Dwight Jaynes

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

It seems that suddenly Nurkic Fever has turned into Nurkic Flu. And it's spreading like wildfire.

Once the darling of Portland fans, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic has become a Twitter punching bag and a controversial figure. This seems to be sparked by his absence from both the Portland lineup and his recent media availabilities. And of course there is a growing wave of discontent based on Nurkic's recent play, too. His lack of consistency has been maddening and it seems to have finally worn out the patience of fans, coaches and media. Probably even his teammates.

Let's make a few things clear right off the bat. Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and nearly 2 assists per game. That's not bad and I'm not sure where else the Trail Blazers could find a center who could chalk up those statistics. And oh yes, he's still just 23 years old.

But there is more, of course. He is shooting only .479 from the field this season, pretty terrible for a man who takes most of his shots in the paint. And he's at an incredibly terrible .442 within three feet of the basket -- a career low. The Trail Blazers often take great pains to go to him early in games in an effort to get him off to a good start but he often responds as he did against Utah Sunday -- by missing his first four shots, three of them virtual layups. That's a discouraging situation for Nurkic and his team.

Why is this happening? I don't think anyone knows. My guess is that his coaches are at wit's end trying to unlock the secret to finding the whereabouts of the Nurkic who looked so promising through 20 games last season. After a summer in which he lost weight and came back promising to be tougher and more effective he only rarely reaches the level of play we saw so briefly last season. He appears tentative and contact averse.

He often seems to be taking a casual approach to his game, not finishing easy shots and avoiding contact. There are times when he just doesn't seem to be into the whole thing.

He is listed as "questionable" for tonight's game in Moda Center against the Golden State Warriors and there couldn't be a more fitting description of him right now. He's become questionable on a lot of levels.

But if he's hurt, he's hurt. It's careless to question that. But he does seem to get injured frequently, which has led to many questioning his toughness. I must say, as the guy who was screaming "Nurkic Fever" so frequently last season, I've fallen into that category. He's also appeared pouty, which was his reputation in Denver.

Could nagging injuries be a part of his disappointing season? I have no idea. But I do know this, for a player heading into free agency -- even restricted free agency -- he's not doing himself a lot of good. In a summer when it appears the free-agent money pool will be shallow, next season he may not end up earning anywhere close to what he probably anticipated.

Who is Jusuf Nurkic? Right now, I don't think many people have a clue.

And he's running out of games this season to show us.

Go see the Tonya Harding movie for a lesson in revisionist history

Go see the Tonya Harding movie for a lesson in revisionist history

After making time to see most of this season's quality films, I decided Saturday night to take a chance on "I, Tonya" -- what's being generously termed a "biopic" of Tonya Harding.

In actuality, it should be branded "historical fiction."

This story couldn't have been more sympathetic to Tonya if she'd written it herself. My former colleague at The Oregonian, Julie Vader, did an outstanding job of pointing out all the inaccuracies in the movie. I recommend reading it. Vader, along with reporter Abby Haight, were the experts on Tonya Harding -- off the ice and on. In those days, I admit I wasn't much interested in writing about beauty contests on ice -- my cynical take on a sport long known for its ridiculous "judging" --  although I did write about Harding once in a while.

In fact, I was one who was against barring her from the Olympics when she had not yet had her day in court. Then, I remember ripping her because when she finally got to Lillihammer, Norway, and the Winter Games, she didn't even attempt her signature triple axel. On the biggest stage, she didn't have the intestinal fortitude to even go for it -- which is not exactly the Olympic ideal.

I also remember driving to a casino on the coast to watch one of her "boxing" matches. Ugh. She certainly wasn't the fighter this movie tried to portray. It was a mess:

Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

The New York Times famously chimed in on this movie -- and Harding -- recently with a headline that read "Tonya Harding Would Like Her Apology Now." The piece includes a quote from Harding that pretty much sums up her attitude and intellect:

“I moved from Oregon to Washington because Oregon was buttheads,” she said.

But this movie attempts to glorify her and rationalize her -- a convicted felon who plea-bargained her way out of bigger trouble and never served a day behind bars for it.

I am not surprised. We live in an age of revisionist history and a lot of people who aren't interested in seeking out the real truth. More and more I'm seeing attempts being made to paint the early 1990s "Jail Blazers" as a lovable bunch of rogues who were unfairly characterized by a racist media. Sorry, but that's very wrong.

But go see if the Harding movie if you want a few laughs. Margot Robbie and particularly Allison Janney are very good. There are a few chuckles -- mixed with some nasty scenes of spousal and child abuse that, along with a whole lot of gratuitous profanity, make the movie totally unacceptable for kids.

