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Jusuf Nurkic could give the Wizards the athletic big they need without losing Marcin Gortat’s intangibles

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The “what have you done for me lately” attitude is a natural one to have in the space of professional sports, especially since millions of dollars are invested in athletes with varying levels of expectations. Marcin Gortat’s time with the Washington Wizards has, for the most part, been a positive experience for all parties involved, but it’s also become blemished by the aforesaid notion.

When the Wizards traded for him in 2013, Gortat was 29 and, given that he’d spent years as Dwight Howard’s backup in Orlando, had less mileage than most players his age. As a pick-and-roll threat, Gortat’s game blossomed alongside Steve Nash, making him a near-perfect fit in the nation’s capital next to John Wall.

Teams rarely get the same return for players after they sign extensions but Gortat continued to be a reliable player long after he re-upped with the Wizards at the end of the 2013-14 season.

This past season, that changed.

Gortat, due to the sport’s evolution and the normal decline that comes with age, had his worst season with the Wizards in 2017-18. He played 25 minutes per game, his lowest average since joining the team, and he didn’t do himself any favors by creating unnecessary drama off the court.

Washington was reportedly engaged in trade talks for Gortat prior to the February trade deadline, but were unable to find a taker. They’ve entered the off-season with Gortat and his backup, Ian Mahinmi, on the roster, who will make a total of $28 million next year. Their franchise player, Wall, has publicly made it clear the Wizards need to upgrade at the position and Gortat has talked about wanting to retire soon.

Whether it ends this summer via trade or retirement next year, Gortat’s time with Washington is coming to a close soon, and based on how things have been going, it would make sense to get it done sooner than later.

Since most teams are strapped financially, Gortat’s expiring contract could be enticing this summer. Washington won’t be in the market to land a top player through free agency, but a club looking to go in a different direction could find Gortat’s expiring deal appealing in a sign-and-trade.

Washington needs to get younger and must find a trade partner that’s in a similar or worse financial predicament. The Portland Trail Blazers check off the boxes.

Portland already has $111 million committed to salaries next season. They’re on the verge of paying luxury tax for a team that was swept out of the first round by a lower seed. The Blazers had a disastrous off-season in 2016 and now they’re paying the price, quite literally. As it turns out, Evan Turner wasn’t exactly worth $70 million and Meyers Leonard wasn’t worth over $10 million per year either.

Like Washington, the Blazers’ front office and ownership has to decide if they want to keep moving forward with the pieces currently in place or shake things up. The Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum backcourt is arguably the second most talented in the league, behind only the championship duo, but the “what have you done for me lately” attitude has some questioning if it’d be best to split them up.

Regardless of what Portland does this summer, the front office needs to loosen the financial strap that’s suffocating the franchise. It may not be in their best interests to commit to a long-term deal with restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic, since they already have so much money on the books and they have Zach Collins—last year’s 10th overall pick—who needs room to grow. Signing-and-trading him this summer would give them a chance to get back some talent who could help out next season without hurting their long-term flexibility.

A few seasons ago, re-signing Nurkic would’ve been a no-brainer, but with the league continuing to move away from “traditional” roles, his value in Portland – and anywhere else – is iffy. However, considering Washington’s desperate need for a useful young big man, Washington should give serious consideration to making an offer this summer.

In a perfect world, the Wizards would be able to find a young, athletic, low-maintenance big man who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work. That’s the makeup of a modern big man – someone who sets hard screens, rolls to the rim with purpose, alters shots and rebounds. Nurkic does some of that – just like Gortat used to before father time came a-knockin’.

In his first full season with Portland, Nurkic averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds per game, comparable to Gortat’s most productive season in Washington. The Blazers were five points better with him on the court, and while Portland didn’t ask him to score a lot, his screens proved to be valuable for their dynamic backcourt. Defensively, Nurkic was in the top-10 in blocks this season, tying Joel Embiid with 111 total, despite only averaging 26 minutes per game.

Before he was traded to Portland, Nurkic was relegated to the bench in Denver to play behind Nikola Jokic – a floor-spacing, passing big man more equipped for the modern era. Nurkic complained about his diminished role and the Nuggets accommodated his trade request. Remind you of anyone?

However, he’s also shown a great ability to adapt, which is impressive for a 23-year-old. Last summer, Portland challenged him to become more agile, so he dropped 35 pounds which allowed the Blazers to play a more aggressive, effective defense. He’s also gradually stepped away from the basket and shot more often from outside the paint.

Nurkic has a long way to go before being a factor from deep—he’s yet to make a 3-point shot and attempted merely seven last season—but at his age, teams will have to hope he eventually becomes a useful shooter. It wouldn’t be the first time a bruising big man has found his range. Aron Baynes, a player of similar build, made 11 of his 23 threes in this year’s playoffs after only shooting 4 of 28 for his entire career up to that point.

But even if he’s never able to add that dimension to his game, he’s still an intriguing target for Washington this summer. They could get a younger version of Gortat without giving up the assets they would have to surrender in a normal trade. Meanwhile, Gortat would give the Blazers a safety net for a year while Collins develops, and they would likely get an asset and some financial wiggle room in 2019 to work with as well.

The Blazers and Wizards both need to make changes this summer and neither team has much room to work with. A trade like this is risky on both ends, but it helps both meet their goals without the risks other options present. It’s a gamble both sides should consider this summer.