Few NBA preseason games felt like they had more on the line than Thursday night’s meeting between the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns. Two of the three teams involved in the monster deal just before media day that saw Damian Lillard land on the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Suns helped to facilitate that deal, getting no fewer than four players in return. Center Jusuf Nurkic was undoubtedly the focal point of the trade from the Suns’ point of view, with Deandre Ayton going in the other direction to Portland.
In their first head-to-head contest, albeit a preseason one, it was Nurkic who came out on top by hammering Ayton throughout the game.
The final scores of these games don’t count for anything, and instead it is about the broader strokes of seeing how a head coach plans to use a player, or else what groups of five he will go with once the regular season begins.
But this one felt like it meant just that little bit more to Suns fans, especially after Ayton took shots at the organization when speaking to the media on the eve of the game by saying “I have no thoughts, I don’t want to talk about it.” Ayton though appeared to have more emotive language for his former team once the game started.
Clearly there remains some bad blood simmering under the surface, although choosing to unfollow both Devin Booker and Kevin Durant on social media seems a childish response from the former first overall pick. In any event, that set the stage for fireworks – as much as you can get from a preseason contest out in Portland.
To Ayton’s credit, it wasn’t all bad from him. He had the kind of dunk early in the game that had Suns fans groaning at what might have been. More plays like that on a consistent basis, much like we saw in the run to the NBA Finals in 2021, and Ayton would still be on the team.
Then something unexpected happened – Nurkic decided to show Suns fans that his arrival may not be the disaster that it looked like on paper. The merits of adding Nurkic to this Suns’ roster made sense, and the point was hammered home repeatedly by Suns’ owner Mat Ishbia and the front office at media day.
But the drawbacks for the franchise at such a critical juncture in their quest to win a first ever championship were there for all to see as well. Nurkic has been hobbled since before Covid, and hasn’t played more than 52 games in a season since then. At 29-years-old, he is what he is in this league, and that comes with some question marks over his defensive abilities.
Offensively he is a better fit than Ayton next to Booker, Durant and Bradley Beal, with some soft hands, great movement around the basket and the ability to pass out of the post well for a big man. All of that is well and good, but the Suns are going to need somebody to patrol their own paint at an elite level this season, and it remains to be seen how durable Nurkic is.
But through one half, Nurkic sat in street clothes for the second, Nurkic attacked Ayton and managed to get a pair of “and-one” plays out of him. More than that, he was able to bully his way inside for easy points, and in doing so made the Suns’ front office look correct in their belief that head coach Frank Vogel can take the Bosnian to another level around the basket.
Nurkic also displayed a willingness – just like he said he would at media day – to both come out to the 3-point line to hound guards, before shuffling back into the paint once he had forced the ball out of their hands. The below clip exactly what Suns fans were hoping for when the trade went down.
It is still very early days, and one half of preseason basketball won’t decide who won and lost this trade. But in a microcosm, and assuming Nurkic can stay on the court for more than 52 games this season, several big picture takeaways became evident. Namely that Nurkic does in fact fit better with this team, and that Ayton’s ability to be an elite rim protector hasn’t happened yet.
Considering the Suns also got Grayson Allen in this deal, a player who has the chance to be their sixth man this coming season, the early returns on the deal are promising. Even if it turns out the Suns were wrong to trade Ayton for Nurkic, Allen and some stuff, the simple fact is Ayton had to go before this season started.
The Suns front office were brave to make that call, and although some fans will always believe they could have gotten more for a 25-year-old center in a league that has trended back towards big men, the reality is this could have been as good as it would ever get. Advantage Suns and Nurkic then, in a rivalry that is only beginning to heat up versus Ayton and the Trail Blazers.