Mariner CEO seems a little concerned about MLB in Portland

Mariner CEO seems a little concerned about MLB in Portland

John Stanton, the CEO of the Seattle Mariners, paid a visit to Portland last week -- a rare move for someone that high up the team's organizational ladder. I'm not sure why he showed up here but I have a hunch it was to deliver a message.

I believe Stanton wanted to make sure everybody here understands that he considers Portland part of the Mariners' territory -- and he wants to throw a little cold water on this city's thoughts about acquiring a major-league baseball team. There is a local group working behind the scenes on bringing MLB to Portland and the sports' commissioner has mentioned this city as a possible expansion site.

From Stanton:

“Success and a sustainable position very much depends on the size of your market,” he said. “Seattle is already one of the smallest markets in terms of population and the smallest market in the AL West, adding that San Diego was the smallest market in the NL West and that “Portland would be smaller than both.”

“If I were in Portland’s position, I would look at what it would take to generate the revenues to be successful, and that is a challenge,” said Stanton.

I was amused to see this man try to paint Seattle as a small market.  That metropolitan area is listed as the No. 12 market in the country -- which, obviously, is anything but small. Portland has moved up from No. 24 to No. 22 recently and is moving upward. But even now, Portland's market is bigger than existing MLB franchises located in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas CIty, Cincinnati, San Diego and Milwaukee. Portland is also listed ninth in future growth rate among MLB cities.

Stanton is rightly concerned with the impact an MLB team in Portland would have on the Mariners. But I would suggest he should fret a little more about the possibility of the NHL and NBA coming to his town soon. The M's have been struggling at the gate for a few seasons now and the presence of two more major-league franchises in a city already crowded with them -- plus the University of Washington -- is likely to result in revenue declines in other sports.

But good luck up there in your tiny little hamlet. John. Portland has been helping prop up your franchise for decades and perhaps it's getting close to a time for your city to return the favor.

 

Location, Location, Location? More like financing, financing, financing

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Location, Location, Location? More like financing, financing, financing

There is an interesting piece in the New York Times about modern stadiums and the new philosophy behind stadium and arena construction for major-league sports.

I think the Times missed the story by just a bit, though. The prime focus for their story was that stadiums are moving downtown, rather than to suburbs. That's been going on for quite a while, though. And I believe the real story is not the location, which is not nearly as important as the way these venues are being financed. In Atlanta, for instance, one of the ballparks that best symbolizes the new trend is the one the Braves built in Cobb County, after moving out of downtown Atlanta.

The real driving force for today's modern stadium/arena/ballpark is to secure the area around it and build mixed-use retail and residential that helps defray costs of construction and provides sources to service the construction debt. It's going on everywhere.

... Across the country, in more than a dozen cities, downtowns are being remade as developers abandon the suburbs to combine new sports arenas with mixed-used residential, retail and office space back in the city. The new projects are altering the financial formula for building stadiums and arenas by surrounding them not with mostly idle parking lots in suburban expanses, but with revenue-producing stores, offices and residences capable of servicing the public debt used to help build these venues.

It used to be that groups trying to sell cities or counties on providing public funding for venues, tried to sell the idea that a downtown stadium would revitalize sections of town and provide economic development. But it was a tough sell. Now, though, the franchises are doing their own development.

The property development model is a foundation of  the construction of the new basketball arena in Sacramento -- which did move from the suburbs to downtown.The San Francisco Giants are preparing to spend $1.4 billion developing a parcel near AT&T Park. SunTrust Park in Cobb County, Ga., remains a shining example of the new philosophy, with the ballpark construction including  "The Battery Atlanta." Los Angeles' Staples Center, of course, is located across the street from "LA Live."

There have been attempts to construct such a district near the Rose Quarter but they never got off the ground, mainly because of ill-advised moves that left Memorial Coliseum untouched and standing. But what would have been -- a lively entertainment district featuring retail, housing, nightclubs and a (once-proposed) Nike sports museum -- would have changed the face of that district. It was to be called "Jumptown."

The mistake that was made with the Rose Quarter, of course, was that the entertainment/housing district should have been built in concert with the arena.  It would have helped Blazer owner Paul Allen recoup much of his investment in the project and given Portland a lively new place to see and be seen.

Something any city would welcome.

Rockets, you want to fight? Do it out there where we can watch

Rockets, you want to fight? Do it out there where we can watch

I love it when NBA teams actually show animosity between each other during a game. There's too much hugging and chatting between opponents for me these days.

