• The Portland Trail Blazers are 4-2 in the past six games, each victory coming over teams with either legitimate title aspirations or playoff hopes. Their two losses during that timeframe were the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, the first on the second leg of a home-and-home that they split with the defending champions and the last a hard-fought defeat at the final buzzer to the team that’s been basketball’s best since the first two weeks of 2018-19. Portland, less than a month removed from falling perilously close to .500, suddenly sits at 23-17, three games up on ninth place in the rough and tumble Western Conference at the season’s midway point – and, maybe most importantly, having just finished off its most difficult portion of the 82-game schedule.

    Jusuf Nurkic deserves immense credit for helping the Blazers navigate those waters successfully. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game on 58.8 percent shooting over the last six outings, scraping the two-way ceiling on a nightly basis that he’d previously reached intermittently. Nurkic won’t etch his name in the record books with historic five-by-fives every night, obviously, but box-score stats don’t accurately convey a player’s defensive impact anyway, especially with regard to big men. What does? Portland opponents during this stretch shooting a paltry 53.4 percent at the rim with Nurkic on the floor compared to 70.0 percent when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com/stats.

    In the long run, defense is still where Nurkic will make his most significant mark for the Blazers. It’s no coincidence their first top-10 finish in defensive rating since 2014-15, when LaMarcus Aldridge was still in town, coincided with Nurkic ranking among the league’s stingiest rim-protectors. Memories of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic playing him off the court in the first round of last year’s playoffs not only linger, but also serve as a harsh reminder of what innate matchups problems could plague Portland again come spring. The league has only gotten smaller, faster, and spacier in the interim.

    There’s a theoretical foil to the benefits of most every mismatch in basketball, of course. The question is whether a team has the necessary personnel or a player the necessary skills to exploit it. Conventional wisdom says Nurkic, for instance, should feast down low when the opposition downsizes or dares to check him with a smaller defender. Centers with his blend of strength, length, coordination, and touch around the basket are few and far between. What that enviable blend of attributes had yet to produce before recently, though, was a player worthy of being a go-to offensive option with his back to the basket. Nurkic shot 42.8 percent from the post in 2017-18, per NBA.com/stats, and fared slightly worse on a similarly low number of chances against the New Orleans Pelicans in the postseason. With Davis running and jumping him ragged and Mirotic sniping from 28 feet, there was just no reason to keep Nurkic on the floor if he was unable to offset those deficiencies by abusing either one of them in the block.

    Fast forward nine months, and it’s become increasingly difficult to imagine the same fate befalling Nurkic again, at least to that extent, almost no matter what type of personnel Portland could face in the playoffs. Nurkic averaged 3.6 post-ups per game before the Blazers beat the Warriors in Oakland on December 27th, shooting 42.9 percent on those tries and passing out of them 27.6 percent of the time, per NBA.com/stats. He’s getting a whopping 11.2 post-ups per per game since, just below LaMarcus Aldridge’s league-leading mark for the full season, shooting 54.8 percent from the field and passing out of the post at a 38.8 percent rate. His number of touches is up, too, all the way to 75.5 per game – second on the team behind Lillard, and over 20 touches more than the amount he received prior to this six-game stretch.

    Those are massive increases across the board, and their variety speaks to just how well Nurkic has been able to strike a balance between beasting overmatched defenders and keeping the ball moving when a double-team comes or his initial move is stymied – perhaps because he knows another chance to score will come sooner than later. Empirically, it seems as if he’s committed himself to making quick, aggressive decisions down low, whether that means limiting his number of dribbles on drop steps and hook shots or sealing big and wide to establish deep post position. He’s been similarly effective and decisive as a roll man in his dance with Lillard, maintaining control with the ball in his hands on the move despite a crowded painted area. How many times in the past two weeks have we seen Nurkic catch on the dive, take one dribble as help arrives from the weak side, then score at the rim with finesse or power completely unencumbered?

    This might not be Portland’s new normal, and not just because it would be irresponsible to expect Nurkic, in the middle of his fifth season, to suddenly sustain an All-NBA level of production. The Blazers’ opponents of late have all presented Nurkic with a golden opportunity to pound the ball in the paint: Golden State made small-ball a fad and routinely switches 1-through-5; the Philadelphia 76ers were playing without Joel Embiid; the Sacramento Kings’ young big men have far more length than girth; no team in the NBA switches more readily than the Houston Rockets. It bears mentioning, too, that a sizable majority of Nurkic’s points in a 22-point effort against the Thunder came via ball-screen action, not mano-a-mano on Steven Adams in the post.

    Even if Nurkic reverts back to a more supporting role in Portland’s offense, the import of his recent play should still loom large. Those fans who have long been pining for him to get additional touches on the block had no defensible reason to justify that desire other than the blind hope Nurkic would fare better with more opportunities than he did with less. He’s getting them now, of course, and taking greater advantage than even his biggest proponents likely thought possible. It remains unclear what level of performance, no matter who the Blazers are playiing,  Nurkic will achieve over the season’s remainder. Either way, it sure is nice for Portland to know for certain that he’s now fully capable of dominating when his number is called.

