The Portland Trail Blazers must be thanking their lucky stars that the Festus Ezeli was injured this season. It’s a tad harsh to say but if he was healthy there may not have been a trade deadline deal to bring in Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets. Ezeli was meant to be the low post defensive presence needed to take pressure off Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, he has not taken the floor this season and it cost the Blazers big time.
While the Blazers going with a frontcourt of mostly Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless or Noah Vonleh, the Blazers were ranked near the bottom of the league in defense efficiency. While their numbers haven’t improved to the ranks of the Spurs there has been an uptake since the trade. With Plumlee and his scoring ability gone the team was able to focus more on protecting the paint. Nurkic has done just that and more.
Before the trade, the Blazers were 23-32 and heading in the wrong direction. It was so bad in Portland that there were talks of trading one or both of their backcourt players. Lucky for them, the Nuggets had a two-headed beast in their lineup with the same skill set, making it easier to part ways with one. It was just a matter of what the Blazers needed.
The Blazers needed a player to patrol the paint like Ben Wallace did for the Detroit Pistons. However, what they received in return was a complete basketball player and a savior. The Blazers still belong to Lillard but Nurkic is carving out his place by proving 14 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks per game in 30 minutes of action. It’s because of those numbers that the Blazers defense has risen from 30th to 24th and their record has gone from 23-32 to 32-37.
As fate would have it, the Blazers are only one game out of the 8th spot in the West, trailing those same Nuggets.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint and the Blazers are a great example of that. What Nurkic has given this team is hope. For all the failures they have endured early on, much like last year they have begun to claw their way out of the hole and show the type of spirit that helped them reach the second round of the playoffs in 2016.
As much as we would like to give that credit to Lillard and McCollum, plenty of that has to be swung over to Nurkic.