So when the Clippers and Rockets showed some genuine hate toward each other yesterday during their game, I enjoyed it. But when I heard that Chris Paul led a trio of teammates into the threshold of the Los Angeles locker room after the game, I was astounded. Paul, after all, is the president of the NBA players' union. And he's pulling this thuggery on Martin Luther King Day?

It's been no secret that Paul and the Clippers' Blake Griffin did not get along during Paul's tenure in Los Angeles. And I've always heard that Paul is often not the best of teammates. And on the other side, Los Angeles' Austin Rivers has been seen as a player who is only there because his father, Doc, is the coach of the team. The perception is that the son takes advantage of the situation by being critical of his teammates under the protection of his father. Not in uniform for the game, the younger Rivers was apparently yapping from the bench throughout the contest.

This from Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times:

The incident was a reminder of something about Paul that bothered all of his teammates. Paul was never so much a team leader as a team instigator. He was tough to play with, and tougher to play with when you didn’t play his way. He was Kobe Bryant without the ability to finish. For all his greatness, he was the guy who would lose the game, then look for a back door to pick a fight.

I would expect the NBA to hit the Rockets with a very big fine. An excursion into the opponents' locker room after a game could be a very dangerous move -- although I would still say the number of NBA players ready to get into an actual fight is very small.

The whole thing reminds me of a time when my long-departed friend, local wrestling promoter Don Owen, was telling me about a couple of his workers squaring off in the locker room after a match. After all the scripted entertainment, these guys were ready to go at it for real.

Owen was ready, too. "I told them it would be fine to settle it that way but to hold on for a couple of minutes. Let me go out and announce a rematch and we'll put it in the ring where it belongs."

I feel the same way about these guys. If somebody really wants a piece of another player, do it out there on the big stage where everyone can see it.

 

The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The youngest pair of the Ball kids are in Lithuania, taking a stab at pro basketball far from home. Why do I think this has no chance of working out well?

Of course, ESPN has a crew following the Ball family, much to the chagrin of a lot of people. In fact, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr spoke for many Monday about the coverage of Old Man Ball:

“I was thinking about ESPN, and they laid off, I don’t know, 100 people,” Kerr said. “How many people did they lay off over the last year? Well over 100, many of whom were really talented journalists covering the NBA. So, this is not an ESPN judgment, it’s a societal thing more than anything. Where we’re going is we’re going away from covering the game, and we’re going toward just sensationalized news. It’s not even news, really. It’s just complete nonsense. But if you package that irrational nonsense with glitter and some ribbon, people are going to watch.

“So, I talked to people in the media this year. I said, ‘Why do you guys have to cover that guy?’ And they say, ‘Well, we don’t want to, but our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings, because of the readership.’ Somewhere, I guess in Lithuania, LaVar Ball is laughing. People are eating out of his hands for no apparent reason, other than that he’s become the Kardashian of the NBA or something.”

I tend to agree with Kerr but I also understand that if news outlets, blogs or websites don't give people what they want, they will soon be out of business. And the public is fascinated by the loud-mouthed father and his impact on his talented sons.

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Caught in the crossfire of all of it is Los Angeles Laker Coach Luke Walton, pretty much an innocent bystander. The Lakers had to know what would happen when they drafted this kid -- his father's  meddling behavior was no secret. I think Walton has done a very good job with his young Laker team this season but, of course, the elder Ball has alleged that Walton has lost control of the team and players don't want to play for him.

Yes, a lot of NBA parents would like to blame coaches for the problems their kids are having -- and I'm guessing if they start popping off about it, there will be a microphone in their face, too. But this guy is a rare one in that he doesn't seem to understand the impact his antics are having on his children. And that makes him news whether we like it or not.

The biggest problem in Los Angeles, though -- and the reason people are actually listening to the Old Man -- is that the Lakers themselves set the  bar way too high for their performance this season. I was sitting in the Thomas & Mack Center last summer when the Lakers beat Portland for the summer-league championship and the celebration, in front of a pro-Laker crowd and NBA-TV, was way over the top. And the centerpiece of all that was an overly excited Magic Johnson proclaiming, "The Lakers are back!"

Ugh. No way. It's the freaking summer league. And Magic should have known better. But summer league helped create an unrealistic expectation that Ball was going to be an immediate superstar and that the Lakers were ready to contend for a playoff spot. And when expectations aren't met, people always look for scapegoats. The elder Ball found his -- the coach -- and it's just his way to take the heat off his son, who hasn't had the kind of season the Lakers obviously expected from him.

Fans, searching for who to blame, are ready to latch onto the coaching narrative because they never want to blame players.

And it became Luke Walton's job to try to meet those lofty expectations with a team and a point guard not ready for such a task. He deserves better and I don't blame the media or LaVar Ball. The Lakers set themselves up for this and they did their coach wrong by it.

