TUESDAY IN PORTLAND – They were about to find out what they had.
He had been among them for six weeks, and the early results had been more than promising. But this game would be his biggest challenge yet. Jusuf Nurkic, the new center of the Trail Blazers, would be reunited against Denver -- the team that benched him in December, dumped him in February, and was now racing Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.
“I was concerned,” Portland coach Terry Stotts would admit. “It was a legitimate concern that maybe he would try to do too much, that he would get in foul trouble. The Nuggets maybe would know how to play him, defend him, attack him …”
Each of his 18 appearances in Portland’s uniform had positioned Nurkic to confront the questions that were being asked of him and his new team. Their preceding weeks together had served as a bridge to this decisive three-game home stand at the end of March – the pivotal stretch of the Blazers’ unpredictable season, and the most telling week of their newcomer’s young career.
Nurkic, born and raised in Bosnia and Herzegovina, had not begun playing basketball until he was 14. Within five years he was being drafted No. 16 overall amid a 2014 Draft-night trade that sent Doug McDermott to Chicago. After three years of improvement that were offset by injuries, Nurkic was demoted out of Denver’s starting lineup in December by Nikola Jokic, another young big man whose brilliant passing had elevated the Nuggets out of the lottery and into playoff contention.
“He was in a tough spot,” said Portland GM Neil Olshey. “You are dealing with a young guy who is emotional. Young players don’t want to feel like they were beaten out, whether he was or not. And then the team is performing, and Jokic has been phenomenal. Being the starter so early in your career and having success, and then battling injuries and finding yourself out of the rotation -- it’s a tough pill to swallow. I don’t know if he handled it the right way or if he didn’t. But now we are the beneficiaries of it.”
Even as Olshey had negotiated the Feb. 13 trade that would deliver 22-year-old Nurkic and the first-round pick of the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for 27-year-old center Mason Plumlee, Stotts worried about what Portland was surrendering. The slumping Blazers had been vulnerable all season, and in Plumlee they were giving one of their team-builders.
“When Nurk got on the court I was like, man, 22 years old, a post presence who can score on the block. He can shoot the ball, he’s a rim protector, he wants to win. He’s huge, and he actually sets real screens.”
“Mason was very well-liked by his teammates, he played extremely hard, he was an unselfish player,” Stotts said. “He’s an outstanding passer, and he was able to be our third ballhandler and facilitator. Those were real qualities that we were going to be losing.”
At the time of the trade, the main asset appeared to be the Draft pick -- leaving Portland with three first-rounders to salvage from this deeply disappointing season. But Olshey, like his coach, was not ready to give up the playoff race. Neither was Nurkic. Despite arriving in poor shape, he made all five of his field goals while contributing eight rebounds and three steals in his Blazers debut, a blowout loss at Utah.
“One of the first times Nurk touched the ball, he hit Damian (Lillard) on a nice backdoor pass,” Stotts said. “Rather than trying to score the ball and prove what he can do, he made the pass. That play really stuck with me, because everybody knew how much we were going to miss Mason’s passing.”
Nurkic worked out twice daily during the All-Star break, enabling him to generate 12 points and 12 rebounds in a 34-minute start at Orlando. But it was not until the Blazers came home, three long weeks after the trade, that they began to realize what could be. The 24-35 Blazers had been on track for the lottery when Nurkic opened March with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five blocks in a pivotal 114-109 win over Oklahoma City.
Lillard, the franchise star of the Blazers, had been upset by the departure of Plumlee.
“Mason was one of the best teammates I ever played with,” Lillard said. “So I was emotional about that because I’m losing a guy that I know what I’m going to get from him every time we get out on the floor. And I didn’t know what we were getting in return.”
Then he saw Nurkic -- 7-feet and 280 pounds -- who would average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.0 blocks in his quarter-season with Portland.
“When Nurk got on the court I was like, man, 22 years old, a post presence who can score on the block,” Lillard said “He can shoot the ball, he’s a rim protector, he wants to win. He’s huge, and he actually sets real screens.”
The Blazers found themselves winning 11 of 14 games in March (13-3 in the month), elevating them in step with the surging Nuggets. The No. 8 spot was going to be decided between Nurkic and his former teammate Jokic, the Bosnian against the Serb.
“I already know I’m going to have a big game,” said Nurkic. “It’s just we need to win the game.”
