When the Portland Trail Blazers parted ways with their starting center, Mason Plumlee, in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, they sat just behind the Nuggets for the eighth playoff spot. Since the trade, they have overtaken the Nuggets for that seed and are one of the hottest teams in the league as winners of five straight games and eight of their last nine.
This could all come to a halt though, with Nurkic recently being ruled out for the rest of the regular season. He could still be back for the playoffs if the Blazers make the cut. But for now, this injury has opened a door that had just been slammed shut on the Nuggets chances to make the postseason.
But their upcoming postseason push is a story for another day. The question right now is: Why did the Nuggets give up such good a big man for less in return?
Shortly before the All-Star break, the two teams swapped big men and the Blazers threw in a future second-round pick, and the Nuggets added a first-round pick for this upcoming draft. So not only did Portland get the better player, but they also got the better pick. While Plumlee is definitely no scrub, Nurkic is a much better scorer which was evident when the two teams recently played. Plumlee was held scoreless while Nurkic went off for 33 points on 12 of 15 shooting to go along with 15 rebounds. He also wasn’t shy about addressing his former team either, promptly wishing them a “happy summer”.
But there’s a reason the Nuggets dealt him and it actually makes sense. What they got in return is where the questions arise.
Nurkic was traded because he was unhappy with his playing time. After being drafted in the first round, he spent three straight seasons with the Nuggets playing a dismal 17 minutes per game every year. He clearly knew he was good enough to do more for a team and as a 22-year-old player, there’s a sense of urgency to get yourself into the right place to start making your name and legacy.
The longer a player spends as a backup the more that becomes their image. If a team trades for that player, they are probably bringing them in as a backup. Every player wants the opportunity to see how good they can really be in the league before they accept that kind of role. This is exactly why championship teams’ role players often get snatched away. Well, that and the money, too.
With the outspoken personality of Nurkic that has recently surfaced, Denver most likely wanted him out before he could potentially become a problem. Judging by his comments about his former team, there was definitely some friction already. But now that he can no longer be a locker room problem he will just have be a problem for them as an opponent.
So why did they get another big in return for him?
The most logical answer is that was all that they could get for him. It would make much more sense to go fill the only backup position that could use use an upgrade which is the point guard spot. With Emmanuel Mudiay falling out of the rotation, Jamal Murray, a natural shooting guard, is the only player they have used as their second point guard behind Jameer Nelson. On a team that couldn’t find the minutes that fit the talent of Nurkic because of how big man oriented their roster is, it doesn’t make much sense to replace him with another big man to face the same challenge.
It’s possible that they could not get an offer for him that included a point guard. After all, he was unproven since he had never averaged 18 minutes per game for a season before. Maybe the Nuggets did not expect to be able to get a current starter of any position for him and therefore jumped at the opportunity to get Plumlee. But that first round pick in a loaded draft class? It’s hard not to think they could have done better, at least in terms of getting someone that filled in holes in the roster.
It’s all history now though and only time will tell which team ends up with the best post-trade results. Maybe the Nuggets know something we don’t and this deal will turn in their favor.