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

UPDATED WITH CLEVELAND ILLNESS: At first glance, the NBA schedule has dealt the Trail Blazers a tough hand Tuesday night.

After an overtime win in Chicago Monday, Portland travels to Cleveland for a game tonight vs. the Cavaliers -- a back-to-back contest vs. one of the league's very best teams. But sometimes, the first glance doesn't tell the whole story.

Cleveland is facing a back-to-back, too -- and the backstory there is worth examining.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest – $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

The Cavaliers' back-to-back features a trip to Boston on Wednesday night to play the Celtics -- a big rivalry game made even more heated by another matchup between the Celts' Kyrie Irving and his former team. The Trail Blazers' best hope would be that Cleveland is looking past this home game against Portland to that contest against the Celtics. The Cavaliers are also on a three-game losing streak, although those were road games and the Cavs have won 12 straight home contests.

Tuesday also will mark the season debut of Boston guard Isaiah Thomas, who has been sidelined with a hip injury. Is that good or bad for Portland? Thomas is expected to be on a strict minutes restriction against the Trail Blazers and will not play Wednesday at Boston against his former team. Often, the first game back after a prolonged injury absence can be a little rough, which would be another bonus for Portland.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are expected to welcome Damian Lillard back to the lineup after a five-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

It's worth noting that last season at Cleveland, former Lake Oswego High School star Kevin Love was impossible for Portland to control. Love scored 34 points and made eight three-point field goals in the first quarter, the most points a player has ever scored in the opening quarter of an NBA game. Love is enjoying an outstanding season and has scored at least 20 points and hit at least three three-pointers in six consecutive games.

UPDATE: The bad news for Cleveland is that Love missed shootaround this morning and word is that he's suffering from food poisoning that has caused him to lose 10 pounds in two days. LeBron James is also suffering from a cold.

Coverage starts on NBC Sports Northwest at 3 o'clock with Rip City Live.

 

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

The rollercoaster season of the Trail Blazers hit another big skid Saturday night with a nasty loss at Atlanta to the hapless Hawks.

The only thing you can regularly expect from this team is inconsistency. I realize a lot of people see this season as simply the byproduct of a .500 team. You know, the whole "this is who they are" theory. By nature, a mediocre team is inconsistent. That may well be true but I'm still not ready to give up on my opinion that this is a better team than that.

Look, even a .500 team ought to be able to beat the worst team in the league. Or at least not get blown out by the worst team in the league.

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Jason Quick, on "Talkin' Ball" following Saturday night's embarrassing loss, searched for words to characterize the team he covers and came up with "nonchalant." And I think that's a very apt description. There is a casual acceptance of what's been going on. Nobody seems willing to get angry or openly irritated about playing poorly against some of the worst teams in the NBA. I don't know if that's because most of this roster is being very well paid or if it's just a natural evolution born of keeping the same group together for too long.

I don't get it. I'd like to see a little more of the passion we saw from the Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Philadelphia.

At the center (literally) of the Blazers' nonchalance is Jusuf Nurkic. This is a player with restricted free agency coming his way this summer. Most players in that situation would be playing their tails off in an effort to try to show prospective new teams they have great value. But it's entirely possible Nurkic is costing himself millions with his own personal brand of nonchalance. Night after night he's not finishing at the rim -- casually blowing open shots in the basket area and turning easy shots into difficult ones. He's shooting just .451 from the field this season and .433 in his last 10 games -- awful for a player who spends a lot of time in the paint.

There are 60 men who have played center in the NBA this season with a higher overall shooting percentage than Nurkic.

But he carries himself on the floor with a certain arrogance, as if he's one of the best in the business. He admits he plays better when he's "mad," but usually seems too cool to get angry. I believe his erratic play has been a big reason for his team's up-and-down performances. From night to night, even quarter to quarter, he's not been reliable.

I would imagine the coaching staff is running out of buttons to push in an attempt to motivate him. I'm pretty sure, too, his teammates are frustrated with him. They came into this season believing he was going to be the long-sought piece they've been missing the last few seasons who could propel them upward in the standings. The 20-game Nurk we saw last season was certainly that player. But for most of the 32 games we've seen him this season, he's not the same player.

I realize he is just 23 years old. But at any age there has to be an understanding of the rewards of playing hard. He needs to be building a foundation for a long career. And with free agency looming, he needs to be making a strong statement that he's a player of great value.

At this time, that's not happening -- and the Trail Blazers are suffering the consequences.

