22 for 22: The complicated answer on potentially trading Jusuf Nurkic

Jun 5, 2024, 5:07 PM

Jusuf Nurkic #20 of the Phoenix Suns passes over Kyle Lowry #7 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the...

Jusuf Nurkic #20 of the Phoenix Suns passes over Kyle Lowry #7 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half at Footprint Center on March 20, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

Here we are again, discussing how possible it is for the Phoenix Suns to trade their center. After covering the value of Phoenix’s No. 22 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft in the first post of this 22-part series, let’s examine if that value may be the difference in the Suns’ ability to deal Jusuf Nurkic if they so choose.

But should the pick’s importance be used to move on from Nurkic? It’s a complicated answer.

As predicted, Nurkic swiftly took Deandre Ayton’s spot not only on the depth chart but as the most polarizing player on the team. And one of his teammates is Kevin Durant. A good chunk of fans grew tired of Nurkic’s deficiencies by the end of the season and wanted any alternative explored. He also has his defenders, in this space included, because of what he brought to the table.

Nurkic was one of the most important players in the Suns’ rotation. A year ago, his placement was vital in the Suns’ offensive system — it feels like an exaggeration to even describe it as a “system” since it lacked any rhythm.

Nurkic served as a hub for dribble handoffs and backcuts. Other times, he acted as a safety valve to reset a possession to salvage something good out of it because he’s a good passer and screen-setter.

The numbers backed this up and they had just as much to do with his contributions as they did with the lack of contributions behind him. Phoenix’s offensive rating when Nurkic was on the court was 120.5, the top mark on the team, per NBA Stats. Same goes for his defensive rating of 111.3 among starters. That 9.2 net rating and the -3.8 net rating when he sat is a difference of 13 points per 100 possessions.

The most concerning part of this trend for Phoenix was that even when Nurkic’s effectiveness waned after the All-Star break, those numbers didn’t change much at all. It served as an indicator of how reliant the Suns and their Big 3 became on Nurkic but even more so how unreliable any other option had become at center beyond him.

Defensively, he was better than expected. Nurkic executed more aggressive coverages well, showing a solid ability to contain a ball-handler and get back to his spot. Yes, he is not a pure rim protector. But a lot of the criticism was about how slow-footed he is, and Nurkic was less of a liability than anticipated.

Nurkic led the Suns in deflections at 166, seventh among all centers in basketball this season. His rebounding contribution was immense. A 20.4% rebounding percentage led the NBA among starters and was second overall to Chicago’s Andre Drummond.

All of this is to say that, like Ayton, it is not a seamless snap of the finger to get rid of Nurkic and then replace what he does. With that said, there are valid reasons to switch it up yet again.

Jusuf Nurkic was neither a rim threat or a stretch big for Suns in 2023-24

The timing of the NBA Finals is apt in showcasing how a center in today’s NBA has to either be a lob threat like the Dallas Mavericks’ duo at the 5 or stretching the floor like the Boston Celtics’ duo at the 5. A big has to be other-worldly at another skill to make up for not bringing either of those skill sets and be part of an elite offense.

Phoenix finished 29th in alley-oop dunks last season with 23, per Suns Twitter’s RB.

In an admittedly wonky selection of who NBA Stats classifies as a center when looking at how many 3s each team got out of the position, Phoenix ranked 22nd with 45. That includes 22 knocked down by Bol Bol, who hardly played the 5 at all. Here’s a fun wrinkle. If we take out those 22 from Bol, the Suns place 26th. The teams that rank below them are the Hawks, Nets, Mavericks and Hornets, four squads that all ranked in the top-five of alley-oop dunks.

Nurkic provided neither element last season. He actually shot 36.1% from deep on 2.1 attempts per game for his last season in Portland, supplying optimism he could be just about that or slightly worse with another triple or two a night. But until Jan. 8, he was at 27.3% on 2.2 a game. The decision was then made he was going to stop taking them.

All of this would be manageable if Nurkic was a decent finisher around the rim. We knew coming into the year that was one of his weaknesses. Even with more spacing in Phoenix, Nurkic shot 60% at the basket, an awful number that is in the 15th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. To go back to frustration from the fans, the misses on bunnies became a lot more difficult to swallow once Nurkic’s impact wasn’t as pronounced in the last two months of the season.

So, what is the solution here? Let’s briefly discuss trading him.

Nurkic makes $18.1 million next year and becomes an expiring the season after at $19.4 million. In a vacuum, he is a good basketball player plenty of teams wouldn’t mind having. At that price, though, we enter the grey area that we own a four-bedroom townhouse in from when we spent years trying to figure out what Ayton’s value was. As always, there is surely a team or two out there that likes Nurkic enough to accept the price tag.

But this is not about just getting rid of him. It’s about if he can be dealt, along with the pick, for the Suns to get something of quality in return. The possibilities are not alluring.

Because of the second apron, the salary number coming back has to be just below what Nurkic makes. And in a two-team deal, Phoenix cannot add on another salary. PHNX Sports’ Gerald Bourguet scanned around, and the best deals I agree with Gerald on — and that seem moderately feasible for both parties — are wing Dorian Finney-Smith in Brooklyn and the Cody Martin/Nick Richards combo in Charlotte. We’re attaching No. 22 pick in both theoretical deals.

The first trade would leave Phoenix to find both a starting-caliber center and backup 5, while the second deal requires another 5 to replace depending on how high you are on Richards (he’s fine!). In this scenario, the Suns would then be down to having only Nassir Little, David Roddy and a 2031 first-round pick to trade. Tough sledding.

Perhaps, as Gerald outlines, a wacky three- or four-team deal emerges. The Suns hired Brooklyn executive Matt Tellem to explore options like that for this very reason.

The bottom line is the Suns in a normal situation would be in a perfectly fine place to deal Nurkic. Using his salary and a pick to fill another need, such as a wing or a point guard, while utilizing another avenue to replace Nurkic is a method plenty of NBA teams have used in the past and will again. Phoenix just doesn’t have that flexibility right now.

And you know what, that’s OK! He’s a good player! Practically no one on the Suns last year developed on-court chemistry with another guy that was noticeable enough except for Nurkic with the Big 3, specifically Durant. The largest supply of toughness on a team that sorely needed it came via the Bosnian. Nurkic accepted his role diminishing over the course of the season and continued to play hard through that. He answered all the questions about his health by playing in 76 games and toughing out several nicks along the way.

Like last offseason, the solution with Nurkic is finding someone else to play behind him. You’d hope that person at times can outright replace Nukric on the floor to better match up. Phoenix didn’t know Nurkic was their starting center last year until late September. It now has the time to figure that dynamic out and find another 5 to form a proper one-two punch.

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22 for 22: The complicated answer on potentially trading Jusuf Nurkic