For the first time in years, the Blazers managed to nail down a core piece on a long-term contract that can be described as “team-friendly.”
Portland re-signed restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic on Friday to a four-year deal worth a reported $48 million. The 23-year-old Bosnian big man averaged a career-high 14.3 PPG and 9 RPG in 79 starts last season while helping the Blazers post a top-10 defensive rating.
After mucking up his books with big-dollar deals for Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard in recent years, Blazers president Neil Olshey threaded the needle with Nurkic. This was an intriguing negotiation to watch, one in which both sides genuinely needed each other.
Olshey needed to keep his best big man to placate All-NBA guard Damian Lillard and avoid backsliding following a surprising run to the West’s No. 3 seed. Nurkic needed the first major payday of his career during a summer in which money has been tight and traditional centers have failed to generate much interest.
Both sides had good reasons to avoid Nurkic signing a qualifying offer next season. For Portland, doing so would have ruffled the feathers of a player who has had trouble, at times, controlling his emotions during his NBA career. Punting to next summer also would have opened the possibility that Nurkic walked for nothing, leaving the Blazers without a capable starting center or a quality trade chip to acquire one.
For Nurkic, the time to cash in was now: He just turned in by far the most complete season of his career, he enjoyed great health after multiple injury issues in Denver, and he spent the last 12 months on a contract-year grind, losing weight and doing his best to control his occasional bouts of frustration at coaching decisions. Waiting a year would have exposed him to risks that he simply didn’t face at present.
Nurkic isn’t a perfect player: he could be more assertive, forceful and consistent on offense, and his traditional frame makes it difficult for him to cover ground defensively. Even so, he’s made major strides as an interior defender, he can punish smaller defenders, he’s developed a nice chemistry with Lillard, and he’s a more creative passer than most players his size. His presence played a major role in Portland’s defensive improvement in 2017-18 and the Blazers would be grasping at straws to replace him if he had departed.
The final terms represent a bit of a face-saving compromise. Nurkic now stands as Portland’s highest-paid big man, a key superlative given Leonard’s large contract and small role. He also received more total compensation than Nuggets center Mason Plumlee, the player he was traded for in 2017. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million contact last summer and has not matched Nurkic’s production since the trade. Nurkic’s value spiked sharply after his much-celebrated arrival in Portland, but this deal fell far short of the rich contracts that top-flight centers still command.
It’s fair to question how far a team whose three best players are Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic can go in the playoffs, especially on the heels of an ugly first-round sweep by the Pelicans. However, Olshey faced a more pressing dilemma: He was so capped out and lacking in trade assets that he had no method for finding a comparable replacement for Nurkic. If Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic were wiped off the court in the playoffs, how well would Lillard and McCollum fare if they had been forced to lean on Portland’s other shaky frontcourt options?
There’s a public relations element at play too. The Blazers’ disastrous 2016 summer has cost them Crabbe, Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis and other pieces, as Olshey has been forced to maneuver around his self-inflicted cap crunch. Losing Nurkic, who emerged as an unexpected gem after a rough start to his career in Denver, would have been a body blow for a fan base that’s become increasingly tired of taking one step forward and then one step back. Keeping him counts as a tidy piece of business.