Jusuf Nurkic Injury Could Have Far-Reaching Implications for Trail Blazers

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 25:  Jusuf Nurkic #27 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates after making a three point basket in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Moda Center on March 25, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The story in Portland this week should have been the Trail Blazers clinching their sixth straight postseason appearance. Instead, the team must now prepare for the playoffs without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered compound fractures of the fibula and tibia in his lower left leg Monday, ending what had easily been the best season of the 24-year-old's career.

Almost instantly, Nurkic's misfortune took on the status of high-profile sports injuries you wished you hadn't seen. Think Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Kevin Ware or Alex Smith. It was one of those—the same injury George suffered in August 2014 that sidelined him for all but the final six games of the 2014-15 season.

Between the bones healing and the time it will take for the 7'0", 275-pound center to get back into playing shape, he's unlikely to play much next season, if at all. 

For the Blazers, the ramifications of Nurkic's injury are widespread, both now and in the future. The knee strain suffered last week by guard CJ McCollum is minor by comparison, as he could be back by the playoffs. But no return timetable has emerged for Nurkic, who re-signed with the team on a four-year, $48 million deal in July.

Another first-round exit this postseason would be a disaster for Portland, even if this one would be understandable.

Head coach Terry Stotts enjoys a strong relationship with superstar point guard Damian Lillard and has a consistent track record of success, but chatter about his job security has never quite gone away. Assuming Lillard earns an All-NBA nod (he will), he becomes eligible to sign a five-year, $235 million extension this summer. He's given every indication he wants to stay in Portland, but Nurkic's long-term health and another early end to the season could factor into his decision.

Maybe general manager Neil Olshey, driven by a need to keep the Blazers competitive, would finally deal McCollum for multiple rotation players. He has previously denied interest in splitting up the backcourt, but patience can get lost in the process when you lose a key cog like Nurkic.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 24: CJ McCollum #3 (L), Damian Lillard #0 and Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers talk late in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on November 24, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NO
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Last season's embarrassing first-round loss—a sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans—left a bad taste in everyone's mouths. In terms of personnel, these Blazers aren't that different from last year's team. But the new-and-improved Nurkic made them more dangerous than they've been since LaMarcus Aldridge's departure in 2015.

If they managed to stay healthy and avoid the Golden State Warriors' side of the playoff bracket, they had a feasible path to the franchise's first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2000. Without Nurkic, they may have trouble emerging from the first round.

For the past half-decade, the Blazers have been exactly what they are today: a good-but-not-great Western Conference playoff team. You could count on them to win between 45 and 50 games every year, but not to challenge the Warriors or Houston Rockets in the postseason.

This year's outfit has felt different, and that's in no small part because of Nurkic.

During his second full season in Portland (he was traded by the Denver Nuggets midway through 2016-17), the 24-year-old Nurkic has made meaningful strides in every facet of the game. While putting up career-best numbers in nearly every statistical category, he has improved noticeably on the defensive end and carved out a featured role in Stotts' offense.

The nagging concerns about his attitude and work ethic that plagued him during his time in Denver have disappeared, and he's firmly established himself as the third core piece of a strong Blazers team alongside McCollum and Lillard, who has developed a close bond with Nurkic during their two-plus years together.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 20: Damian Lillard #0 hi-fives Jusuf Nurkic #27 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the game on March 20, 2019 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
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Now, the Blazers must turn to a few less-than-ideal frontcourt options.

Enes Kanter, who signed in February after completing a buyout with the New York Knicks, will likely start at center. He can score efficiently, but he's a known defensive liability and not nearly as strong a passer as Nurkic.

Behind him is second-year big man Zach Collins, who has shown promise but isn't nearly consistent enough to engender trust in the postseason. Meyers Leonard has all but disappeared from the rotation since the Kanter addition, but he'll also get back in the mix.

Nurkic gave the Blazers a skilled center with the size to body up against any of the 5s they might face in the first round—namely the Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert or the Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams. They'll now face a severe size disadvantage in any of those matchups, and it won't go away if they manage to win their first series and face off in the second round against Golden State (anchored inside by DeMarcus Cousins), Denver (Nikola Jokic) or Houston (Clint Capela).

Nurkic's injury is bad for everyone.

It throws the Blazers rotation into disarray before the playoffs and considerably clouds their future outlook. It also all but eliminates the possibility of a deep postseason run for one of the most fun and intriguing teams in the Western Conference. 

Most of all, it's awful for Nurkic himself after he worked extremely hard to make himself better and live up to his big new contract, only to have that progress cut short by an awkward landing during a double-overtime game in March.

This is the kind of injury no one ever wants to see. The Blazers, and the NBA as a whole, are worse for it.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.