Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."
In these assorted posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.
For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.
When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do to take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.
For the next few weeks, we're going to zoom in on some of the contract extensions that were signed before this season started and how they will influence their teams heading into next season when they will actually take effect.
Next up is Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic, who was tough and reliable in the middle for Portland until sustaining a devastating leg injury just before the playoffs. Let's pan out and utilize a macro view of his career so far to estimate what value he could offer to his team as his contract plays out.
Life truly isn't fair.
Jusuf Nurkic, AKA the Bosnian Beast was having the most successful season of his career when tragedy struck and his leg twisted in a way that it was never meant to. In his third season with the Blazers franchise, he has finally found perfect harmony with his All-Star caliber backcourt mates, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Knowing your role and becoming one with it is no easy task for NBA players that spend the majority of their lives being the best player on their squad. Nurkic plowed straight through that challenge much like he destroyed overmatched defenders in the post as demonstrated by his career high in points per game, (15.6) rebounds per game, (10.4) and assists per game (3.2) among other categories. He even shot the ball much more efficiently across the board. The astronomical 14% increase in his free throw percentage over last season led to him finishing with a decent true shooting percentage of 57%.
Well, he was still a defensive liability, right? Actually, he didn't fare as badly as you may think.
You might be surprised to know that he played stout defense for Portland all season long...among other things. The film bears out his talents quite well. Just take a look.
He didn't get blown off the court in pick and rolls like in past years. At seven feet tall and a monstrous 275 pounds, he moves more fluidly across the court than you would think. He is light on his feet and has solid defensive instincts. For most big men, awareness is half the battle, but not for the Bosnian. He is locked in on what is transpiring on the court when he's in charge of protecting the hoop...regardless of whether is defending on or off the ball.
Most young big men (I'm looking at you Deandre Ayton), really struggle making quick defensive reads like this out of the opponents pick and roll. Nurkic's assignment in that clip is obviously Willie-Cauley-Stein who is not even involved in the action here. It looks like he's creeping towards Fox from the left wing in preparation to set a screen. Fox has other plans here, however. He takes the handoff from Bjelica and immediately goes warp 9 on the Blazers defense. Lillard has no hope of staying in front, but Nurk is on the case. He springs into action as soon as he sees Fox get free and explodes off his feet just in time for the block. Things happen so fast in the NBA, especially for men his size, that it takes elite attention to detail to make weakside plays in time. This TrailBlazers center has that in spades.
With his science fiction type frame, sometimes he seems better suited for a cameo in an established movie franchise like John Wick, or the almighty Game of Thrones HBO blockbuster. In the confines of a basketball court, it's straight up unfair sometimes to try and get over or around him. Very few big men in the modern game can match up with him size wise, so post ups can certainly go sideways quickly for even the most skilled forwards and centers that go at Nurk.
Another one of Jusuf's key strengths is his vision. Whether it was an ability he's had from birth, or one that he acquired from hanging around former teammate Jokic in Denver too long, it's definitely an asset that allows him to be useful in high post situations. In this upcoming clip, he's actually stationed all the way past the three point arc after tossing a short pass over to Lillard to start the possession. Harkless steps up and sets a solid backscreen on Jalen Brunson that gets Lillard going downhill. Nurk watches it all unfold and delivers the petty assist. There's very few big men in the league that can match or exceed this level of touch and timing on their passes from this distance. Check out how close Luka's fingers come to tipping this ball.
So in essence, Nurkic is a skilled big man with scoring prowess on the inside coupled with above average playmaking for his position. Oh and as an added bonus, he can also hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. It's a shame he has to sit out the Blazers remarkable run to the WCF. He certainly would have made a huge difference on both sides of the ball, especially against Golden State. With the way Dame was aggressively trapped on every pick & roll, he could have used a reliable half-court outlet that could score inside, hit the mid range, and make quick passes on the move. Hopefully Nurkic gets the chance to show his stuff in the postseason next time around.
Let's take look at what all these contributions will be costing the Blazers over time.
