By Casey Holdahl - Even though the Portland Trail Blazers were in the thick of the race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference prior to the All-Star Break, there didn’t seem to be much optimism regarding the likelihood of making the postseason for the fourth-straight year.

There was even less enthusiasm about the team’s long-term prospects, as the prior three months were an endless feedback loop of inconsistent and unenthusiastic play. The excitement born from wildly surpassing expectations and advancing to the second round the season before was replaced with a grim acceptance that perhaps this team as constructed simply wasn’t good enough. And after using all of their cap space for the foreseeable future by giving CJ McCollum a near-max rookie extension, resigning Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard and signing Evan Turner as a free agent, it was hard to figure how they might go improving in both the short and long term. 

So with that reality setting in and the trade deadline looming, Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey traded starting center Mason Plumlee along with a 2018 second-round pick and cash considerations to Denver for a 2017 first-round pick and a 7-0 third-year center named Jusuf Nurkić, a player who had fallen completely out of the rotation and off the NBA radar thanks to the play of one of his teammates, Nikola Jokic. Securing a first round pick for a player who they would be, for all intents and purposes, unable to resign anyway — Plumlee is a restricted free agent this summer — was a great move in and of itself for the Trail Blazers, and it made sense to bring back a center as they were already short on bigs with 28 games to play. 

But it became clear almost immediately after his arrival in Portland that it was Nurkić, not the draft pick, that would be the gem of the trade. Though he was a bit out of shape, it became apparent within his first few practices that not only was Nurkić now the best big man on the roster, but he had the ability to be the best center the Trail Blazers had had in years, and perhaps decades. As a more tradition, back-to-the-basket paint presence, Nurkić provided the Trail Blazers with something they had been searching for since LaMarcus Aldridge left in free agency: a player who Portland could score in the post and defend the rim. He also proved himself to be an adept passer, which helped make up for the playmaking loss with Plumlee’s departure. 

Nurkić came off the bench in his first game after the trade, a 111-88 loss to the Jazz in Utah in Portland’s final game before the All-Star break, and finished with 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, eight rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist in 21 minutes. He would start at center every game thereafter, and while it would take a few more games to worth of fitness and familiarity to get him up to speed, Nurkić would go on to all but save Portland’s season, averaging 15.2 points on 51 percent shooting, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals, making him the first player since Mychal Thompson to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first 20 games as a Trail Blazer. 

While helped by a post All-Star push by Damian Lillard, Nurkić’s play was the primary driver behind the team going 13-3 in March and making the postseason. Whether it was putting up 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks versus the Sixers, a stat line no play had achieved since Charles Barkley did it in 1986, or finishing with 33 points and 15 rebounds versus his old team in a game that gave Portland the advantage over Denver for the 8th-seed, Nurkić breathed life into a  team and fan base that was trending toward the moribund. 

Nurkić’s season would be cut short thanks to a nondisplaced fracture in his right leg, an injury that he played through to to tune of 19 points and 11 rebounds in a 117-107 victory versus the Rockets on March 30, but by then, the front office and fans had seen enough to believe he was the third option the team had sought to complement Lillard and CJ McCollum.