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The Plumlee-Nurkic Trade Affirms Denver’s Playoff Thirst and Sets Portland Up for a Bigger Bang

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

We have our first real trade of the deadline window: The Blazers have sent Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round pick to the Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick via Memphis, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

This isn’t a blockbuster, but it’s a fascinating deal considering both Portland and Denver are vying for the 8-seed in the Western Conference. It’s rare for these types of trades to happen midseason, and yet it makes relative sense for both teams. Nurkic is not a good basketball player: He’s posting a 50.7 effective field goal percentage (paltry for an interior player), commits lazy fouls, and rarely plays hard on defense. Even when Nurkic decides to play well, he’s not a good fundamental fit next to Nikola Jokic. While it hurts to lose a first-rounder, the Nuggets are making a push for their first playoff berth since 2013, and Plumlee is an upgrade as one of the league’s best passing big men.

The Blazers avoid going deep into the luxury tax by trading Plumlee, a restricted free agent this summer. Suffering those financial penalties just wouldn’t make sense, so they can at least take a flyer on Nurkic, who, despite his flaws, has enticing potential at only 22 years old. Maybe the Blazers can get that out of him by feeding him more opportunity in a new environment.

Portland’s real haul here is the 2017 first-round pick via Memphis. This is the Blazers’ third first-rounder in a loaded draft class, and the draft is precisely where general manager Neil Olshey has made his biggest impact. In his first year as Clippers GM, he took Eric Bledsoe 18th in 2010; with the Blazers, he’s added Damian Lillard (sixth), C.J. McCollum (10th), Meyers Leonard (11th), Allen Crabbe (31st), and Will Barton (40th) since 2012. The Blazers now have three opportunities to add young, cheap first-round talent to their roster in the upcoming draft, which is important. After doling out substantial long-term contracts over the last two summers to Lillard, McCollum, Evan Turner, Leonard, Crabbe, and Maurice Harkless, the Blazers will realistically be without cap space until at least 2019.

Without any financial flexibility, the Blazers’ best shot of finding a star to enhance their core will be through the draft. Picks are also the most tradable assets in basketball and teams that want to get into the draft mix will come calling knowing the Blazers have a surplus.

But let’s think big: If Olshey really wants to bring the Blazers to a championship level, he’ll need to shake up the roster. The treasure trove of picks could allow him to do it. The Blazers have the 13th-ranked offense and the fourth-worst defense; Lillard and McCollum play a huge factor in both those numbers. The backcourt duo is dynamic offensively, but they’re fundamentally flawed. They’re both sieves defending the perimeter, and you can’t win in today’s NBA unless your guards are capable of containing penetration. Only one of the NBA’s past 20 champions had a defensive rating outside of the top 10 (the 2000–01 Lakers) and the Blazers can only dream of reaching that level when their two best players are defending like this:

Olshey needs to take drastic measures. Draft picks are the most tradable assets in the league. The Blazers now have three of them (picks 11, 21, and 27 if the season ended today). Olshey has the bullets to pair those picks together to move within the draft. But he could also package them with one of his two superstars to do something radical.

I made the case last month for the Blazers to trade McCollum to the Sixers for high draft picks and dominant defensive center Nerlens Noel. Let’s think bigger. If the Blazers put McCollum (or Lillard) on the table in addition to their newfound assets, they could suddenly become leaders in a race for a star like DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, or Jimmy Butler. Though those players likely aren’t available now, it doesn’t mean an opportunity won’t come at some point.

That time could come soon. The trade deadline is only 11 days away. If the Bulls decide to retool, the Blazers could put together an enticing package that includes Lillard or McCollum, along with a collection of draft picks. A trade could always be expanded to include a third team if the Bulls wanted to go full rebuild. If the Blazers dealt Lillard, McCollum is fully capable of taking on a lead-creator role. In 11 games without Lillard, McCollum is averaging 28.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game, with a 55.3 effective field goal percentage, per StatMuse. Butler is obviously a star in his own right, averaging 24.5 points, and he’s also the lockdown, versatile defender the Blazers need to combat the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.

The Blazers aren’t done building after acquiring Nurkic and a 2017 first. If the goal is to win a championship, they should only be getting started.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Meyers Leonard as Kawhi Leonard.