A Blessing From the Basketball gods
Nurk arrived in Portland in February of the '16-'17 campaign under contract for a mere $1.9 million after Denver picked up the option for the 3rd year of his rookie deal. Denver also picked up the last year of his rookie deal, so he was under contract for his first full year with the Blazers in '17-'18 at $2.9 million. He channeled his understandable frustration from being stuck behind Jokic for two seasons into immediate All-Star type production. The Portland chapter of his 16-17 adventure ended with healthy averages of 15.2 ppg, 10.4 reb, and 1.9 blks in less than 30 minutes of action per night. Extrapolate that out to a per 36 sample and you're looking at 18.7 ppg, 12.8 reb, and 2.3 blks per game. Not bad for a then third year player acclimating to a whole new franchise.
From there, it was extension time and Portland had no problem working out a deal with the man they received in that 2017 trade that sent away fan favorite Mason Plumlee. The two sides quickly came to terms on a $48 million deal that pays the big man an average salary of $12 million each season until 2022.
What's interesting about this deal however, is the fact that only $40 million of it is guaranteed (that comes out to about 83% of the available base money) and he could even earn up to $53 million if he hits the attached marks for incentives each season. According to salary cap expert Bobby Marks, if Nurkic plays in at least 72 games and the Blazers win at least 50 games in any of the four years of his deal, he will earn an additional $1.2 million at the end of that campaign. Portland arguably overachieved this year by winning 53 games, so he's good on that end for 18-19. So how about games played? Did he hit the mark? Well he went down with the leg injury on March 25th in game 72, so he just narrowly made that benchmark. Whew. Both conditions have been filled, so an additional $1.2 million will be hitting the Blazers cap sheet for this season, bringing Nurk's full salary count for 2018-2019 up to precisely $12,361,111.
When the deal was completed in 2018, some questioned the deal. Nurkic was an unproven commodity at the time and he hadn't yet proven himself to be an ideal running mate with the Dame + CJ backcourt two piece combo. Still, there's no doubt that is was a worthwhile investment, since it's not easy to recruit marquee free agents to the northwest and the franchise had already blown all of their available cap space on Meyers Leonard (4 years/$41 million in 2016) and Evan Turner . (Not smart Rip City!) To make matters worse, Portland is always an extremely competitive team with All-Star Damian Lillard in the fold, so any draft picks they had and would acquire in the future would be lucky to end up as rotation players down the road. Nurkic was the obvious choice as 3rd fiddle alongside one of the most dynamic backcourts in basketball.
Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see that not only has Nurkic lived up to the expectation placed on him at the time of the signing, but he has rounded out his game to the point that he is one of the best values in basketball. We're not just talking about the center position, either. Any way you look at it, he is underpaid after the performance he turned in before going down for the season. Usually players with his size and skill require a significant investment. I mean, just look at the monster up charges teams are shelling out for these other impactful centers:
Nikola Jokic: $24,605,250
Joel Embiid: $25,467,250
Rudy Gobert: $23,241,573 (Supermax eligible after making the '18-'19 All-NBA 3rd team)
Nurkic occupies a perfect position in the big man hierarchy, because he's certainly a tier below the aforementioned players, but his salary is half, or less than half when compared to what the Joker and The Process are receiving. He occupies the next tier that he shares with above average centers like Steven Adams, and Clint Capela. But guess what? Nurk is earning approximately 1 million less than Capela and over $10 million less(!!) than Steven Adams for 18-19.
Consider this: Max players like Embiid and Jokic this season took up 25% and 24% of their teams' cap space, respectively. Now of course, they deserve it as they are both easily top ten players and will more than likely finish top five in the MVP voting once once we see the results next month. Still, one quarter of the salary cap isn't an obligation to take lightly and it is extremely difficult to win it all with your biggest player doubling as your best player. However unfair that may be, it's the reality teams face since defenses can easily double them inside to take away their biggest strength and they can't be counted on to consistently get good looks from three while being accurate enough to offset their limited influence in the paint. That being said, take a short walk over to Portland's cap sheet, punch in some numbers and you'll see that it's only 13% for their Center. Big difference. He's not certainly not that much worse than the top tier guys at his position.
Volla. Welcome to Value City.
For all the slander Neil Olshey deservedly receives for those dreadful Turner/Leonard/Crabbe extensions, he hit the jackpot with this Nurkic deal. He was solid for Portland in year one, and he has only gotten better to the point where he's now an indispensable piece for Rip City's playoff and title aspirations going forward. According to the Cleaning the Glass On/Off stats database, his efficiency differential was an absolutely incredible +12 points per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to riding the pine. That falls into the 96th percentile among all players in the league. That's right, that percentile is not even narrowed down to his position. What an incredible impact. This isn't a guy throwing up empty numbers on a team taking big L's every night. No, he is a hyper impactful center that ups the offensive and defensive ceiling for a team annually winning 45+ games in a challenging Western Conference.
