Eight months after the trade deadline deal that sent Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick to the Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee, the highly-publicized and debated trade looks like a win-win for both Portland and Denver.
The Trail Blazers potentially have their franchise center and a big man who fits well with their cornerstone backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum while Denver, who just re-upped Plumlee to a three-year $41 million contract, has their backup center for the foreseeable future and one that fits their culture and basketball philosophy.
Sure the trade had its obvious drawbacks from Denver’s perspective. The Trail Blazers, who were just 23-32 when they acquired Nurkic — two games in the loss column behind the Nuggets in the Western Conference standings — ran off 18 wins in their last 27 games to overcome Denver and clinch the eighth seed with a 41-41 record. The kill shot was 122-113 late-March loss in Portland where Nurkic had arguably his best game in a Blazers’ uniform scoring 33 points on 12-15 shooting to go with 15 rebounds and two blocks.
With the win, the Trail Blazers gained a one-game lead on the Nuggets and never looked back. In 20 games with Portland last season, Nurkic averaged a double-double; 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in nearly 30 minutes per game.
Denver was eliminated from playoff contention a few weeks later when Russell Westbrook dropped a 50-burger, broke Oscar Robertson‘s record of 41 triple-doubles in a season, and buried a game-winning 36-foot dagger all in the same night before a capacity crowd at Pepsi Center serenaded the Most Valuable Player with a standing ovation for his efforts.
But Nurkic wasn’t happy with his role in Denver after beginning the year in the starting lineup only to fall out of the Nuggets’ rotation a few months later. He let that much be known after a December practice when he casually told reporters that he wasn’t happy with his minutes as Denver’s backup center, that he didn’t feel like a part of the team anymore, and that he had communication issues with coach Michael Malone. Nurkic also left the arena during Denver’s 121-117 win over the Milwaukee Bucks — the night Nikola Jokic recorded the first of his six triple-doubles last season — but later returned and was in the locker room after the buzzer sounded. It quickly became clear that the Nuggets had to make a move.
In an appearance on The Woj Pod, hosted by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Nuggets’ president of basketball operations Tim Connelly shed some light on his decision to trade Nurkic and why the 23-year-old wound up in Rip City.
“We had well-publicized issues as Nikola started to take off. Juka (Jusuf), who’s a great kid, was struggling with his new role,” Connelly rehashed. “It was no secret league-wide. We thought a guy like Mason with his ability to play with and without Nikola with his physicality, with his team-first approach, might be a good fit.”
Connelly continued about how there was surprisingly very little interest in Nurkic across the league when he started making trade calls.
Certainly it’s been fantastic for Juka to have that starting opportuntiy. He played great. I don’t think anyone ever questioned his talent or skill-set and we’re extremely happy to have Mason but there are very few calls you can make or take where it’s ‘you know we have too many small forwards and you have got a good power forward’ or ‘this guy’s a good player’ and that part’s frustrating in that regard. During the Nurkic conversations, kind of realizing a change of scenery would be good for both the player and the team, how few willing partners there were even teams on paper at least ‘hey we think this guy’s a starting center. He’s proven to be such.’ Juka would be the first to tell you he’d probably handle some things differently. He was an immature kid at the time and emotionally you never know how he’s going to deal with things. But he’s a good kid and a very good player. I was shocked when you make these calls and teams think ‘hey they really need a center’ or ‘this team can’t rebound a lick this will be an easy one,’ how rarely that basketball is the focus on the conversation.
Fast-forward through the summer months and Denver has watched Plumlee patch together an encouraging preseason as he continues to find himself within Denver’s read-and-react offense while also giving the Nuggets a touch of athleticism from the center position — something they don’t get with Jokic.
The initial sting from Nurkic’s rise in Portland and the Trail Blazers’ subsequent playoff berth still hurts Denver’s brass to this day, but continued improvement from Plumlee and a regular season where the Nuggets could finish ahead of their Northwest Division rivals in the Western Conference pantheon would certainly be well worth last year’s disappointment.