When assessing NBA trades, it usually takes more than a few weeks to figure out who got the better end of the deal. One trade from February’s deadline, though, looks just about settled — and it could end up deciding who claims the West’s No. 8 seed.
When the Portland Trail Blazers dealt with the Denver Nuggets, the focus was not on big man Jusuf Nurkic. The big player in that deal was supposedly center Mason Plumlee, a key figure in the Blazers’ impressive run through the playoffs last season and generally a more established figure in the league. Most analysis of the trade said that Plumlee had been dealt so that Portland could get value before he left in restricted free agency, which was less a desired outcome than an unfortunate byproduct of a few summers full of big money contracts for other players.
Maybe Blazers general manager Neil Olshey knew something we didn’t. Nurkic has been terrific for Portland, which became especially clear in Thursday’s 114-108 overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers. The burly 22-year-old Bosnian dominated the contest and finished with 28 points (9-of-18 FG, 10-of-13 FT), 20 rebounds (seven offensive), eight assists, and six blocks — all career bests — in a statistical line that ranks as one of the most remarkable from a big man in recent NBA history. In fact, only Kevin Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Charles Barkley have logged 28 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, and five rebounds since 1983-84. Among that bunch, only Barkley’s single game matches Nurkic’s totals from Thursday.
Nurkic’s place on that list is not exactly a harbinger of things to come — we probably won’t look back on this game in five years and recognize it as the moment he became a perennial All-Star. Nevertheless, it isn’t so out of step with what he has done for the Blazers in eight appearances:
Blazers got Jusuf Nurkic AND 2017 1st for Mason Plumlee & a 2nd. So far, Nurkic at 16.5 pts, 9.6 rebs, 4.5 asts per v. Plumlee 9, 7.2, & 3.2
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) March 10, 2017
The game-by-game numbers bear out his success. Nurkic has scored in double figures all but one, grabbed eight rebounds five times, dished out five assists five times, and blocked five shots twice. All indications say that he can be a solid rebounder and interior presence while simultaneously covering the passing that seemed to be lost when the Blazers let Plumlee go.
It’s all been quite surprising. Even those who thought highly of Nurkic didn’t foresee him playing with less level of skill in the thick of a playoff race. For him, though, it’s all about finally being given the chance to play:
"I played minutes for first time in my life"
Nice little subtweet here from Nurkic to Nuggets after setting career-highs in PTS/REB/AST/BLK pic.twitter.com/3uXjJ2pux2
— ????Sky Wob???? (@World_Wide_Wob) March 10, 2017
It’s likely that this difference isn’t only due to a 12.4-minute boost in playing time. With the Blazers, Nurkic is being asked to control the interior. On the Nuggets, he was clearly behind Nikola Jokic in the big-man pecking order and, as the trade proved, inessential to the team’s long-term future.
If Nurkic keeps it up, he could help swing the race for the conference’s final playoff berth away from his old team and towards his new one. The Blazers are 5-3 in his eight appearances, including four straight wins (two over the Oklahoma City Thunder). That’s not the mark of a world-beater, but whichever team wins the still quite open race for eight doesn’t have to dominate. At just a half-game back of the Nuggets and a game ahead of the No. 10 Dallas Mavericks, the Blazers could probably get away with winning five of every eight games. Given how all the contenders have played this season, that might be enough to win it easily.
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