Frank Vogel is X-Factor of Phoenix Suns’ Jusuf Nurkic, Deandre Ayton swap

Sep 27, 2023, 7:32 PM | Updated: 9:23 pm

Suns trade Deandre Ayton to Blazers as Damian Lillard heads to Buck…
01 hours14 minutes

The biggest complication with trading Deandre Ayton, whether it was in the past or present, was the Phoenix Suns were never going to be able to replace what he does.

After Wednesday’s blockbuster trade, the replacement, Jusuf Nurkic, is a starting-caliber center who by all accounts is a good NBA player. He’s also not a top-25 contributor at his position and is one of many who has his impact diminish the longer into a postseason they go. Centers like Nurkic get phased out by both the best offenses and defenses once the conference finals roll around. Ayton was not one of those guys. He could hang.

But if there was a coach that could make this work, it is Frank Vogel.

Much of the conversation swirling around Vogel’s arrival is what he could for Ayton’s defensive capabilities after building elite defenses around Roy Hibbert and Anthony Davis.

In a great observation made to me by my podcast co-host Kevin Zimmerman, though, how about another opportunity at what he did with Nikola Vucevic?

The stint with the Orlando Magic from 2016-18 did not go all that well for Vogel, winning 54 total games across two seasons and ranking 24th and 20th in defensive rating, respectively, per NBA.com. Yes, I know that is bad. Vucevic, like Nurkic, is a physically limited center who is going to play in a drop and get shredded a fair amount of the time as a pick-and-roll target.

But Vogel, with far better defensive personnel surrounding the slow-footed big, can take in what he learned from that and adapt.

And it’s not like Phoenix needs a top 10 defense to win a championship. It’s a guaranteed top five offense that simply requires a slightly average defensive output. Can Vogel bump that 20th with Vucevic to somewhere in the mid-teens with Nurkic? I think he can.

Nurkic’s career took an unfortunate turn in March 2019 when he broke his left leg, compromising the majority of the agile mobility the large, bulky man had left. After putting forth two straight seasons of very good rim protection numbers, allowing players to shoot just under 55% on him according to Second Spectrum data via NBA.com, he regressed. On terrible Portland teams in the last two years, it ballooned to 69.2% a pair of seasons ago and settled back down a bit to a respectable 57.9% for his final Blazers campaign.

The 29-year-old Bosnian became great at putting his rugged frame in the right positions to alter shots at the rim. In a deep drop, he’s figured out where to be and lets aggressive drivers come right to him. This collection of blocks shows you how far feel and length can take you. There are no dynamic, explosive movements here and they aren’t necessary.

Occasionally, Nurkic can still skedaddle. He comes to the level of the screen here against the uber-athletic Jalen Green and recovers in enough time (go get that board, Anfernee!)

Is this all to say the concern is overblown? No. Nurkic’s limitations, as previously stated, will get magnified the longer the Suns get into the postseason. Rudy Gobert is one of the best rim protectors ever but you wouldn’t want him out there in the conference finals.

And Nurkic has a tendency to sink into lulls within a game, his impact waning, just like Ayton. On Phoenix, Nurkic has to at least keep his engagement levels high, especially defensively. It’s a requirement for whoever took Ayton’s spot.

Nurkic is going to get picked on and hunted. Chris Paul has all his equipment already picked out for opening night. Midrange maestros will thrive, as will shooters with range. The most likely outcome is Nurkic finishes more playoff games on the bench than the court.

So, who does? Funnily enough, when this happened in Portland last year, it was Drew Eubanks. Maybe it’s him again. Of all the guys to dive into tape on after they arrived to Phoenix this offseason, his was the most encouraging. He looks more than capable of giving the Suns a solid 18-24 minutes a night.

The Bol Bol signing sure makes a lot more sense now than it did two months ago. Ditto for Chimezie Metu.

Going small has to be explored. We’re drawn to mentioning Kevin Durant right away but in theory guys like Keita Bates-Diop and Nassir Little have the physical profile to be this dude. Ish Wainright has been a small-ball 5 for brief blips in the regular season.

To go back to Vogel, it is imperative that he provides opportunities to everyone. He must avoid putting guys in the dog house and give chances in the regular season. If Bol is a train wreck for three games, I want to see five more just to be sure. Cheick Diallo got one shift four years ago and then disappeared to the back of the bench for four months. Can’t happen with this specific roster.

Nurkic’s inability to remain healthy over the last handful of seasons will aid Vogel in that pursuit. Even post-leg injury, he was out for 56 games the last two years. Some of that was the Blazers shutting him down. Some of it was legitimate injuries he had to heal up with to be effective again. Of course, all of this is to say Nurkic has to be healthy in April and beyond for this trade to be a win.

Offensively, there is more change to cover than you’d think.

The starkest difference in the two players is not actually first and foremost defensive impact. It’s finishing.

Nurkic misses a lot of bunnies. The best he has shot around the rim for his career is a 63% mark from last year, per Cleaning the Glass. That is a bad number for a big, and for reference, Ayton’s stellar efficiency in that area was never south of seventy-five percent each of the last three seasons.

In an extension of that, Ayton’s ability since he first stepped on a NBA court to help his team as a diving black hole, sucking in help defenders as he rolls to the basket, is also going to be missed. Even when Ayton wasn’t rolling hard, which was often, that positive was still there every night by default. It’s hard to imagine Nurkic does the same.

And when Ayton was rolling hard or running the floor, the benefits were immense.

Then again, as we saw last year, when the not-as-nimble Jock Landale is doing it every single possession, you’ll ultimately take that guarantee. Again, it is massive for Nurkic to understand the guy he is replacing and how much of a difference that type of effort will make in comparison.

The way Phoenix can open up the floor via its center changes as well.

Nurkic quietly added a 3-point shot to his arsenal last year, tossing up 119 (2.3 per game) at a 36.1% knockdown rate, a good number for a center.

The balance of how often he pops and spaces will be key because defenses are going to routinely leave him open when he does this but it’s another sliver of versatility for the offense to have. Using Durant as a screener is easier when the center can just space in the corner. The jumper, with the time to load up, looks pretty foundationally sound!

And for someone like Bradley Beal specifically who loves to put pressure on the rim, a popping big matches well.

Nurkic will even drift into the right space from time to time in case extra attention leaves him open.

In one more pros side of the sheet, Nurkic is a good playmaker.

The simplest way it benefitted the Blazers was giving Nurkic the ball at the top of the key and having someone move into the ball, allowing Nurkic to set a good screen for an open jumper.

This would be a good time to direct you to our pieces in this space on how great Durant is off the ball, as well as Beal and Devin Booker.

When Nurkic gets on the move and slips a screen, he can dissect and execute the 0.5 read.

Beal will recreate these cuts.

Returning to Vogel one last time, Phoenix’s offensive playbook involving dynamic off-ball movement with multiple threats will also aid his effort. Nurkic makes that a bit easier to achieve in the department where Kevin Young has to earn the pay day that made him the league’s most expensive assistant coach.

The swapping of centers is difficult to digest in at least one light because we are still centering our conversation around “if.” It was impossible to talk about Ayton as a player without that qualifier, and the basis of this whole trade was the Suns eliminating it as much as possible. But if the Suns have a league average defense, if Nurkic can hang on the floor in the postseason, if Phoenix finds the right alternatives and if Phoenix’s offense can capitalize on new opportunities are all just added to the same list.

A lot of those “if’s” come down to Vogel, and the Suns lucked out in hiring him after the dramatic turn of events on Wednesday.

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