The scene was horrific, eerie, and, in the words of Portland Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts, “devastating.”
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland’s standout starting center, suffered compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula during a 148-144 double overtime victory over the Brooklyn Nets at the Moda Center on Monday. The 24-year-old Bosnian 7-footer, in the midst of a career year, was carted off the court on a stretcher and taken to a hospital after sustaining the injury while attempting to crash the glass for an offensive rebound. The Blazers announced early Tuesday morning that the injuries would end Nurkic’s season, and his recovery timetable is not yet known.
As Nurkic lay on the court, flinching in evident paint, long-suffering Blazermaniacs were forced to update the franchise’s infamous list of promising centers whose careers were altered by major injuries: Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden. The “Blazers Curse” talk has repeatedly resurfaced over the last decade, with numerous high-profile players, including Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, all enduring season-ending injuries.
It’s difficult to overstate how deeply Nurkic’s loss will be felt in the short-term. The timing is utterly tragic, cutting short Nurkic’s career year and undercutting Portland’s promising playoff prospects.
Nurkic, the grandson of a Bosnian bull farmer and the son of a 6-10, 400-pound cop, came late to basketball, only getting serious about the sport when he was shipped off to a Slovenian boarding school early in his teenage years. After years spent fighting for minutes and respect overseas, he was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 16th pick in the 2014 draft.
There, he battled weight, conditioning and health issues, eventually losing a position battle with rising star Nikola Jokic. In 2017, Denver honored his long-standing trade request and shipped him to Portland, where, after forming quality bonds with Stotts and all-star Damian Lillard, he finally found a proper basketball home.
This season, his fifth, Nurkic averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, while posting career-highs in minutes, scoring, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares. Aside from Lillard, he was clearly Portland’s most valuable player thanks to his two-way impact. Offensively, he did a bit of everything: scoring from the post, finding teammates from the high post, crashing the glass, and drawing fouls. Defensively, his years of work on his body had paid off in better energy, mobility and stamina.
Put it all together, and he was an ideal frontcourt fit for a team whose offense runs though Lillard and scoring guard C.J. McCollum: Nurkic was willing to do the dirty work on a nightly basis while also delivering breakout performances against favorable matchups.
While he is far from a household name, Nurkic displayed a superstar-level impact this season. Portland’s net rating with Nurkic on the court this season was +9.7, better than the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks (+9.2). By contrast, Portland’s net rating fell to -6.0 without Nurkic, roughly the same as the 26-win Atlanta Hawks (-5.7). If the Blazers had been without him all season, it’s possible they would now be battling the Sacramento Kings for the West’s eighth seed — or worse.
Portland (46-27) enters Tuesday’s action as the West’s fourth seed, harboring dreams of its first playoff series win since 2016 and — maybe, just maybe — its first conference finals trip since 2000.
If it can maintain its current seed despite injuries to both Nurkic and McCollum, Portland would face a first-round matchup against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Nurkic would have been a central part of the Blazers’ game plan against all of those opponents, doing battle with Rudy Gobert, Montrezl Harrell, LaMarcus Aldridge or Steven Adams.
The Blazers’ other center options — Zach Collins, Enes Kanter, and Meyers Leonard — lack Nurkic’s experience, his defensive chops, and his physicality, respectively. Stotts is looking at a sharp downgrade, no matter what. While the Blazers were +9.7 with Nurkic, as mentioned, his potential replacements are all clear minuses: Collins (-1.4), Leonard (-6.2) and Kanter (-10). Although the 21-year-old Collins is the youngest of the three, he might make the most sense as a stand-in starter to help limit the rotation impact and preserve Kanter’s second-unit role.
Portland has proven to be resilient in the face of past injuries, and Lillard — a lock to earn his fourth all-NBA nod — will be asked to do more than ever. Already shouldering a heavier burden due to McCollum’s leg injury, Lillard might have no choice but to produce his best James Harden impression.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Without Nurkic around to keep defenses honest, Lillard will need to brace for another round of the aggressive trapping that perplexed Portland in last year’s first-round exit against the New Orleans Pelicans. Indeed, Nurkic’s absence makes for plain stakes: Either Lillard finds a way to be the best player on the court during Portland’s first-round matchup, or he will go home early for the fourth time in five years.
The only silver lining is that Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract last summer, so he won’t be facing free agency until July 2022. He will be free to work through a multiyear recovery like Gordon Hayward or Paul George with an organization that values him and has earned his respect.
When the Blazers wake up Tuesday, though, they will be confronted by a bitterly harsh reality: Nurkic’s season is over, and it will take a Lillard-led miracle to prevent another demoralizing postseason defeat.