Nurkic, Blazers hungry for improvement
PORTLAND — In the loaded Western Conference where the Warriors rule, center Jusuf Nurkic suggested the Portland Trail Blazers can be the Bad Boys.
Think of the Detroit Pistons of days past.
"All we can do is put all we can together and be Bad Boys," the 7-footer known as the Bosnian Beast said. "I mean, we are Bad Boys. When you come to Portland you know you're not going to have wins easy."
Nurkic came to the Blazers in a trade last February and quickly developed chemistry with his teammates. He averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers, who were 14-5 with him in the starting lineup.
His season was cut short by a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture. Now fully healed, Nurkic is again embracing his role with the Blazers. He dropped 34 pounds this summer in an effort to be quicker and more agile.
Portland finished last season at 41-41 before being eliminated by Golden State in the opening round of the playoffs. But a late-season surge after Nurkic's arrival was encouraging.
Portland didn't make a lot of changes in the offseason. The team remains anchored by the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McColllum. Lillard finished last season with a career-best average of 27 points per game, along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists. McCollum finished the season with a career-best 23 points per game.
Nurkic believes the key to the Blazers' success this season is defense.
"Our defense was trash, to be honest, before," he said. "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."
And he's correct, last season Portland struggled at times defensively. Although the D improved after Nurkic arrived, the Blazers finished 25th in the league for average points allowed.
Here are some other things to watch for with the Blazers:
PEAK PORTLAND: Lillard revealed that he's trying out a vegan diet, an effort that's got him down to about 190 pounds — close to his rookie weight. The idea — much like it was with Nurkic's weight loss — is to be a little lighter on his feet.
There's just one problem. Wendy's. Oh, and Five Guys. Lillard passes both of them on his way home. But the benefits outweighed the drawbacks, he said.
"Not only did I feel lighter moving around the court, but when I got winded and I got tired, it wasn't the same. I felt stronger. I felt good on the court. It might have its issues as far as recovery once we start really getting into the season, and I'll address that," he said. "But it's truly made a difference."
LOOKING AT LEONARD: Meyers Leonard knows he didn't do well last season so he rededicated himself to his craft over the summer, working out in Los Angeles with respected NBA trainer Drew Hanlen. Nukic's arrival takes some of the pressure off the 7-foot-1 Leonard as he enters his sixth season with the Blazers, but he still must prove he's a solid reserve.
"At the end of the day he's going to have to do it on the court," Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said. "Because at some point — it is still about development — but it's about production. I think Meyers knows that and his commitment in the offseason has put him in a position where he's ready to compete."
IMPRESSIVE ROOKIES: Both of Portland's rookies have been drawing praise in the preseason. Portland acquired forwards Zach Collins out of Gonzaga and Caleb Swanigan out of Purdue on draft night.
Swanigan, the former Big Ten Player of the Year last season as a sophomore, was named to the NBA Summer League First Team after averaging 14.9 points and 10.4 rebounds through the first seven games.
LEARNING CURVE: For two seasons in a row, the Blazers have had second-half rallies that helped put them in the postseason. But coach Terry Stotts acknowledges that perhaps Portland missed out on the lesson the first time. "I think from my perspective last year is that we forgot how hard it is to do what we did in the second half of the season," he said.
JERSEY PATCH: This is the first season the league will allow teams to display sponsor patches on the left shoulder of their uniforms. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers will feature a Goodyear logo on their uniforms. But the Blazers have yet to strike an agreement. Team President and CEO Chris McGowan said Portland was very close to a deal but it fell through at the last minute.