The Portland Trail Blazers’ hopes for returning to the postseason hinge on a year-long stress test. A single win separated the Blazers from the ninth-seeded Nuggets last season, and with them playoff disqualification. In the months since, Denver has only bolstered its case by importing four-time All-Star Paul Millsap. The Wolves, who won just 31 games last season, are expected to mount a rousing push through the conference ranks behind the newly acquired Jimmy Butler. To compete in the West is to see challengers from all sides. The only way through is to endure them—a feat demanding a continuous crunch of quality basketball.
Consistency has never been these Blazers’ strongest suit. In both of the last two seasons, Portland slogged its way through the opening months to finish December an underwhelming 14–21. Their playoff berths were earned by undoing what they had started. That kind of pacing seems less viable than ever; four teams in the West are mortal locks for the playoffs and seven more are in play for the final four spots. A few spirited months of counterbalancing won’t likely be enough.
A superstar arms race roared across the West this summer, but the Blazers—despite their dips into the market—wound up playing unwitting advocates for nonproliferation. Their most notable offseason transaction was moving off the $56 million owed to Allen Crabbe over the next three seasons. This was, of course, in part because Portland’s deal of note had already been made. The decision to trade Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic back in February both removed any pressure to re-sign Plumlee at an unfavorable number and gave Portland fair reason to think a static summer might be enough. Nurkic played just 20 games for the Blazers. In them, Portland went 14–6 with the statistical markers of a 50-win team, per NBA.com.
Some of that success, particularly on defense, was overstated by a lower quality of competition. Yet the bar on that end of the floor had been set so low (109 points allowed per 100 possessions before the trade, 27th in the league) that even measured improvement could change Portland’s entire complexion. There’s nothing sexy about the climb from being a crummy defense to a decent one. The changes involved are usually subtle—the removal of a bothersome lineup, some slight change in scheme, or the gradual education of a young player—but can swing open a game on winnable margins. The firepower of a team like the Blazers can quickly grow intimidating when it becomes even slightly more difficult to keep pace.
We can say confidently that Portland is better with Nurkic than they were with Plumlee, as tends to happen when a 15-point, 10-rebound, three-assist, two-block center falls out of the sky. How much better is where things get tricky. Twenty games is no sample by which to judge a team, particularly when Nurkic was hardly the only variable involved. Portland had cycled through frontcourt starters for months and finally landed on a combination that made sense. Some of that was Nurkic. Some of it was a string of opponents unprepared to account for him after his midseason move. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are such demanding covers that opponents would have trouble reprogramming their defenses and restructuring their scouting reports on the fly to account for Nurkic’s presence. His play at the end of last season earned him greater consideration in the eyes of the league, for better or worse.
A slimmer, motivated Nurkic could again confound expectations. Nurkic’s first run of minutes alongside Lillard and McCollum (419 in total) was dynamite. Their synergy came easily, surprisingly so given how much Nurkic’s skill set differed from his predecessor’s. Where Portland needs to make up ground is in other combinations of players, including those which should have worked but didn’t. Take the pairing of Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu, perhaps the Blazers’ best defensive options at power forward and center. The balance between them—a bruising center and an agile, lanky forward who covers ground well—shouldn’t have yielded an awful 110.7 points per 100 possessions to Portland’s opponents. Adding Maurice Harkless to the mix to build the Blazers’ best theoretical defensive foundation also shouldn’t have resulted in some of the worst defense of Portland’s season.
Deference is owed to the noise implicit in this kind of segmented data; 20 games of information chopped into lineups and sub-lineups won’t always cut to the truth of the matter. But one working theory for your consideration: Improved conditioning could help Nurkic better support the hybrid starter-reserve lineups that hold the Blazers over through the course of a game. Much will be asked of Nurkic whenever Lillard or McCollum takes a seat; it’s during that time that Nurkic’s scoring, physicality, and offensive rebounding might be at their most valuable, and yet he’s also counted on to bust ass back in transition to uphold a full range of defensive responsibilities. Fatigue is inevitable.
A reported 35-pound weight loss later, Nurkic is better fit to maintain his play from minute to minute than ever before. The style of the modern NBA takes its toll on every center, particularly those of the burly variety. Smart strength and conditioning work can stem the tide. Even if the end result is just a few better-winded minutes in the second or third quarter, the balance of those minutes could prove meaningful in context. We’ve seen what an engaged and invested Nurkic can offer the Blazers (though as the Nuggets might warn, that engagement ought not be taken for granted). Now, just in time for a contract year push, we’ll see how Nurkic wears that committed play on a slighter frame.
If Portland takes a step, it will come from those sorts of interior factors. Perhaps this is the year when Lillard, a limited but hard-working defender, makes a breakthrough to complement his sterling offense. Perhaps the continuity of returning a nearly complete roster will pay off in some unforeseen way. Most of the team—one of the youngest in the league—could build on their gradual progress toward more meaningful development. This particular mix might finally have matured to the point where it no longer undercuts its efforts with slow-starting self-sabotage. The race for consistency—that next level of competitive aptitude—starts now.