The biggest night of his basketball life was 40 seconds old when Portland’s new weapon bullied up an offensive rebound for his first points against Jokic. By now Nurkic had emerged as Portland’s gigantic version of Jeremy Lin, the unexpected savior to their lost season. The roars of his new fans in the Moda Center were both celebrating and demanding, and he in turn waved up to them like a conductor of their music.
True to form, Jokic (17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) spent the evening passing effectively to his cutters. But Nurkic was the cutter - rolling hard and scoring around the basket, all the while displaying his emotions like an operatic diva. Shooting guard C.J. McCollum was leading everyone with 39 points, and Lillard was adding 19 points, seven assists and three steals, but the engine of Portland’s 122-113 win was Nurkic with his career-high of 33 points (on 15 shots) and 15 rebounds.
“The future is unbelievable,” Nurkic would say. “I just wish I started the season with this team.”
In his ground-floor office, backed by a picture window facing out to the two practice courts, Olshey considered an analytics printout that had been updated for him that morning. It showed how Portland’s efficiency had been overhauled by the trade for Nurkic.
|Player||Pre-All Star Break||Post- All Star Break||Net Improvement|
“With Noah, that’s a 20-points-per-100-possessions shift for the starting power forward,” said Olshey as his players practiced on the other side of the window. “We are 20 points better per 100 possessions with Noah Vonleh on the floor now than we were when he was playing with Plumlee.”
Overall Portland’s offensive rating had risen from No. 13 in the NBA to No. 3 since the All-Star Break, and its defensive rating had vaulted from No. 26 to No. 10 around the domineering paint presence of Nurkic. Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs had maintained a better ratings differential over the last five weeks.
The impact of the new center on the Blazers was obvious. And then, too, there was the equally helpful influence that had been experienced by Nurkic, whose rating in Denver had been minus-10.3 points. In 19 games thus far with Portland, Nurkic’s own rating had risen to 7.6 -- a net gain of 17.9 points per 100 possessions.
Olshey has assembled the youngest active roster in the NBA, with no one older than 28-year-old Evan Turner, and then last summer -- at the urging of owner Paul Allen -- he had incurred the NBA’s third-largest payroll in order to keep the roster intact. Now he was seeing that the roster was worthy of the investment. The arrival of Nurkic was not transforming his teammates so much as it was allowing their talents to be revealed. His blend of size and skills was enabling the other Blazers to fulfill the roles that they were meant to play.
“We always talk about this -- that we didn’t have a ‘third guy’ on our roster,” said Olshey. “We needed that third guy. Now that we have him,” and here Olshey was referring to Nurkic, “we can see what the role players can do. Because Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner -- they are role players, and if you were asking them to be the third guy, you were going to be disappointed.
“In terms of their overall game and impact, they can now be who they are. Now Noah is back to being a 4 playing against 4s, where before he was a 4 that had to defend 5s or be guarded by 5s. It wasn’t fair to him. Nobody is going to indict Allen Crabbe -- he can have a bad game now, because nobody is looking at him like he is supposed to be Kevin Love to LeBron (James) and Kyrie (Irving). That is what Nurk has allowed.”
Throughout this frustrating season Stotts had believed the Blazers were on the verge of turning things around and renewing the momentum of last season, which had been one of the most satisfying of his career. After losing LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency in 2015, the Blazers had turned over the roster and rebuilt the starting lineup instantly around Lillard. They had gone 25-12 to close out last season, they had upset the injured LA Clippers in the opening round and they had taken the defending-champion Warriors to a tightly-contested five-game conference semifinal.
“We were close to being the team that we were last year,” said Stotts. “But you are who your record says you are.”
“A city of this size, with the support that they bring, how can you look them in the eye and tell them you’re going to put an inferior product on the floor consciously?”
The team’s disappointing record over the initial four months of this season had forced Olshey to consider the typical reaction of losing teams – to sacrifice wins in favor of adding talent in the upcoming draft. But that would have meant undermining the core strengths of his franchise. The GM recognized that the foundation was solid, that Stotts brought a soothing influence to the players in his steady belief – shared with Lillard – that the daily work would see them through. Another crucial part of the infrastructure was provided by the Portland fans, who provided the young Blazers with incessantly positive feedback that is rarely found in professional sports. The Moda Center is a fertile environment for developing talent.