When you add up all of the assets this big guy brings to the Blazers, it's really a miracle as well as a huge blessing that he will be making less than $15 million per season for the next three years. Well, maybe three years since he has a non-guaranteed deal for 2021. If somehow the Space Jam aliens from the upcoming Space Jam 2 movie rob Jusuf Nurkic of every ounce of his basketball prowess, the Blazers can cut ties and be completely clean of that season's obligation, save for the $4 million he will get regardless. That's some serious insurance if you ask me, or anyone that has a decent understanding of salary negotiations. Of course, he's on such a discount and he's still so young that he will most likely see every penny of that money and go on to earn himself a nice raise in unrestricted free agency once 2022 rolls around.
What does this mean for the Blazers future?
Until then, Portland will use this amazing discount to navigate the tricky financial waters they find themselves in this Summer. Most of those dreadful 2016 salaries don't come off the books until 2020, so once again, this team will be strapped for cash and forced to get exceedingly creative to open up any sort of wiggle room for additional signings.
Key players like Rodney Hood and Al-Farouq Aminu who came in handy against OKC and Denver during these playoffs are coming up on unrestricted free agency, so resigning them might be priority #1 before even factoring in possible free agent acquisitions from other squads. Even Enes Kanter has an expiring contract and we know how dominant he was at times in the first two rounds. Sure, he was basically played off the floor against the Warriors, but that's neither here nor there. The reality staring this team in the face in this very moment is one featuring less than $5 million to use before hitting the luxury tax line for next season. The only tools at their disposal at this point in time is whoever they decide to draft with their 25th pick at the draft (carrying his own price tag of $2.1 million), their non-taxpayer Mid-Level exception worth $8.8 million and bird rights on their own players hitting free agency.
So yeah, not the best position to be in for a team that reached the Western Conference Finals and looking to add a couple assets to get over a Warrior-sized hump.
That's the immediate future coming faster than any executive would like to see. It's much easier to bask in the glow of admiration that comes your way after pushing through the player to a point not seen since the year 2000.
Another situation on the horizon here is the matter of Damian Lillard's supermax extension. Supermax deals and the complications they could introduce will be discussed in a separate piece, but suffice to say, that won't be an easy pill to swallow. The Blazers books get a little lighter with those albatross deals going away, but Lillard will get his raise soon after. ESPN has put out an extension timeline and it looks to begin during the 2021 season if it is offered (which they will) and he accepts it (which he will).
This means the Summer of 2020 will be absolutely imperative for the Blazers to take advantage of their upcoming cap space and make the most of it. They will have around $86 million in obligations and $19 million in cap space if they play their cards rights per Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights. Another outcome even remotely similar to 2016 would be catastrophic.
One last question to ponder, is whether Nurkic's incentives could eat away at what little cap space opens up these next few Summers. They most likely won't since he has two conditions to fill in order to receive his bonus, which reduces the chance of him gaining eligibility. Portland has historically done very well in terms of game won in the regular season, but it will be difficult for them to return to the 50 game threshold with a similar roster and key competitors like Denver improving every year. They've hit the mark one of the last four years, but the team could look much different in a couple years, so the odds of 50+ wins going forward would be around a one in three shot. As for his games played mark, he's only averaged 65 game played for his career, but he has played 70+ games each of the last two seasons. If he comes back 100% next season, he should have a good chance of hitting that condition as well. Let's say 50/50 just to be on the safe side. I've never been that great at mathematics, but I would estimate the odds he gets his extra pay each season to be approximately 40%.
Even if he did receive his incentive every season, it wouldn't be much of an issue since it's less than $2 million. That's minimum contract territory. If that's the difference between signing a guy and not, then the team has much bigger issues on their hands than a measly bonus hitting their books. Just saying.
Portland is a wonderful place. Nurkic was given a chance to spread his wings by a team that believed in him enough to trade away a proven frontcourt player and he has rewarded them by becoming the center to hit the Moda Center court as a home player since LaMarcus Aldridge.
The man they call the Bosnian Beast will continue to make life easier for a Northwest division squad that has seen it's fair share of adversity over the past few seasons.
On the court, and off.
Coming next: Analyzing Zach Lavine's Contract Extension