A relatively athletic, young big man coming off a career year in which he averaged 14.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, Jusuf Nurkic should have an interesting market once he hits restricted free agency this offseason.
The 7-foot Bosnian has displayed some scoring ability throughout his career, mostly on the block, as well as decent passing chops, particularly when hitting off-ball cutters. Nurkic is also a beastly rebounder, but only on the nights he gives all-out effort – nights that haven’t come consistently enough.
Back in late March, his teammate, CJ McCollum, discussed Nurkic’s fluctuating effort levels with Yahoo Sports:
“We need [the Miami] Nurk [who dropped 27 points and 16 rebounds] every night, not the Nurk that’s doing flip shots and not always paying attention and not locked in the way he should be,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “We know what [Nurkic] is capable of. Anything less than that is unacceptable.”
Whatever you want to call it, whether it be a lacking attention to detail or issues with energy levels, it’s a problem that has followed Nurkic dating back to his time with the Denver Nuggets, and one that will likely hurt him when he becomes a free agent this summer.
Due to both the lack of cap space set to hamper most teams around the NBA this summer and the dwindling need for traditional big men in modern basketball, Nurkic’s market isn’t what it would have been a few seasons ago.
Now, other than re-signing with the Portland Trail Blazers, the 23-year-old’s options may be limited to teams trying to replace their current, aging centers, or rebuilding franchises intrigued by his upside.
Even then, by the nature of restricted free agency, it’ll be tough to pry Nurkic away from his current team.
Nevertheless, we break down Nurkic’s likeliest landing spots.
On May 21, a report from the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor came out stating that one of the few teams with free cap space to use this offseason – the Dallas Mavericks – have their eyes set on multiple elite big men. In O’Connor’s own words:
“Ever since word spread in league circles in March that Dirk Nowitzki would return to the Mavericks for his 21st season, there have also been rumblings that the Dallas front office will look to make additions this summer that can put the team back on a winning track. The Mavericks can create space to sign a max free agent, and multiple league sources expect them to pursue a trio of big men: DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, and restricted free agent Julius Randle.”
Perhaps the Mavericks’ front office, content with landing a promising young lead guard in Dennis Smith Jr back in the 2017 draft and another elite prospect with their 2018 draft selection, want to field a competitive team in what could be Dirk Nowizki’s final season.
If that’s the case, and if they strike out with their primary targets unless they’re actually willing to shell out contracts approaching the max on bigs like DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins or Julius Randle, they could look to a secondary target like Nurkic to fill the void at the 5.
If nothing else, Nurkic is a strong finisher down low and a decent rebounder, with relatively quick feet for a man of his girth, making him a potentially solid fit next to Nowitzki. And maybe playing under a head coach like Rick Carlisle unlocks another level to his play.
Financially, if the Mavs are actually interested in making this acquisition happen, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as expensive as trying to sign Jordan, Cousins or Randle. But it won’t be close to as cheap as it would have been if Nurkic were an unrestricted free agent, either.
Something along the lines of a two-year, $32 million deal could be just rich enough to make Portland pause on matching, and would make Nurkic’s ears perk up.
That price point would pay Nurkic just over an average starter’s salary (roughly $12.2 million in 2017-18), and with the Blazers’ impending luxury-tax doom (barring some serious salary-cap magic by Portland’s front office this summer), it could be enough to see the 7-footer head to the Lone Star State this offseason.
Another rebuilding organization with money to spend who could look to add young talent this summer.
Nurkic, still just 23, would fit right in with Atlanta’s timeline, and help them be just a bit more competitive in 2018-19. (If they want to be competitive, that is. Not that we’d suggest NBA teams ever do anything other than try to win every game, but you get the picture….)
Arguably Atlanta’s most promising young player at the moment is John Collins, the power forward out of Wake Forest who averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds nightly in his inaugural campaign.
The South Florida native flashed brilliance as a pick-and-roll finisher as a rookie, with some decent post-up chops to boot. But apart from that, another area he impressed in was as a three-point shooter. Though the sample size is tiny (merely 47 attempts in 74 contests), Collins knocked down 34 percent of his triples last season, after impressing in draft workouts with his deep jumper. Clearly, he’ll be a threat from beyond the arc at some point in the not-too-distant future.
And with his freakishly agile abilities, the Hawks big man proved he can handle full-time duties as a power forward, meaning Nurkic could slot in nicely as his frontcourt partner. Especially with Atlanta’s current center, Dewayne Dedmon, not a lock to return next season.
Nurkic’s stout frame and toughness down low could form a tough tandem with Collins, and help new head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first season go more smoothly.
As far as contract terms that may make Portland re-think matching, a three-year, $39 million agreement between Nurkic and Atlanta could make sense. That would pay the Bosnian around what the average starter is currently earning, and also provide him with the long-term security he may covet.
And with the mess presently on Portland’s cap sheet, they may be willing to let Nurkic walk if it means tidier books by the summer of 2020.
The Washington Wizards having interest in signing Nurkic comes with a caveat: They’d have to find a way to move Marcin Gortat first.
Oh, and even besides that, they’ll only be able to offer the 23-year-old the standard mid-level exception, worth roughly $8.6 million, a price far below what he probably expects, or hopes, to sign at.
So yeah, this may be a long shot.
But there’s still reason to believe there’s at least a non-zero chance it could happen. For starters, John Wall, the franchise’s All-Star point guard, doesn’t exactly get along with Gortat, and the feelings of contempt may be mutual.
After a Wizards win during Wall’s extended absence this past season (due to knee surgery), Gortat tweeted the following:
To which Wall replied, in a now-deleted tweet, simply three letters: Lol.
Afterwards, Wall went on ESPN and talked about his teammate, noting that as a Wizard, Gortat gets most of his buckets off dishes from Wall:
The point is, Washington doesn’t want arguably their best player having a beef with anyone on the team, especially not a fellow starter. Things got so ugly this season that it actually affected their play on the court, as the team finished No. 8 in the weaker Eastern Conference and were summarily ousted from the playoffs in six games by the Toronto Raptors.
If there’s not a way for the two to get their differences settled by the time next season rolls around, the Wizards could look to do everything in their power to trade Gortat this summer.
That’s where a big man like Nurkic could come into the picture.
Though Washington would only be able to offer him the standard mid-level exception, they could entice Nurkic by presenting him with the full four years, making the contract a four-year, $34.4 million agreement.
Portland would probably love to be able to bring Nurkic back on a deal with an annual average value of $8.6 million, but there’s a chance the full four years scare them off. With their books as muddled as they are, letting Nurkic walk as opposed to bringing him back on a four-year contract would allow the Blazers to have just McCollum, Damian Lillard, this year’s rookies (Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan) and whoever they draft in 2018 on their salary cap as soon as the summer of 2020.
That’s a far more manageable situation than the ones they currently find themselves in.
Portland Trail Blazers
The likeliest outcome to Nurkic’s free agency – by far – is a return to Portland. And because of how cap-space poor the rest of the league will find itself this summer, it could come at an even cheaper price than they could have ever imagined when they traded for the big man.
It’s tough to envision any team shelling out cash to sign Nurkic. His play thus far as a professional has been inconsistent, and his affinity for awkward floaters as opposed to dunks and long mid-range jumpers instead of three-pointers hurt his future outlook.
Nurkic himself probably wants to prove he can be at least close to an elite center before agreeing to his next contract.
That’s why Nurkic taking the qualifying offer (a move another young big man, Nerlens Noel, tried last offseason) for 2018-19 and testing out the market again next summer could be his wisest course of action.
The qualifying offer would pay Nurkic a measly $4.8 million next year, but it would allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, when more teams will have money to spend.
Best-case scenario, Nurkic excels with the Blazers, showing all-out effort on a nightly basis while averaging a double-double on efficient shooting splits, and helping lead Portland to the second round of the playoffs for just the third time since Lillard’s arrival.
Or, worst-case scenario, his play regresses after an awkward summer in which teams showed just tepid interest in him on the free-agent market, Collins passes him by on the depth chart and Nurkic ends up in a situation resembling Noel’s with Dallas.
Will Nurkic choose to bet on himself and hope for the best next offseason? Or will he look to sign with any landing spot offering him a multi-year deal at a decent price?
Impossible to know at the moment, but some league pundits wouldn’t be surprised if he took the former path.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.