“It is such a college environment here with the team,” Olshey said. “I remember coming here as a coach and then as an opposing team executive -- you felt like you were in Lexington with Kentucky, or in a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. I think our players feed off that. I don’t know if it has the same impact on a veteran player who has played with multiple teams; but so many of our guys came right from college into the organization, and I really do think it’s no different than a young college player walking in as a freshman and being embraced and being supported by a fanbase.”
There was too much to be lost by tanking the season, Olshey decided. He couldn’t expect his young players to accept a losing strategy for the remaining two months without harming their development – especially when the fans as well as Allen were continuing to support them regardless of results.
“A city of this size, with the support that they bring, how can you look them in the eye and tell them you’re going to put an inferior product on the floor consciously?” Olshey said. “When you get into this whole should-you-tank, should-you-not-tank, how can you ethically do that to people who support your team? I understand there are other reasons you lose -- you have a bad year, people have injuries, it just doesn’t work. But to tell people that support this organization that you’re not going to try? You can’t do that. You just can’t.”
There had been many reasons behind the trade: the draft pick, and Plumlee’s imminent free agency vs. Nurkic’s rookie-contract status. But the immediate impact of Nurkic’s size at both ends of the floor -- creating shots for Lillard and McCollum while also providing rim protection for them defensively -- was germane to Olshey’s desire to make something of this season.
“It’s very easy to talk about tanking on a blog or a message-board or a radio call-in show,” Olshey said. “But then go have a conversation with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Go tell them we don’t believe in you and your ability to get this group where it needs to go. We paid them because these were all high-character guys that love the game and continue to compete and grow and develop. If you change that priority and say, 'Take the last 30 games off because we are going to play for the draft,’ how do you get them to buy in again the following season? You can’t flip the switch. It is why the organizations that we all aspire to become in this league are who they are. And it’s also why the ones we are all afraid of becoming are who they are. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes building a culture and knowing that guys are going to come here because they have an opportunity to win.”
And so, he had made the trade for Nurkic not to tear down, but rather to replenish.
One of the most difficult transitions of the season is to prepare on short notice for the fast-paced, floor-stretching Rockets.
“Do you know how hard it is to get 40 threes a game?” asked Stotts. As hard as it was for coach Mike D’Antoni to create those shots, it was even more difficult for Stotts to defend against them.
Houston’s offense revolved around James Harden, the 27-year-old MVP favorite. He was up against 26-year-old Lillard, a two-time All-Star who, in spite of his steady improvement, been overlooked for the last two All-Star Games.
“Last year when I didn’t make it, that might have been one of the best things to happen to me,” Lillard said of the 2016 All-Star Game. “Because when I actually wasn’t there and the game passed by, I wasn’t sad. And it didn’t kill my mood. I was like, OK, I can live with that. I don’t need the validation. And that is pretty cool, you know what I mean?”
He had realized what he already knew: That leading his team into the playoffs was by far the more fulfilling goal.
“So let’s get to the playoffs,” said Lillard. “If I am averaging 26 points, six assists, five rebounds and we are having an opportunity to compete in the playoffs while we are rebuilding, that is an All-Star. The way I represent my family and my city and this organization, I represent what an All-Star is. And then this year it happens again. The numbers are the best of my career. It gets to the point, when it comes to the All-Star Game and the recognition and all that stuff, I am not the problem.
"I work hard. I know that I am a genuine good person. I know my teammates like playing with me. I’m coachable. I win. Regardless of what they say about me, you don’t average 27 points a game by accident. So it’s not me. It’s whether or not people want to give me credit for my work.”
There was a photo in the GM’s office of Olshey and Lillard shaking hands in the summer of 2015, not long after Aldridge had left for San Antonio. It shows them leaning across a negotiating table to shake hands like old friends reunited. The joy for Olshey was especially sincere, based on his concern that Lillard might have followed Aldridge out the door.
“It was a week after we lost 80 percent of the starting lineup to free agency, and Damian would’ve had every excuse in the world to say, you know what, I’m going to wait,” said Olshey. “He has a big enough off-court portfolio where it was no great risk from a financial standpoint. He could have played it out.
