July 7, 2018, 2:37 pm
Re-signing Jusuf Nurkic to a four-year, $48 million contract was a puzzling decision by the Portland Trail Blazers, and not just because of how Neil Olshey justified his team’s preceding offseason moves in the hours before the deal was announced. Sitting next to new additions Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas at the press-conference podium on Friday afternoon, though, Olshey confirmed the notion that the Blazers’ widespread postseason struggles directly informed their summer plan of attack.
“We’re not going to overreact to the playoff result relative to what went on in the regular season,” he said. “But we’re also not gonna under-react, and not take a deeper lens to areas of our roster that need to be upgraded.”
It’s pretty clear where Nurkic, and his pricey new deal, fits into that blueprint. A multi-year contract paying him well north of $10 million annually seemed inevitable for Nurkic prior to the playoffs. He had not only proven a surprisingly adept paint-protector throughout the regular season, helping propel Portland to a top-10 defense, but Nurkic was also playing the most most well-rounded offensive game of his career, too. A 23-year-old center who’s able to function as the last line of defense and contribute as a scorer and passer almost wherever you need him offensively – on the block, as a roller, from mid-range – wouldn’t come cheap.
But being swept by the New Orleans Pelicans changed the Blazers’ short- and long-term outlooks. No one player was responsible for Portland’s inability to consistently manage efficient offense or string together stops; the Pelicans, after replacing the injured DeMarcus Cousins with sweet-shooting Nikola Mirotic and sliding Anthony Davis to center full-time, were just a bad matchup for Terry Stotts’ team on the whole. Still, it was Nurkic whose two-way deficiencies were exposed more than any of his teammates’. He couldn’t guard a multi-faceted thoroughbred like Davis, obviously, and was ill-equipped chasing Mirotic out to 30 feet as Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday frantically pushed the pace. Nurkic hardly made up for it on the other end, either, his effectiveness muted by New Orleans cheating off the Blazers’ supporting cast away from the ball to shrink the floor and make Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum see multiple defenders.
It’s worth noting here that the Pelicans let Cousins walk and signed Julius Randle in free agency, sacrificing star power for the greater good of playing a style that aligns with the current NBA’s increasing emphasis on pace, space and all-around versatility. Portland could have made a similar team-building judgement by moving on from Nurkic, re-signing Ed Davis to a cheap one-year deal and anointing Zach Collins as its starting center in 2019-20, after the rising sophomore gained more playing experience and added some much-needed muscle – which he’s apparently already done since his promising rookie season came to a close. It’s not like Nurkic, at his fully-realized best, will be anything more than a poor man’s Cousins, undoubtedly productive but easily exploited by big men cut from a modern cloth.
The Blazers didn’t give that route much meaningful consideration. Olshey, in fact, on the phone with Davis in the opening minutes of free agency, advised him to sign the one-year, $4.4 million contract offered by the Brooklyn Nets, a depressing result of the Blazers’ playoff failings as much as it was their lack of financial flexibility.
“I get people missing Ed – no one will miss him more than Terry and I and the guys around here,” he said. “But, we also ran into a buzzsaw in the playoffs, and a lot of that had to do with floor spacing, it had to do with floor balance, it had to do with a lack of shooting from different positions on the floor. As productive as Ed was, there were certainly limitations in terms of what it exposed us to defensively by an elite defensive team like New Orleans.”
Nurkic is indeed more comfortable on the perimeter than Davis, both as a shooter and passer. Davis took just eight shots outside the paint last season, and defenses treated him accordingly. They won’t defend Nurkic away from the basket much differently going forward, though. Anytime a 37.9 percent mid-range shooter hoists a long two is a win for the defense, and Nurkic’s relative improvement in that area last season doesn’t exactly portend him morphing into a 3-point threat – the one development that would alter the trajectory of his career more than any other.
Olshey clearly understands the foibles associated with playing non-shooting big men, especially when they share the floor with ever-streaky wings like Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner. The Blazers’ ideal offseason outcome was adding the 3-and-D archetype those guys aren’t, but doing so in free agency was never a realistic possibility. Every team in the league needs complementary wings who can play both sides of the ball, and Portland’s salary-cap constraints always ensured its bidding on the open market would fall short of top dollar.
Nothing the Blazers did this summer, short of shedding the contract of Turner or Meyers Leonard in an unlikely trade that would have inevitably included draft-pick sweeteners, would have afforded them the financial wiggle room to bring in that type of player. Nurkic’s new deal doesn’t change that equation whatsoever. What it does, though, is add a substantial amount of salary to the books the same long-awaited year that Turner, Leonard and Harkless all become free agents. Portland has approximately $87 million committed to Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Collins, Caleb Swanigan, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, Jr. for the summer of 2020, yielding $29 million of cap room – not enough space to sign a veteran commanding the max, even before accounting for minimum-salaried cap holds.
The immediate monetary ramifications are more onerous. With 13 players in tow before making a decision on Wade Baldwin’s non-guaranteed team option for next season, the Blazers are right up against the tax apron of $129.9 million. Reaching that total means they can’t acquire players via sign-and-trade and are restricted to the mini mid-level exception in free agency, most of which has already been spent on Curry and the guaranteed money to Trent, Jr., a second-round pick. Unless Portland miraculously finds a taker for the Turner or Leonard contract, it’s now restricted to using to trade exceptions to acquire additional talent.
Big picture, the Blazers were stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Parting ways with Nurkic would have made them worse-off in an even stronger Western Conference next season, mere months after Lillard took multiple meetings with Paul Allen to discuss the future of the franchise. Bringing him back at an eight-figure salary for multiple years doesn’t just complicate plans for the 2020 offseason, but also blocks Collins’ path to becoming the team’s starting center and forces Allen to pay eight figure in luxury-tax penalties.
There was no win-win option available. Still, given the market for big men, one wonders if Portland might have been better off slow-playing Nurkic in restricted free agency and re-initiating contract talks at a later date. The money isn’t out there for Nurkic to have received this type of deal from a competitor. Just as importantly, the list of teams who would want to give it to him if they had the chance is undoubtedly small. Nurkic is a square peg in the round hole of modern basketball.
The Blazers aren’t dumb. Portland knows of Nurkic’s limitations, and what they mean for this team’s ability to contend going forward. Unfortunately, there was just no path to addressing those concerns while simultaneously staying afloat in 2018-19 – and keeping Lillard content on playing in the pacific northwest.
— Jason Quick (@jwquick) July 7, 2018
(h/t Early Bird Rights for salary cap information)