This NBA trade deadline, the Portland Trail Blazers made the greatest deal in the history of the franchise.
In February, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey traded center Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for the glorious hero Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick.
The swap looked at first like a drab deal that at best kept the Blazers running on a treadmill of mediocrity. But then, a twist! Plumlee has been the same player in Denver that he was in Portland: a Duke-trained minutes eater who occasionally gets kicked in the balls.
Meanwhile, Nurkic, 22, has been fucking awesome, averaging 14 points, 9.6 rebounds, and a whopping 2.2 blocks a game. He's hauling the team from a lost season into "Nurkic Fever." It's a deeply felt hotness of body and spirit caused by gazing upon a flaccid 7-foot Bosnian brawler who wins games by hitting twirling layups, blocking shots and breaking bodies.
"Nurkic is as young as he is large," says Los Angeles-based standup comic and Blazers analyst Ian Karmel. "Ever since the arrival of the Bosnian Beef Lord, I've found myself more hopeful."
This coming week offers your best chance to understand this feeling. Nurkic (Nurk to his friends) plays four home games before April 1, including a March 28 tilt with the Nuggets, who are racing the Blazers for the final playoffs seed, and whom Nurk hates with the rage of a jilted 280-pound lover—they dumped him in favor of his erstwhile teammate Nikola Jokic, a Serb.
But before you buy a ticket, you might ask: What does this phenomenon mean? Is it a seasonal fling or an enduring love?
The immediate reality is a team still fighting for the last playoff berth, and facing near-certain annihilation in the first round.
But the possibilities are much bigger. A Jusuf Nurkic who plays like this, on a consistent basis, drags the Blazers out of total reliance on franchise player Damian Lillard and fellow teensy-weensy guard C.J. McCollum and into playoff contention for at least the rest of the decade.
Dane Carbaugh, who covers the NBA for NBC Sports, says size matters. "Nurkic is a bigger body than the Blazers had," Carbaugh says. "He's harder to plow through."
Except for leaping ability, Nurk has pretty much all of Plumlee's skills: He can score on a pick-and-roll and pass with surprising elegance, and he's even better at rebounding.
But there's two extra dimensions to Nurk that Plumlee lacked. He's five years younger than Plumlee, and he can defend! His feet are quick enough to follow on switches on the perimeter, he has active hands that create steals and chaos, and he does an effective job protecting the rim.
Also, and this is just a bonus: He is enthusiastically nasty, just a big ol' bad boy out on the court, a Blazer throwback I was worried we might never see again.
The Blazers have mostly hewed boring, acquisition-wise, since Jail Blazers like Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells were demonized.
Nurkic is bound by no such conventions. He talks mad, accented trash, knocks dudes to the hardwood, sets beautifully dirty picks, and isn't shy about contact or exhibiting bad manners. In his third game as a Blazer, he had a two crowns on his teeth knocked out of his mouth—and kept playing.
Once, in Denver, he knocked Markieff Morris down before scoring on him in the post, then willingly took a technical foul by gently collecting the ball and laying it on Morris' chest while he was still supine on the floor. That is the exact opposite of getting kicked in the nuts by Morris—which is what happened to Plumlee, in case you're keeping score at home.
Even skeptics are won over. "I was super bummed to lose Mason Plumlee, my favorite Plumlee," says Seattle novelist Richard Chiem, a Blazers die-hard. "But then Jusuf got two of his teeth knocked out and became a beast. Now we've got a first-round pick, one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, and Nurkic is knocking out career highs with fewer teeth."
And hey, all this, and he's still just a six-pack or two out of shape! If Nurk, who is still coming off a foot injury, can get on the deadlift this summer, maybe get to resculpting his breadstick-textured arms, and learn the team's offense, the Blazers might find themselves in the thick of the playoff field for the next few years.
As anybody who remembers Sheed can tell you: It's good to be bad.