“It was the first day the moratorium ended, and that kid came in and signed a five-year extension. And that leads to the following year when C.J. McCollum was doing an extension, and last summer Allen Crabbe wanting his offer sheet matched, and Moe Harkless signing on. I think that is the message we want out there - instead of looking at whatever negatives certain marketplaces have, why don’t you look at what the guys who have been here and were drafted by the organization have chosen to do? Big-name players like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum – the entire league would have created room to pursue them - live here full-time now. Dame owns a home. C.J. owns a home. Meyers (Leonard), Allen Crabbe and Al-Farouk Aminu own homes. They aren’t here six months and then they fly off to a sunnier locale. They live here.”
The team had been rebuilt overnight in 2015 in Lillard’s image. Despite predictions that he and his young teammates would hit bottom in the league standings, Lillard had routinely met with the front-office staff last season and promised, “We’re going to get to the playoffs.” This season Lillard was making good on the same vows again. He had the perspective of an old soul paired with a young star’s athleticism.
“Our operating thesis was anybody we bring in has to be on the same career arc as Damian,” said Olshey. “So they can grow together, and he can read the group. We didn’t want to be in both worlds. We didn’t want to have one foot in, are we a development team? And the other foot in, are we an aging veteran team that has to win now? Because then you’re not really on a clear path.
“We all know who the elite teams in the Western Conference are. To think that one move is going to make you move ahead of them is unrealistic. One of the things we felt like is, we can retain all of the guys on this roster, continue to draft well, and make opportunistic trades that are on the same career arc. What that gives us is a longer runway than some teams. Our average age is 24.3 years, and they are all under contract. So we can let this roster grow and mature and hopefully get to the point where the success is sustainable.”
Now Lillard was competing against Harden from their opposing points of view. Harden’s Rockets were locked into the No. 3 seed in the West and biding their time until the playoffs, whereas Lillard’s Blazers were fighting to maintain their momentum that had been hard-earned. Through three quarters the two stars had each scored 27 points, though Lillard had taken nearly half as many shots as Harden while building up a 13-point lead.
Then, true to their results this season, the stubborn Rockets recommitted to their defensive principles. They put a body on Nurkic before he could roll while getting into the space of the Portland guards, and the deficit shrunk.
The game was even with 2:05 remaining when Nurkic leaned his left shoulder into Nene - then spun the other way to the baseline for a go-ahead layup while his fans reacted like their dreams were coming true. The Blazers pulled free to a 117-107 win that tightened their grip on the No. 8 spot. Lillard had scored 31 points on 18 shots to go with 11 assists, while Harkless had added 17 points and six rebounds.
“After the game, ‘He was like, ‘Man, my leg is hurting,”’ said Lillard of Nurkic, who had provided 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes. “And that was when I was like, 'Man, are you alright?’ I wanted him to check it out.”
“Just continue what we’ve been doing,” Lillard was saying at the conclusion of the three-game home stand. “Just have the mindset that we’ve had going into every game.”
Lillard had scored 31 points on 16 shots, and McCollum had joined in with 29 on 19. The bookending guards had each provided seven assists and five rebounds. The Blazers had won 130-117 against the visiting Phoenix Suns, a young team that was mired in a program of long-term rebuilding.
Watching from the bench in street clothes was Nurkic. It turned out that he had suffered a non-displaced fibular fracture in his right leg while playing the game of his life against Denver. He had continued to ignore the pain two nights later.
“It’s a big game for us to beat Houston,” he explained, “so I try to fight through and help my teammates.”
The injury had been diagnosed Friday morning, and yet it was by no means damning. Nurkic had been in a good mood that night while dining in Portland with backup center Meyers Leonard.
“Right now I have no pain,” Nurkic said Saturday. “Just a little discomfort.”
The plan was to re-evaluate Nurkic in two weeks, in hope that he may be available for an opening-round series – most likely against the Warriors.
“You’ve got to keep going,” Lillard said late Saturday night. “It’s tough news. But it’s just like when things happen in life, and life goes on. You’ve got to figure it out. Things like this happen sports. And you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to figure it out.”
They had already resolved the most difficult issues. Altogether, from the owner who signed onto the expensive contracts, to the coach who kept believing in the moment, to the GM who brought the roster into sync, to the fans who renewed their spirits night after night, the young Blazers had turned a lost year into a reason to believe. They were back to .500 with six games to be played. Every experience, good and bad, then and now, had been transformed into opportunity.
“Now we’ve got to be able to rely on other guys to come in and fill that hole,” Lillard was saying as he looked ahead to the final fortnight and the playoffs to come. “I think in the end it will make us better.”
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