• Jusuf Nurkic‘s first foray into free agency has come at the wrong time. After a season spent anchoring a top-10 defense and further rounding off the rough edges of his offensive skills, the Portland Trail Blazers center should theoretically be poised for a massive payday on the open market. Health is a feather in his cap, too. Nurkic missed just three games last season, putting concerns about early-career injuries to both his legs to rest. The 23-year-old Bosnian played the best basketball of his life in 2017-18, turning flashes of promise into consistent if unspectacular production on both ends of the floor, making his case to be Portland’s center of the present and future.

    The playoffs, at least in terms of earning potential and his staying power in the Rose City, rendered all of that progress moot. Nurkic was a glaring liability on defense against the New Orleans Pelicans, subject to keeping up with Anthony Davis or staying attached to Nikola Mirotic, and hardly made up for that reality by exploiting his size advantage offensively. Being played off the floor in a first-round sweep by the hand of a lower-seeded team would have been bad enough for Nurkic by itself, but his market in free agency is shrunken further by the dearth of cap space throughout the league. Only so many teams have significant spending room this summer, or the necessary flexibility to easily create it.

    Nurkic won’t be one of the top targets for any team with cap space who needs help up front, either. He’s certainly behind Clint Capela, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan in the pecking order of free-agent centers, and some teams would surely rather take an inexpensive flier on guys like Nerlens Noel or Alex Len than commit an eight-figure salary over multiple years to the type of big man the game is passing by.

    The Blazers understand both Nurkic’s limitations and the league’s spending crunch better than anyone else. The ultra-conservative defensive system that propelled them to such surprising success before being exposed in the playoffs was implemented to maximize his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses. The same could be said for most every player on Portland’s roster; this isn’t a team overflowing with top-tier defensive personnel. But as the last line of defense who rarely stepped outside the paint and had ball handlers funneled his direction, Nurkic informed the Blazers’ ability to get stops more than any of his teammates.

    It worked in the regular season. Portland held opponents to 58.8 percent shooting at the rim, the league’s stingiest mark, an achievement Nurkic’s fingerprints were all over. Forty-one players contested at least four shots from the restricted area this season, and Nurkic’s allowed field goal percentage of 54.8 ranked sixth among them – better than Rudy Gobert‘s and just behind Anthony Davis’, world-beaters who finished first and third in Defensive Player of the Year voting, respectively.

    Nurkic, despite slimming down last summer, is still huge, with long arms and underrated short-area quickness. He rarely takes false steps corralling ball handlers in the paint, and has enough coordination and fluidity to make up for missteps after they inevitably occur. When he’s not tasked with venturing to the perimeter, Nurkic is a solid all-around defender at worst, and a highly-impactful one at best. He’s grown especially adept at preventing mid-range looks from ball handlers while primary defenders trail over the top of screens, then quickly recovering back to the roller for effective contests.

    That’s a multiple-effort play, the kind Nurkic didn’t make with any sense of reliability during his star-crossed stint with the Denver Nuggets. If there’s a takeaway from his performance in 2017-18 not obscured by his struggles in the postseason, it’s his vastly improved engagement and overall attitude. Nurkic, save a few isolated moments of frustration, played with an unrelenting edge while rarely losing control of his emotions, dipping his foul rate to a career-low in the process – crucial considering his untenable penchant for fouling over the first two years of his career.

    But the playoffs have a way of clarifying what’s real and what’s fake, and Nurkic’s inability to defend against New Orleans put a bolded asterisk next to his encouraging play on that side of the ball from the regular season. Lacking the speed and overall athleticism to check Davis or Mirotic and meet Pelicans playmakers at the level of screens on the perimeter without getting beaten, it became clear Nurkic was a victim of the game’s increasing reliance on pace and space. He went from the driving force behind Portland’s surprisingly stingy defense, to the player most responsible for his team yielding open three after open three and layup after layup to an opponent that was suddenly scoring with the ease of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

    History won’t look back on Nurkic’s play against New Orleans any more fondly, but context is still key to putting it in proper perspective. Just how much differently would that series have played out if DeMarcus Cousins was healthy, and the Pelicans hadn’t been compelled to trade for Mirotic? Nurkic would certainly have been far more valuable in that scenario, and not just because he has the strength to bang with Cousins in the post. More importantly, New Orleans playing Davis and Cousins together for a majority of the first round would have cramped its spacing offensively and opened up room for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to maneuver on the other end of the floor. Even more so than Nurkic, Cousins would rather stay near the basket and wait for the action to come to him rather than meeting it near the arc.