Fantasy News

  • Luke Kornet - PF - New York Knicks

    According to Chris Haynes, the Knicks will not extend a qualifying offer to Luke Kornet.

    Kornet will hit unrestricted free agency and will likely only return to the Knicks if they miss out on big-time free agents. He has had some bright spots with the Knicks over the past two seasons, so he could garner interest once he hits the open market as a bench stretch-big.

    Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter

  • Emmanuel Mudiay - PG - New York Knicks

    Report: The Knicks will not extend a qualifying offer to Emmanuel Mudiay, which makes him an unrestricted free agent.

    Mudiay was the Knicks' starting point guard for a majority of last season when he was healthy, but since they acquired Dennis Smith Jr. and are pursuing big free agents this move makes sense. He will hit unrestricted free agency and should garner some interest being that he is a young athletic point guard who averaged 14.8 points on 44.6-percent shooting last season.

    Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter

  • DeMarcus Cousins - C - Golden State Warriors

    According to Marc Stein, the Knicks will extend a short-term offer to DeMarcus Cousins if they miss out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard.

    They have been planning for quite some time to pursue the big-time names, but will pursue some short-term deals like Cousins if they strike out. Cousins' offer would likely be a considerable one-year offer, while other free agents may get the same as the Knicks have two max spots.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • Kevin Porter Jr. - PG-SG - Cleveland Cavaliers

    The Cleveland Cavaliers have announced that they have officially acquired the draft rights to Kevin Porter Jr.

    This trade was confirmed on draft night but it has now officially gone through. Porter Jr. figures to see opportunities off the bench as a score first guard for a Cleveland team in desperate need of bench production in his first season. He'll get his first look with his new team in Summer League.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • Stanley Johnson - SF - New Orleans Pelicans

    The Pelicans have opted to not extend a qualifying offer to Stanley Johnson, making him an unrestricted free agent according to Shams Charania of the Athletic.

    This doesn't come as much of a surprise. Johnson struggled to make much of an impact both in Detroit and in New Orleans this season, despite possessing defensive upside that has been mired by his inconsistencies elsewhere throughout his career. He's still 23, and should find an offer elsewhere for next season. Wherever that may be, he will have a long way to go before he will become fantasy relevant.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Derrick Favors - PF - Utah Jazz

    According to Shams Charania of the Athletic, Derrick Favors will field calls from several interested teams and act as if he will be an unrestricted FA, a sign that he doesn't expect the Jazz to pick up his team option.

    Favors has gone on the record indicating that he'd love to return to Utah, but it appears that they are interested in allocating the 17 million he would have made, elsewhere. Favors has always struggled to maximize his fantasy potential playing next to Rudy Gobert, and perhaps a situation with a less clogged paint could do more for his value.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Thomas Bryant - C - Washington Wizards

    Thomas Bryant has been given a qualifying offer from the Wizards, making him a restricted free agent.

    Bryant surprised last season, coming from obscurity to finish with top-125/100 value (8/9-cat). That despite Scott Brooks toying with his minutes. If the Wizards can keep Bryant around last season's workload he'll easily be a steal in fantasy leagues, though we're obviously hoping he takes hold of the starting job.

    Source: Fred Katz on Twitter

  • Romeo Langford - PG - Boston Celtics

    The Celtics start Summer League practice this weekend but first-round pick Romeo Langford will not be cleared for full contact.

    Langford is recovering from right thumb surgery, which is not expected to have any significant long-term effects. This is just the Celtics taking it easy on their new rookie. Hopefully he's cleared before Summer League ends, otherwise we'll get our first look at him in preseason.

    Source: Adam Himmelsbach on Twitter

  • Enes Kanter - C - Trail Blazers

    The Blazers, Lakers and Celtics are among the teams that will be interested in free agent Enes Kanter, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

    Portland knows Kanter well and would surely like to have him back after his admirable work filling in for an injured Jusuf Nurkic, while playing through his own serious ailments, in the playoffs. The Celtics could use a ferocious rebounder to replace Aron Baynes and are barren at the center spot with Al Horford's departure, while the Lakers are lining up cost-effective depth with their roster almost completely empty. Kanter might not replicate his Knicks numbers, but he'll be a standard-league asset no matter where he lands.

    Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter

  • Cheick Diallo - PF - New Orleans Pelicans

    Cheick Diallo will be an unrestricted free agent after the Pelicans decided not to extend him a qualifying offer.

    Diallo has solid per-minute output but the playing time has never been there for him in New Orleans. He's got talent and good work ethic, but the league is flooded with available big men at the moment. Hopefully Diallo lands in a spot where he can continue his development.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter