If you have followed Jusuf Nurkic through social media this summer, you have likely noticed he appears noticeably thinner than we saw last season. If Nurkic has indeed gotten serious about his conditioning, which recent social media posts would indicate, the impact felt on the court by a leaner and meaner Nurkic could have huge ramifications in the Western Conference.
Listed at 7 feet, 279 pounds, Nurkic was a revelation for the Trail Blazers after being acquired just before the NBA All-Star break. In 20 regular season games with Portland, Nurkic posted per-game averages of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks, shooting 50.8% from the field in 29.2 minutes. Up until Nurkic fractured his leg just about two weeks before the playoffs, the team went 14-6 in games he played, roaring back into the playoff picture after appearing to waive the white flag when team president Neil Olshey shipped away Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick.
One of the biggest flaws Nurkic displayed in a Blazers uniform was a tendency to pick up fouls rather quickly. Nurkic averaged 3.7 fouls per game with Portland, which would have been the second-worst mark in the NBA last year. While Nurkic will never be known as a freak athlete (22" no-step vertical at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine), even an incremental improvement in his conditioning would allow him to be lighter on his feet and avoid picking up cheap fouls on illegal screens and blocking fouls.
The Western Conference only got tougher this offseason, as Paul George (Thunder) and Paul Millsap (Denver) have migrated West. The Rockets have acquired Chris Paul (and may potentially trade for Carmelo Anthony) to pair with James Harden. Golden State kept their entire rotation intact this offseason, and are still the team to beat. The Spurs will always be a threat as long as Gregg Popovich and RC Buford are running things (oh, and they also have Kawhi Leonard). If there is one area the Trail Blazers can exploit these teams, it's in the low post, where Nurkic's size, strength, and skill can cause mismatch problems.
Portland's salary cap situation has hamstrung them from improving the roster via free agency or trade (outside of swapping picks with Sacramento during the NBA Draft). Organic growth is Portland's best chance to go from also-ran to a real threat to the elite teams in the Western Conference this year. The Trail Blazers have arguably the third-best backcourt in the NBA (behind both Golden State and Houston, right in line with Washington), and depth across the roster. By shedding those extra pounds, Nurkic and Portland may pack a much heavier punch this season, which should concern the Western Conference elite.