Blazers enter season looking the same, but Nurkic expects new 'Bad Boys' toughness
Nurkic is confident Portland will be a tough team to beat, and says it must begin on defense
PORTLAND -- In an effort to truly compete with the Golden State Warriors, several teams in the Western Conference dramatically altered their roster in the offseason by trading for superstar players.
The Portland Trail Blazers however, essentially did nothing.
Last season, Portland squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed and got swept rather convincingly by Golden State. Yet despite this fact, the Blazers are returning this season with essentially the same roster that is built around the high scoring duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The Blazers did, however, reportedly try to land another big time star in Carmelo Anthony. This was a move that Lillard and McCollum wanted to happen as they actively tried to recruit Anthony to come to Portland. In the end, Anthony reportedly did not want to play in Portland though and ultimately waived his no-trade clause so he could join the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Anthony's unwillingness to come to Portland is indicative of the Blazers' long history of failing to recruit big name free agents. For various reasons, Portland is simply just not seen as a free agent destination.
According to General Manager Neil Olshey this is because players are unfamiliar with the city of Portland since they don't spend much time in the area during the season and summer. Because of this, Olshey is focused on the team getting better through internal development, not by fully concentrating on offseason transactions.
"Getting players comfortable with what a great city this is -- beyond our organization and fanbase -- is a long-term process," Olshey said at media day on Monday. "It's why we put such an emphasis on player retention. Because the guys that are here, are happy being here."
Olshey also noted that since they usually fail to sign notable free agents, the Blazers put a big emphasis on the draft. And it's through the 2017 NBA Draft that the Blazers were able to add two new players to their roster in No. 10 overall pick Zach Collins and the No. 26 selection Caleb Swanigan.
According to Olshey and coach Terry Stotts, it may take some time before both rookies are a consistent part of the rotation. Collins is just 19 years old, after all, and had a shortened summer league due to injury. Swanigan, however, played quite well there and has many of his teammates believing that he should be getting playing time right away.
"He's definitely good enough to play right now," Lillard said of Swanigan, adding later, "He's just very sure of himself, and you don't see that in rookies all the time.''
But while Swanigan could perhaps play right away, he and Collins are being viewed as future contributors. Instead for this season, the Blazers are hinging a lot of their success on the return of big man Jusuf Nurkic, who got traded to Portland last season and played quite well before breaking his right leg.
Due to the injury, Nurkic played only 20 games with the Blazers last season and just once in Portland's first-round loss to Golden State. Yet during that abbreviated period with Nurkic, the Blazers were a much better team, going 14-6 and improving significantly on defense. And now that Nurkic is healthy and available for an entire season, he in a sense is similar to a new player joining the Blazers.
Adding to that perceived newness is the fact that Nurkic has noticeably slimmed down. He spent the majority of the offseason working out in Portland and lost 30-plus pounds. Playing at a lighter weight, according to Nurkic, will allow him to be quicker on the court and play longer minutes as well.
Because of the weight loss, Nurkic said that he's never felt better physically and mentally. He also maintained that even though he dropped all that weight, he's still a "strong dude." This is quite important especially since Nurkic's physical strength has always been a key aspect of his game but it also factors into what he envisions for the Blazers.
Despite the fact that the Blazers didn't keep up in the arms race that went down in the West over the offseason, Nurkic remains confident Portland is still a tough opponent. So tough, that Nurkic sees the Blazers as a modern-day version of the Pistons' "Bad Boys," especially from a defensive standpoint -- an area Portland needs to improve on from last year.
"I feel like we can be the group like Detroit was with Chauncey [Billups] and Rasheed Wallace," Nurkic said. "Be that group even with the youngest team in the league. I don't know our future, but right now we want to be the "Bad Boys." Our team, we need to play defense, bottom line. Our defense was trash, to be honest, before. We're going to be better. When I came it was better and we're going to keep improving that. It's simple: If you want to win, you need to play defense."
Nurkic definitely is confusing eras of Detroit Pistons basketball but the sentiment is still clear. And now that's he's healthy and in phenomenal shape, Nurkic can model that toughness that he is calling for. Nurkic also sounds like he will hold his teammates accountable, which means he will be a new voice joining Lillard's in the locker room.
Being tough sure sounds trite yet with the Blazers roster remaining mainly static, it may be all that they need to try to remain a top eight playoff team in the West.
"All we can do is put all we can together and be Bad Boys," Nurkic said. "I mean, we are Bad Boys. When you come to Portland you know you're not going to have wins easy."
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