor when opponents go small is the biggest reason that the three of them worked well. Instead of the opponent gaining an advantage, Portland was able to get by and could use his size to punish defenses that switched on screens.
Having that outlet made the perimeter skills of their backcourt even more dangerous. Paying too much attention to the big man made it harder to stop the guards and vice versa.
This season, that dichotomy doesn’t exist anymore. Teams are attacking the pick-and-roll with more blitzes and living with the results, knowing that most times the recipient of the pass doesn’t have the necessary talent to hurt them consistently.
Some of Portland’s most pressing issues have been dissipated with the addition of Carmelo Anthony. (And, let’s be honest, by playing the Chicago Bulls twice in five days.) However, while Anthony can replace the scoring Nurkic gave them, there is still a hole in regards to playmaking from the frontcourt, much less the big body to clog the middle.
(Here again, the lanky-and-improving Zach Collins being hurt at the same time is also a killer for a team that’s relying on Whiteside, a not-quite-ready Skal Labissiere and a quite-past-his-sell-by-date Anthony Tolliver.)
No timeline for Nurkic’s return has been announced, but the previous belief was that he could return around the All-Star break. The team has remained steadfast that they will not be giving any updates on Nurkic’s return to action this season.
We’ve already seen how strong the Western Conference is this season. Portland currently sits at 10th and could fall too far behind in the race for playoff positioning. The Blazers aren’t all the way out yet, sitting just one game back of the Phoenix Suns for the eighth seed. But this is all dangerously relying on a depth-starved roster that’s getting a “can he sustain this?” boost from Anthony.
Lillard and McCollum will continue to do their thing, but so will Whiteside, and that’s part of the problem. Perhaps Collin can return sooner and at least get some other options in the mix for coach Terry Stotts.
But even that isn’t sounding good.
Getting Nurkic back would be the type of bump that could get this team over the hump in the long run. It is unknown what level he’d be at when he does get back on the floor, so could he readily step in and replicate the career highs that he produced in 2018-19? That’s a lot to ask. Most players returning from serious injury need time before shaking off the rust.
Either way, 50 percent of Nurkic is better than the zero that Portland’s gotten so far this year.
Brandon Jefferson is a staff writer at TBW. He covers the Atlanta Hawks for The BBall Index and is a contributing writer at Fansided. Brandon is the founding and only member of the Kevin Durant Stan Club.