On February 13, 2017, Neil Olshey traded Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for a future first round pick and Denver’s little-used backup center Jusuf Nurkić. From that point through last Saturday’s game against the Rockets, Portland went 14-7 with the fifth best net rating, fifth best offensive rating, and tenth best defensive rating in the NBA.
Yet, during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against the Rockets, Nurkić fractured his leg and is, more than likely, done for the regular season, with his health for the playoffs yet to be determined. Thus, the questions we must ask are how big of a loss was this for the Blazers and was Nurkić really the reason Portland turned its season around?
Frankly, this is a huge loss and, while not the sole reason why Portland has begun to win again, Nurkić was the main component explaining the Blazers sudden upsurge.
In many ways Nurkić has played similar for the Blazers like Andrew Bogut did for the Warriors. Defensively, he serves as a rim protector who helps solve for problems stemming from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Per Synergy Sports Tech, since being traded to Portland, Nurkić allows .8 points per possession on spot-up shots (91st percentile in the NBA) and opponents shoot 7.2% worse when Nurkić defends their shot in the painted area. Let’s examine a compilation of how Nurkić has improved the Blazers’ defense.
The clips in the video do not show a special defender, and frankly, that is because Nurkić is not one. But what the Bosnian does do well, though, is use his massive size to prevent drives and alter shots. This means a player like James Harden cannot use his entire offensive repertoire because Nurkić clogs the driving lanes.
Yet, the real area where Nurkić has improved the Blazers is on offense. Terry Stotts has used the former Nuggets’ center’s ability to set amazing screens, passing technique, and strength to finish through contact as a way to drastically expand Portland’s offense.
When one watches Nurkić play in Stotts’s offense there is simply no way to be unsure of the Bosnian big’s fit. He looks perfect and this is reflected in the numbers. One interesting area where Nurkić – a slow footed big – has benefited Portland is in transition.
Since the trade, per Synergy, Jusuf Nurkić has averaged 1.55 points per possession in transition, which ranks in the 98th percentile of all NBA players. This is because of two reasons. First the Portland center can play as a “point center” similar to his old teammate, Nikola Jokić. Secondly, Nurkić is outstanding at setting fast screens, allowing the Blazers’ guards to attack the defense in the pick-and-roll before the latter can get set.
In a more traditional sense, Nurkić also excels as a post-up center, and this adds a new dimension to Portland’s offense.
The Bosnian big averages .975 points per possession on post-ups (64th percentile) and 1.18 points per possession on post-ups with less than four seconds on the shot clock (98th percentile). The latter point is important because, as Portland watchers have noticed, the Blazers have struggled scoring late in the shot clock. And while Stotts will never call for a post-up early in the possession, it does provide a sort of “secondary offense” if Portland’s initial set fails.
Nonetheless, the biggest area where Nurkić has improved the Blazers’ offense, and the team in general, is in his ability to set screens and play in the pick-and-roll. Nobody would say that Terry Stotts runs a pick-heavy offense like Toronto or Detroit; however, the Blazers use screens in the middle of offensive sets as a way to confuse the defense. Here, Nurkić has excelled.
Since the trade, Nurkić has the fifth most screen assists in the NBA, averaging 5.5 per game. And moreover, per Synergy, Portland’s center averages 1.3 points per possession as a roll man on the right side of the floor (89th percentile) and 1.1 on the left side (64th percentile). Let’s examine some clips below to understand why Nurkić has been so useful.
One of the simpler ways Nurkić’s presence has benefited the Blazers’ pick-and-roll is via his ability to finish through contact. In the above play, Nurkić slips the screen because Denver did not want to let Lillard isolate on Jokić. When Nurkić drives, however, Denver is able to prevent a wide-open look via its help defense. This does not matter, though, as the Bosnian center is able to put his shoulder down and power through contact.
This strength has allowed Damian Lillard to play as a true point guard. In the above play, Lillard runs the pick-and-roll in two different ways. In the first set, Nurkić sets the initial screen to free the cutter, and then a second one initiate the pick-and-roll with Lillard. Lillard reads the defense and gambles on Nurkić’s ability to finish in traffic, which is effectively the correct decision and resulted in two points.
In the second play, Nurkić sets the first screen to free up the cutter, and then the second to initiate the pick-and-roll with Lillard. This time, however, Lillard passes to Allen Crabbe in the corner for an open three-point shot. This type of screen action is similar to how Golden State would use Andrew Bogut early in games. In that case, the Australian big’s screen-setting ability allowed him to act as a secondary playmaker behind Steph Curry. Terry Stotts has been using Nurkić in the exact same way. Below is another example of this strategy.
This time the Rockets’ defense overplayed the Lillard-Nurkić pick-and-roll allowing C.J. McCollum to be wide-open for a three-point shot. In the past, when Meyers Leonard or Mason Plumlee would set this type of screen, the defense would not need to leave anybody open and would dare Lillard to shoot. Given Lillard’s excellence, that strategy did not always work, but now defenses are faced with a choice of allowing Lillard or Nurkić to go one-on-one, or to leave one of Portland’s shooters wide-open.
Finally, Nurkić’s presence has also allowed for Lillard to have an easier time scoring in the pick-and-roll.
While the above is hardly an “easy score,” and only a handful of NBA players could make that basket, it is absolutely in Lillard’s wheelhouse. If Damian gets momentum driving to the basket – something he struggled with when Leonard and Plumlee were setting screens – he is nearly unstoppable around the basket. With Nurkić, however, soft screens are never a problem, blitzing Lillard leaves the Bosnian wide-open as a roller, and playing the pick-and-roll tight leaves one of Portland’s shooters wide-open. Consequently, Lillard will always be able to get this same type of momentum.
This has been the most important area where Nurkić’s outstanding screens have drastically improved Portland’s offense. They act as a form of secondary playmaking, give Lillard the ability to act as a traditional point guard, and thus forcing the defense to choose between Lillard with momentum, Nurkić with momentum, or a wide-open Portland shooter.
Consequently, the Bosnian big’s fractured leg is a significant loss for the Trailblazers. In two weeks his leg will be reevaluated, and hopefully Nurkić will be able to return before playoffs, but this is definitely idealism. Due to the nature of the injury it is more likely that Nurkić returns to Portland next season.
This may sound entirely bad for Blazers’ fans, however, I would posit that this is not the case. In a little over one month together, Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkić have shown potential to become the best pick-and-roll duo in the NBA. Furthermore, Nurkić has allowed Portland to build momentum going into the playoffs, and more importantly, the 2017-18 season. So even if it takes until October before we see Lillard and Nurkić sharing the court again, the wait will be worth it, because the Blazers will be even better next season.