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 too