PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers announced Wednesday that starting center Jusuf Nurkic will miss at least four weeks with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. In a news release, the Blazers said Nurkic has played through "symptoms of plantar fasciitis" since September and that he'll be re-evaluated in four weeks.
The NBA regular season ends April 10, about six weeks from now, so it's possible Nurkic has played his last game of the season.
The Blazers' 6-foot-11, 290-pound center is having one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 15.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 28.2 minutes per game. He's been even better in February, averaging 17.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists, and during the Blazers' current four-game winning streak, he's put up 21.5 points, 14.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
Nobody in the Blazers' front office would ever admit it in public, but many local and national members of the NBA media immediately speculated that this move is more about Portland's front office angling to lose games than about healing Nurkic's foot.
It's no secret to those who follow the team that the Blazers' front office has incentive to lose games the rest of this season to improve the team's draft position. Players and coaches won't intentionally lose games when they're on the court; just look at the team's four-game winning streak since the trade deadline for evidence. But the team's front office appears to be looking beyond this season.
Superstar guard Damian Lillard had abdominal surgery and probably won't play again until next season. The team traded away three starters and a high-level reserve at the trade deadline. And now one of the team's best remaining players and one of its only centers is sitting out at least a month with plantar fasciitis. All signs point to the front office prioritizing losing games the rest of the season over trying to make a playoff push.
Here's how Jason Quick, longtime Blazers beat reporter for The Athletic, characterized the move: "Jusuf Nurkić gets the always reliable plantar fasciitis as the Blazers’ reason to sit him. Probably smart move to ensure high draft pick, but also kind of a bummer because it sure was fun watching the last four games."
Mike Richman, host of the Locked on Blazers podcast, put it like this: "Respect to Jusuf Nurkic for being too good to play."
Aaron Fentress, Blazers beat writer for the Oregonian, said he called it before the announcement came down: "What I say? Didn't I say that someone like Nurkic would magically have a 'toe?' I even said it last night at the blazers booster club meeting. Well, Nurkic, after 7 consecutive double-doubles, has a foot. The tank is back on."
Sean Highkin, who covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, tweeted, "Blazers ain't losing that pick."
Portland sports radio host Chad Doing called it a "wise choice" by the team.
So why would Portland's front office want to lose games just as the team looks like it's starting to put things together and win some games? It's all about the value of this year's first-round draft pick. Interim general manager Joe Cronin is trying to construct a winning roster around Lillard and emerging star guard Anfernee Simons. A high draft pick would make that job a lot easier.
If the Blazers make the playoffs this season, their first-round pick will convey to the Chicago Bulls as part of last summer's trade for Larry Nance Jr. But if the Blazers miss the playoffs, regardless of whether they make the play-in, they'll keep their first-round draft pick. And because Portland is having one of its worst seasons in years, that means the Blazers could end up with one of their highest draft picks in years.
The Blazers' current record of 25-34 is tied for the ninth-worst record in the NBA. But Portland has just two more wins than the Spurs and Pelicans, tied for seventh, and three more wins than the Kings, who are tied for sixth. With 23 games left, the Blazers are still within reach of the sixth-worst record in the league.
Why does that matter? A look at how the percentages play out for the 14 teams in the draft lottery shows how advantageous it would be if Portland's record dropped below teams like the Spurs, Pelicans and Kings. For example, if the Blazers were to finish with the 10th-worst record in the league at the end of the season, they'd have a 16.9% chance of landing a top-four draft pick. But if they end up with the sixth-worst record, their chance of landing a top-four selection goes all the way up to 37.2%.
Many NBA draft pundits are saying this year's draft is top-heavy with four potential stars at the top — Gonzaga's Chet Holmgren, Auburn's Jabari Smith, Duke's Paolo Banchero and Purdue's Jaden Ivey — but a lot of uncertainty beyond those top four. So it makes a lot of sense for the Blazers' front office to prioritize losing games the rest of the season, whether they'll admit it or not.