 

Paul Allen to blame for Blazer woes? That's just silly

Paul Allen to blame for Blazer woes? That's just silly

I'm not really sure where it's coming from, but lately I've been hearing a lot of blame for the Trail Blazers' early season struggles directed at the team's owner, Paul Allen.

I mean, seriously?

Let me ask you this: Without Allen as the owner, where would the Trail Blazers be right now? I'll answer that one for you -- in Seattle, that's where. Or Las Vegas. Or Vancouver, B.C. Because without Allen funding the construction of the Moda Center, this team would not have a new arena and would have moved out of town years ago as Memorial Coliseum decayed.

I've lived here all my life and I can tell you, there is no way this city would have ever paid for a new arena. There would have been no political will and no ballot measure. And if it ever got on the ballot, it would have failed. Miserably.

But Allen, unlike just about every other owner in pro sports, didn't come begging to the city for a new venue -- he built it himself. To the everlasting benefit of this city. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in basketball, you've probably enjoyed an experience of some sort in that arena. And the reality is, the Rose Quarter and its arena don't belong to Allen, they belong to the citizens of Portland.

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And you want to talk basketball? This city is very fortunate to have an owner who cares about his team. Cares enough to provide payrolls that have ranked the Trail Blazers very often among the top five in the NBA. This is a small market, folks. The TV and radio rights fees don't provide the kind of coin owners earn in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and many other larger markets.

Allen wants to win more than he wants to make money off his team. Think about that for a moment. How many other owners would even attempt to say that? Allen has proved it year after year and I would guess he's had very few seasons where this franchise has actually turned a profit. Allen wants a ring and is willing to pay for it.

But it's hard. I believe it's much more difficult to win a championship in the NBA than any other pro league. Championships are won by the same teams year after year -- even before this modern era of "superteams."

Yes, Allen is interested in the Trail Blazers. Interested enough that he wants in on decisions regarding drafts, trades and roster. For what he's spent on this franchise, is that not his right? Does he "meddle?" I have no idea. I do know that some of his general managers could have used a little more meddling. Has he made some wrong choices with GMs and coaches? I suppose. But who hasn't?

Allen does not live in Portland but you could make a case with all he and his franchise have done for this city, on the court and in the community, he's one of its most benevolent citizens.

And any assertion that he's been a negative influence on his franchise is just plain silly.

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Some real talk about Portland's 114-110 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night:

  • A wacky, crazy, strange game. And for Trail Blazer fans, probably the most exciting game of the season. In the fourth quarter Portland did a great job of mucking the game up -- being physical on defense and very aggressive at both ends of the floor. It resulted in a 42-point quarter while holding the Sixers to 25. I liked the Blazers' passion in the period more than anything. They fed off the home crowd, which was rightfully going bonkers for the first time in weeks
  • And speaking of the home crowd, the referees pitched in and helped as much as they could. Portland shot 47 free throws while Philadelphia got just 14. That's a joke, but once again testimony to the NBA truism that the aggressive team gets the calls.
  • The game may have turned on a flagrant foul call on Joel Embiid in the fourth quarter when he bumped Jusuf Nurkic to the floor. Or Nurkic just flopped onto the floor. I can understand an official watching that in real time and thinking it may have been a flagrant foul -- but after watching a replay? That was a real bad call -- and even though Nurkic missed his free throws, you could feel the game changing on that call. Embiid seemed discouraged and tired down the stretch. Great player, though.
  • Nurkic offered a look at both sides of his game. He suffered through all sorts of stumbles, fumbles and misfires over the first three quarters. The man has missed more close-in shots and layups this season than any player I've ever seen. But in the fourth quarter, after getting his nose bloodied, he found passion and assertiveness. He was an inspiration down the stretch -- leading to the obvious question: Where has THAT Nurkic been?
  • The Sixers are a well-coached team but I could not figure out why they didn't send Embiid to the low post in the fourth quarter and let him go directly at Nurkic who played most of the final period with five fouls. My goodness, Nurkic will commit that sixth foul if you give him half a chance. in fact, the passive game officials aside, I thought he did commit his sixth foul two or three times but it just wasn't called
  • Like Nurkic, Shabazz Napier completely turned his game around in the second half. He missed his first six shots and struggled against the quickness of 76ers guard T.J. McConnell in the first half. But he hit seven of his last eight shots and was a big part of his team's late rally.
  • I'm not sure how much longer NBA officials will keep falling for Nurkic's flopping around but you have to figure it will reach that point.
  • CJ McCollum had one of those games we've come to expect of him -- making just about every open shot he got, including some big ones.
  • Somehow, Portland found its passion button in the second half. I don't know what triggered it, but it's been missing most of the season. What a difference when this team is playing with desperation and aggression.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest – $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]