The former Blazer is one of the league’s underappreciated big men.
First, a caveat: This article will contain references to one or more Plumlee(s). On the odd chance you are not familiar with the clan, people do not like the Plumlees. Shunned, mocked, and largely despised, they are, when stacked, a very tall obelisk of scorn. If the NBA fan community is the Montagues, the Plumlee and Zeller families are the Capulets. If you are incapable of hearing positive words about a Plumlee, turn back now.
Anyway, this caveat comes because the Portland Trailblazers traded Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round draft pick to the Denver Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick (by way of Memphis).
Both teams have been in a race to the bottom of the Western conference playoffs, with the 24-30 Nuggets holding a one game edge over the 23-31 Blazers. Over the last few weeks, the Nuggets have been missing penciled-in starters Danilo Gallinari, Nikola Jokic (more on him in a minute), Kenneth Faried, and Emmanuel Mudiay in varying quantities of games, but they’ve been able to hold serve over a near full-strength Blazers team.
This being the case, the Blazers traded from a position where they could either embrace their ceiling as a ~.500 basketball team, or shed current talent to gain long-term flexibility.
I say this because, even if the Blazers were able to shed the optional, non-guaranteed, and fungible contracts on their salary bill, they would still have $112 million committed to Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard next season. That $112 million figure is versus a projected luxury tax line of $122 million, so their wiggle room would be limited. Adding a mini-max Plumlee contract would take them over the line by more than $10 million, a salary level typically reserved for contending teams.
If they re-signed Plumlee, the Blazers would have to find teams to take on salary, let Plumlee go, or resign themselves to paying the tax for a team that’s not particularly good. Think of it as a low-stake (and thus more forgivable) version of the James Harden trade.
On the Blazers side, it’s hard to view this as anything but a tanking move. The Blazers are only seven games better than the last-place 17-38 Suns, Plumlee, 27 in March, is a good basketball player, Nurkic, 22, is not an asset yet, and they control their own pick and the Grizzlies’ and Cavaliers’ picks in the upcoming draft. The latter two picks, while valuable, are likely to come in the back end of the first round. Given that they are getting worse, it would make sense for Blazers to try to win a top-six pick in the lottery and draft a versatile front court player like Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, or Jonathan Isaac (who are all predicted to go in that range). Dealing Plumlee is a signal from the front office that they do not believe that they are close to competing in the Western Conference. Reloading on the fly is a viable strategy.
As a brief aside on Nurkic: he’s a good, potentially great defensive player, but he is shooting <60% at the rim, 51.5% TS overall, and is ill-suited to pace and space basketball zeitgeist. It’s almost impossible to keep a plodding big who can’t finish on the floor. He is worth taking a gamble on because the talent is real, but after three mediocre-to-bad, injury plagued years, it’s doubtful that he’ll ever put it together.
The centerpiece on the Nuggets side of the deal is Plumlee. Anyone by that name would be maligned, but there’s not much critical agreement on his quality as a player (as is well documented by Blazer’s Edge). There are those who think that he’s incompatible with Denver star Nikola Jokic, others think that he’s just not good, and some think that he’s a massive upgrade. For what it’s worth (not much), Plumlee has graded out as Portland’s second or third best player over the past two seasons by the all-in-one metrics WS/48 and BPM. The truth is not that black-and-white, but, in Plumlee, coach Mike Malone is acquiring a player who has proven himself to be incredibly versatile for a modern five. In particular, his passing, screen and roll skill, defensive versatility, and general energy have shined in Portland.
Passing & Screening
Yes, the season’s running NBA joke is ”it’s not if, but when Mason Plumlee gets a triple double”, but Plumlee is genuinely one of the better passing centers in the league alongside Greg Monroe, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, DeMarcus Cousins, and his new teammate Jokic.
Here’s a great 9:00 video of some of his passes from last season.
Plumlee has an excellent feel for three-point shooters and the spacing of the offense. When opposing defenders cheat over, he rises up with the ball as though he’s going to finish, then rotates the ball over his shoulder to the wing or corner. I typically hate jump passes, but Plumlee has reduced them to an art form and a remarkably effective tool. When he gets the ball in the paint it forces the defenders to be disciplined and stick to their man. If they do, they give up a look at the rim. If they don’t, they allow an open three. Denver doesn’t have the same shooters that Portland does, but Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Jamal Murray should all profit from playing next to him.
Forcing these commitments from defenders also changes the geometry of the court. Defenders who commit to Plumlee are forced to recover and run out on shooters, which allows them to be blown by, forcing further commitments and opening further rotations. The end result of this is separation, the oxygen of NBA offenses. Plumlee, although not a credible spacer himself, creates it through his passing.
He also creates it through his screens. He is not the biggest or meanest screen-setter in the NBA, but his mobility and energy is excellent. Here’s a clip of him screening and passing vs. the Rockets earlier this year.
As you’ll notice, the screens he sets aren’t particularly effective, but he often sets two or three in the time that it would take another big to set one. The effect of this is little jar screens, where he frees up space for a slip pass or for the guard to wiggle through. It’s death by a million cuts, as the opposing team’s willingness to get around the plethora of Plumlee screens declines over the course of the game.
This commitment to freeing space has allowed him to rank fifth in the league in “screen-assists,” as per NBA.com. Although this statistic is opaque and he’s benefited by playing with excellent guards in C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, it’s clear that he’s an active and willing screener and can move the ball to the point of lowest resistance or finish when he gets it on the roll. That’s about all you can ask for in a modern pick’n’roll big.
