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With A Healthy Jusuf Nurkić, The Trail Blazers Are On The Cusp Of The Playoffs

Despite entering the NBA bubble 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies, the current overwhelming favorite to capture the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference is the Portland Trail Blazers. The FiveThirtyEight RAPTOR-based forecast gives the Blazers a 76 percent chance of making the postseason, up from just 12 percent prior to the restart.

We projected the Blazers to go just 3-5 at Walt Disney World,1 yet with just two “regular-season” games left, they’ve gone 4-2, with those two losses coming by a combined 9 points. The Blazers have gotten the usual sparkling play from Damian Lillard, strong complementary scoring from CJ McCollum and outrageous sniping from both Carmelo Anthony (47.8 percent from three) and Gary Trent Jr. (56.9 percent despite a 1 of 6 performance on Sunday), but it’s unlikely they’d be where they are right now without the contributions of their starting center: Jusuf Nurkić.

Nurk suffered compound fractures to the tibia and fibula of his lower left leg during a double-overtime win over the Nets in March 2019, and at the time this season went on hiatus, he had been out for two weeks shy of a full year. Nurkić initially made a dramatic return to the fold at halftime of a playoff game last season: As ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne wrote, Nurkić was watching the game at home and was frustrated by his inability to help, so he had his girlfriend drive him to the arena. The Blazers — down by 8 to the Thunder when he joined the bench — stormed back with Nurkić watching from the sidelines instead of his couch and won the game on Damian Lillard’s iconic walk-off three.

While it still may have been possible for Nurkić to return had the 2019-20 season continued apace, the coronavirus-induced suspension of play gave him even more time to heal and work himself back into shape. That extra time has paid off. Nurkić is averaging 18.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks per game. He’s playing nearly 32 minutes a night, and both his usage rate and true shooting percentage are essentially unchanged from when we last saw him. The sample is obviously tiny, but he is working on career-best figures in win shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus (including offensive, defensive and overall), player efficiency rating, turnover rate and assist rate.

The Blazers had a quality offense prior to the hiatus, tied for ninth-best in the league. But inserting Nurkić for Hassan Whiteside (who started 61 of the team’s 66 games) has kicked things into an even higher gear. Portland leads the bubble in offensive efficiency, scoring a hilarious 120.9 points per 100 possessions — nearly 2 points more than the next-closest team. Nurkić has picked up right where he left off, showcasing wonderful chemistry with the team’s two scoring stars.

Pick and rolls featuring Lillard as the ball-handler and Nurkić as the screener have resumed their rightful place as the foundation of the team’s offense. No duo has run more pick and rolls during the restart than Dame and Nurk, who have paired on 127 screens, per Second Spectrum. Those pick and rolls have also been wildly profitable, with a typical possession including a Lillard-Nurkić ball screen producing 1.243 points — a scoring rate that ranks 25th out of 281 duos who have paired on at least 125 screens on the season as a whole.

McCollum tends to have a higher usage when he plays with the second unit sans Lillard, so he and Nurkić have not connected on as many plays,2 but the 24 dribble handoffs they have completed so far have yielded 34 points — a spectacular scoring rate.

Nurkić’s overall passing performance has been wonderful as well — his 7.2 potential assists per game are fourth-best among bubble centers, per NBA.com, while his 4.8 assists and 11.3 points created off assists each rank third. There’s a little bit of luck involved there, as his Blazer teammates are outperforming their expected effective field-goal percentage off his passes by 7.8 points, but among the 29 centers who have created at least 10 shots with their passes during the restart, he has still created the ninth-highest quantified shot quality — or expected effective field-goal percentage — with his dishes. His proficiency at passing out of double-teams in the post as well as on the move in pick-and-roll situations far exceeds that of Whiteside, which opens things up a bit more for his teammates.

Of course, not everything has been rosy. Like the rest of the Blazers, Nurk is getting absolutely flambéed on the less glamorous end of the court. Portland’s bubble defense has been an outright disaster. Nurkić himself has some of the worst defensive numbers on the team (they’ve been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the floor than on the bench), and boy does the eye test back them up.

He’s always been more of a rim-protector than a guy who can guard in space, and it’s not at all surprising that he would struggle with the latter role after missing 16 months with a serious leg injury. But seemingly all Blazer opponents have needed to generate an easy score during the restart is to involve Nurkić in any kind of action that forces him to move his feet: pick and roll, dribble handoff, off-ball screen, anything.

Nurkić is struggling mightily on defense

Points per possession given up by the Portland Trail Blazers on actions defended by Jusuf Nurkić, and his rank on each type, since July 30, 2020

Type of action defended plays defended Pts/Poss Rank
Pick and roll 149 1.29 52nd of 55
Dribble handoff 37 1.47 29th of 29
Off-ball screen 56 1.23 29th of 38

To qualify, defenders must have played 50 pick and rolls, 20 dribble handoffs and 50 off-ball screens.

Source: Second Spectrum

It’s not ideal that Portland has the misfortune of playing its next game against the Dallas Mavericks, who have the most efficient offense in NBA history. After Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis sat out the team’s Monday afternoon win over the Utah Jazz, it seems likely they’ll be back in action tonight. Given Portland’s defensive struggles, it’s equally unlikely the Blazers will lock down Dallas’s dynamic duo. They’re going to have to win the game with their offense. Lucky for them, Nurkić is there to help.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Walt Disney World and FiveThirtyEight are owned by different divisions of The Walt Disney Company.

  2. Nurkić has shared the floor with both Lillard and McCollum for 161 of his 191 total minutes.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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