    But there’s a reason the twin-tower Pelicans were an anomaly from the beginning, and might be broken up in free agency. Modern-day centers play far more like Davis than Cousins. The two-way dynamism thoroughbred seven-footers with shooting range provide extends to building rosters and lineups. It’s much easier to take advantage of all-court switching – a gambit Portland was forced to resort to in crunch time during the first round as Nurkic watched from the bench – with bigs who can credibly check guards and space the floor to the 3-point line. Davis is the unicorn who can do both, but possessing just one of those qualities is enough for centers to stay on the floor in the playoffs; think Clint Capela sliding with Steph Curry after a switch, and Aron Baynes slipping to the corner for three once the Boston Celtics crease the paint.

    Nurkic will never have the foot speed to hang with guards, and his 37.9 percent shooting from mid-range last season doesn’t exactly suggest he’ll be knocking down threes any time soon. For all the justified talk of the Blazers’ need to get him touches on the block against New Orleans, it’s also not like an offense can be run through him down low. Nurkic scored on just 40.3 percent of his post-ups in 2017-18, the third-worst number among 31 players who used at least 150 such possessions. Though he catches everything and has a natural sense of timing as a dive man, he ranked in the 38th percentile on rolls to the rim, struggles most accounted for by his lack of vertical explosion in a crowd.

    The extent of his postseason labors changed everything for Nurkic, but also wasn’t hard to see coming. We highlighted the distinct possibility of him being abused by the Pelicans defensively in our preview of the series. It doesn’t take a trained basketball eye to see why Nurkic is ill-suited for the direction the game is going, either. All that said, there’s still a role for him in the league, and probably with the Blazers – just not the marquee one he seemed poised to occupy for the foreseeable future during a strong regular season.

    On Wednesday, Portland officially made Nurkic a restricted free agent by tendering his one-year qualifying offer of $4.7 million. He and his agent have made it clear since last offseason, when the Blazers showed little interest in discussing a contract extension, that Nurkic hopes to make Portland his long-term home. Before the playoffs, all momentum pointed to player and team reaching a multi-year agreement this summer that accurately reflected Nurkic’s improvement and the Blazers’ existence as a team operating over the salary cap, likely to pay luxury-tax penalties for at least next season, if not longer. Now, after a supremely disappointing first-round loss that magnified Nurkic’s fragile place in the modern NBA and doubled as a damning assessment of this core’s potential to contend down the road, that sort of compromise might be off the table entirely.

    Portland will play hard ball with Nurkic, content to let the market decide his value before overpaying him for no reason. There just doesn’t appear to be a team with cap space in need of a starting center that will feel comfortable earmarking that role for Nurkic, let alone grant him the expected payday that comes with it. His new reality is as a quality backup or short-term starter, and his qualifying offer happens to be an amount that aligns with the impact that caliber of player typically makes. Adding to the likelihood that Nurkic plays next season on his qualifying offer is a glut of cap room across the league that will open up next summer, allowing him to gain a sense of financial security a one-year contact sacrifices.

    That outcome would be a boon for the Blazers. Not only would they stand a better chance of ducking the luxury tax next season, but they would maintain some continuity while waiting for Zach Collins to develop the strength necessary to play center full-time. The risk of Nurkic, something close to a malcontent with the Nuggets, mucking up team chemistry as a result of failed contract negotiations is mitigated by the presence of Lillard, too. The only remaining question here is whether Nurkic, given those aforementioned injury issues, has enough confidence in his ability to stay healthy to retain league-wide value until he hits free agency again a year from now.

    This isn’t where Portland or Nurkic thought they would be this summer. Just three months ago, the sides seemed on track for a long-term contract that would make Nurkic a cog of a Blazers team clearly on the upswing. Not anymore, which is actually a good thing for the Blazers. It’s far better to have learned of Nurkic’s inability to thrive against today’s top frontcourts prior to giving him the pricey contract that once seemed likely to head his way.

    After all that, Nurkic’s future is probably still in Portland; it’s just unlikely to last nearly as long as most anticipated. We’ll find out for sure over the next couple weeks.

Fantasy News

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    PF, Golden State Warriors

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  • Eric Paschall
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    SG, Golden State Warriors

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  • Jordan Poole
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  • Anthony Davis
    PF-C, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Davis got it done across the board and was able to check out after only playing 25 minutes which is a win on all sides. It looks like the shoulder is fine so keep on plugging him in.

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

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    C, Los Angeles Lakers

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    PG, Los Angeles Lakers

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  • Draymond Green
    PF, Golden State Warriors

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  • Hassan Whiteside
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