There’s legitimate concern as to whether this element of his game will translate over to the Nuggets. Jameer Nelson and Gary Harris just aren’t of the same caliber as Lillard and McCollum, so the slip screen opportunities that were present on the Blazers may not seem like a viable option for the Nuggets’ guards. These plays, which get Plumlee downhill, are crucial to his success as an offensive player and the Blazers’ success as a team. Malone will have to figure out how to work his screening skills into the team concept, but that’s a good problem to have. If Jokic and Faried can work together offensively, I don’t see why Jokic and Plumlee—a bigger, souped up version of Faried—can’t.
For a player who takes more than 60% of his shots within three feet and 85% with one or fewer dribbles, finishing is crucial. Plumlee jumped onto the NBA stage as a rookie in the dunk contest, but he’s not just adept at throwing it down; he actually has a pretty soft touch around the rim and is great at finishing through contact. He’s flexible in the air, often contorting himself to get the best angle to the rim, and has soft enough hands that he’s a legitimate half court alley-oop target.
The highlights below show how Plumlee is time and time again capable of occupying the defense with screens and then breaking away for one-on-one attempts at the rim.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SANjQY8FyoQ
And the numbers evidence his skill at the rim, where he is shooting a solid 66%, well above NBA average. Overall, his true shooting has dipped a point from 56% to 55% this season—league-average for a center—but he’s actually shooting better percentages from all zones within 16 feet, where he takes 90% of his shots. His attempts at the rim have remained largely static (62% vs. 61%), but he’s varied his distance more away from the rim and taken a few more mid-range jumpers. While not particularly effective, the added versatility likely behooves him more than the minor dip in efficiency has hurt.
Those shooting statistics highlight the main drawback with Plumlee, which is his lack of offensive versatility in a league that is increasingly bringing in more and more skilled forwards. I wouldn’t say that Plumlee is unskilled, but rather that all of his skills, screening, passing, and finishing, are only valuable to the degree that other players are capable of using them. He cannot create offense for himself. This brings him down to a net-negative as an individual player, but including him in the lineup makes a team offense shine. His skills play nice with others as, with Plumlee at the center position, Portland was ranked sixth in ORTG last season and are 13th this year.
Plumlee has honestly really impressed me as a defensive player for Portland. He has active hands, is engaged, recognizes opponents’ actions, provides athletic weak-side help, and works his ass off. He runs the same amount as DeAndre Jordan (1.96 miles) and, although distance traveled is partly a result of scheme, it’s good to see him in the same class as DJ, who’s one of the league’s best rim runners. It’s common to see Plumlee force a turnover, pass the ball, and go flying up the court for an easy dunk or lay-up. It’s worth noting that this gas-pedal play style should translate particularly well to the high altitude of Denver.
In general, watching the Blazers on the defensive side of the ball is such a sadistic experience that it’s tempting to write off the unit as a whole (they’re 27th in DRTG). McCollum and Lillard are so bad on the perimeter that it’s difficult to credibly assess any single performance; every other player has to work double time. Plumlee’s activity, communication, and mobility has cleaned up enough of their messes, however, that he stands out as a player that makes things better, not worse.
Here he recognizes that C.J. McCollum has, for some reason, left J.J. Redick wide open in the corner, gets around a Jordan screen, and blocks the jump shot.
At the point of defense, Plumlee has active and skilled hands, often blowing up routine entry passes, stealing the ball, and leading the break. He’s fifth amongst centers in deflections, and watching film corroborates him as a player who is just annoying to face. For a team like the Nuggets, that increased annoyance is necessary. John Schuhmann of NBA.com noted in a recent article that the Nuggets have forced just 11.7 turnovers per 100 possessions, the lowest rate in NBA history. In order to get better defensively, they need to add players who create disruption in opponents’ sets.
To this end, there’s been a lot of pontificating about whether or not Jokic and Plumlee will be able to work together on the court, but the Nuggets, as a whole, need a player like Plumlee. The team currently rebounds fantastically well, but they just don’t seem to care at the point of attack. Things are far too easy for the opposition and they don’t get in passing lanes. Despite being generally mediocre at protecting the rim, Jokic, who ranks just below Plumlee in deflections, is actually a bright spot, because he at least tries hard and thinks about defense. Adding a player who legitimately plays every possession will increase the level of resistance that the unit provides.
Plumlee should also dramatically improve their rim protection. Jokic allows opponents to shoot an above league-average 62% at the rim. As the anchor of your defense, this is not good. It puts him in company with Gorgui Deng, Marcin Gortat, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, and Nikola Vucevic as bigs who face >4.5 shots at the rim per game and allow >60% shooting. Plumlee, on the other hand, faces a comparable amount of shots at the rim, but allows opponents to shoot 53%. While still a ways off Rudy Gobert’s 48% at the top, Plumlee should be a marked improvement at the rim.
“Who guards fours?” is a legitimate question, but it’s a safe bet that the amount of points that Plumlee will save at the rim (two a game, all things equal) outweighs the points that opposing fours gain against him, as opposed to Danilo Gallinari, Juancho Hernangomez, or Kenneth Faried. Strategic shortcomings like these generally look more glaring on paper than they prove to be in reality. At the end of the day, Plumlee has earned a reputation as an incredibly versatile and adaptable player on both ends. Just ask C.J.
Denver may have to rotate their centers against opposition that goes small with their starting unit, but Jokic and Plumlee are similar enough skills-wise that having a competent backup should also provide a huge benefit. This current Nuggets team has looked bleak without Jokic in the game.
So who “won” the trade? Well, for now, the Nuggets. While the Blazers may win out in the long-run, the Nuggets surrendered little and gained a good NBA player who addresses many of their areas of need. Plumlee and Jokic make more sense together, both as interchangeable parts and in the lineup, than Jokic and Nurkic ever did. I can’t believe that I’ve penned a post stumping for a Plumlee, but he’s played well enough that he deserves recognition…whether we want to give it to him.
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