It was a twin-tower experiment that soured.
In 2017, the Denver Nuggets incorporated both Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic in the starting lineup. Despite a high scoring affair versus New Orleans that season, where the Bosnian Beast totaled a then career-high 23 points, followed by an 18-rebound explosion versus Toronto, Nurkic only averaged eight points per game that season.
When the production of the two-big lineup didn’t emerge, Coach Michael Malone opted initially to bring Jokic off the bench in efforts to help his team, but he flipped that decision after the Jokic emerged as the Nuggets starting center.
Ultimately, the pairing didn’t work out as the Nuggets had envisioned and Nurkic was the odd man out. Denver decided to move on, trading the Bosnian center to Portland, along with a first-round pick, in exchange for Mason Plumlee on Feb. 13, 2017.
Four years later, that trade proved pivotal for both teams.
“Going back to 2017, that seems like such a long time ago,” Malone said Thursday in a press conference with media. “We tried to play them both together early on, didn’t have the results that we necessarily wanted, and the reality is, I think, the trade has benefited Nurk, it’s benefited us. It worked out for everybody...
Since Nurkic arrived in Rip City for the first time, he’s built a reputation as one of the league’s best centers. Despite a few setbacks, including suffering a broken leg in 2019, Nurkic has put the Blazers in the driver's seat to compete in the West.
His chemistry with stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has sparked, too. This season, Nurkic is posting averages of 11.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
“Nurk is really skilled,” Malone said. “I think he’s a great complement to both Dame and CJ. They’re one of the league leaders in pick and rolls per game and dribble handoffs per game, and those guys have great synergy on the court.
"He sets great screens, he rolls, and his ability to catch the ball in the pocket to finish, to make plays for others, we talked about his ability to work the offensive glass and now three head-to-head meetings this year. Jusuf is averaging five offensive rebounds a game against us, so yeah, he’s skilled, he’s big, he’s physical, he’s a really good basketball player.”
While the Blazers got “Nurk Fever” once they found their center of the future, the Nuggets too felt that Jokic vaulted the franchise into one of the league’s best.
After averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists while appearing in all 72 games for Denver this season, Jokic is a frontrunner for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
“We’ve done everything to build around Nikola Jokic, which has allowed us to be the team that we’ve been the last three, four years,” Malone said. “So, yeah it didn’t go well, but I think Nurk is in a great place, and I think you can tell by our recent success the last few years that we’ve definitely found the right direction as well.”
Now, the two bruising bigs are on a crashing course to meet as the Blazers and Nuggets collide in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Nurkic didn’t get a chance to go up against Jokic during the second round of the playoffs in 2019. In that series, the Joker averaged 27.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists.