Portland Trail Blazers starting center Jusuf Nurkic went down with a terrible injury in the fourth quarter of Portland’s double-overtime victory against the Nets on Monday night. Nurkic’s ankle separated from the rest of his leg, sending nearby Brooklyn players darting to the other side of the floor, with his teammates standing away in disbelief.
The Blazers immediately diagnosed Nurkic with a compound fracture to his left tibia and fibula, an injury similar to the one then-Pacers star Paul George suffered in 2014 during a Team USA scrimmage. Blazers star Damian Lillard, who was also there for George’s injury, said Nurkic’s “made me sick to my stomach.”
There is a zero percent chance Nurkic plays again this season, and there’s a decent chance he misses time next year, too. That is terrible news for him, given the season he was having and the trajectory of his career. As Blazer’s Edge’s Dave Deckart wrote:
The injury is especially cruel not just because the Blazers had legitimate aspirations of fighting for the Conference Finals, but because Nurkic himself was playing so well. This was his season! Everything anybody could have wished, he produced. His stats were solid, his focus and concentration steady, and his role in Portland’s success obvious.
It’s also a serious blow for Portland, in the middle of a great regular season with heavy playoff expectations. Here are seven reasons why.
There aren’t many NBA centers who can handle the punishment that Nurkic doles out on a nightly basis. He’s a seven-foot, 275-pound Bosnian beast who knows exactly how to use his body to wear the biggest of big men down and deliver crushing blows to guards when Lillard comes off of a screen.
Plain and simple, Nurk is a matchup nightmare. He had 32 points (one short of a career-high), 16 rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and two steals against Brooklyn before his injury. He was able to dominate the Nets because they have no one of his size or strength on the roster to check him. Few teams do.
2. He was also in the middle of a career year
Nurkic will finish the season averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and a steal per game. Those are all career-highs, some tying numbers he posted in 2017 after a February trade from Denver.
Nurkic even had one of few five-by-five games in NBA history. That’s at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals. and blocks. That’s how versatile a weapon he’d become in Portland. The Trail Blazers will miss him dearly on every end of the floor.
3. He’s a ball mover
Just look at what Nurkic told reporters after he fell two assists shy of a triple-double in a 2018 Portland win over Washington:
“When you give up a good shot for a great shot it’s always good,” he said. “We try to pick your teammates up so even in the offense you try to, you know, make the right decision and when you make right decisions, it’s fun, everybody gets to touch the ball. So, when we do that everybody feels comfortable with that.”
Nurkic is averaging 3.2 assists per game. Only eight centers in the NBA average more dimes per game this season, and all of them were All-Stars this season or last.
Having a big man who is also a gifted passer is a luxury, especially in a Portland offense that relies on its guards to produce points. Nurkic is a pressure release for Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Now, they’ll have to figure out a way to create offense without him.
4. McCollum is also already hurt
He has missed four games since suffering a knee injury on March 16 against San Antonio, and won’t travel with the team for their four-game road trip. That’s an eight-game stretch McCollum will miss.
Now, without Nurkic, the Blazers have to fight for crucial playoff seeding without two of their three best players. Portland actually clinched a playoff spot in beating Brooklyn, but they’re only 2.5 games above the Jazz and Clippers and 3.5 games above the Spurs and Thunder, so possible they could slip all the way until the No. 8 seed. Regardless, a few losses here and there could be the difference between home-court advantage in the first round or starting on the road.
Luckily, the Trail Blazers have the 10th-weakest remaining schedule among all NBA teams.
5. The Blazers don’t have defensive-minded backups
They signed Enes Kanter on the buyout market, but while he’s a bruiser in his own right and one of the premier rebounders in the NBA, he’s also one of the worst defenders at the center position in the league and also isn’t nearly the passer Nurkic is.
Kanter’s defensive reputation is so bad that Suns guard Devin Booker pointed it out publicly, tweeting, “Pick n Roll at 00 every time.”
Every team will target double-zero when he’s on the floor, and they’ll do so with success.
Portland also has Zach Collins, a 21-year-old lanky center with range out to the three-point line. The Trail Blazers outscore opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in the 455 minutes Lillard and Collins have shared the floor, so there’s evidence this two-man tandem could work in the short-term. But it’s asking a lot for the second-year man to produce under playoff pressure, and he too isn’t the rim protector Nurkic is on defense.
Meyers Leonard, another Blazers big man shooting 46 percent from three, will also be expected to play minutes, so Portland will have to play the center position by committee. They may also have to go small and put power forward Al-Farouq Aminu in at center, but Aminu is relatively slight even for a power forward.
6. This Trail Blazers team really was poised for a deep playoff run
Yes, we thought that last year, too, before New Orleans swept Portland right out of the first round. But the Trail Blazers doubled-down on their dynamic back court, and with Nurkic’s emergence, they looked poised for at least a second-round appearance, if not further.
This season, they were on pace to win their most games since the 2014-15 season. That’s really impressive for a team that’s been consistently good in the Lillard-McCollum era.
He might floor you with a devastating screen, then talk trash while you peel yourself off the hardwood, but Nurkic is beloved by his teammates.
“Nurk is such a great dude. You hate to see him go through something like that having his best season in the NBA,” Lillard said of his teammate. “Seeing something happen like that to him personally — you never wanna see something like that happen to your friend or your teammate.”
He’s also appreciated by other players, even if he sometimes gets under their skin during games. Stars from all over the association showed their support after Nurk’s gruesome injury.
Prayers up for Nurkic!!!
— Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) March 26, 2019
Praying for you hard right now Nurkic, Gods got you!
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) March 26, 2019
Sending Prayers Nurkić…
— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) March 26, 2019
Prayers to go out to @bosnianbeast27!!!! You hate to see injuries like that.. Health is bigger then basketball.. I know hell make a speedy recovery and come back better!
— Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) March 26, 2019
Damn I hate to see stuff like that. Prayers up for Nurkic!!!
— Robert Covington (@Holla_At_Rob33) March 26, 2019
Prayers up for #nurkic. You will be back stronger than ever!
— Victor Oladipo (@VicOladipo) March 26, 2019
Prayers and support out to you Nurkic!!
— Andre Roberson (@FlyDre21) March 26, 2019