Before the trade deadline, the Denver Nuggets posted a record of 25-30 with a win percentage of 45.5%. After the trade deadline, the record jumped to 15-12 with a win percentage of 55.6%.
So why is the most scrutinized player on the Nuggets its most important midseason addition?
Jusuf Nurkic and what is now the 20th overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft were traded for Mason Plumlee, a 2018 2nd round pick, and cold hard cash on February 12th, 2017. The Nurkic situation has been well documented on Denver Stiffs and throughout Denver media, but the Bosnian Beast’s success for the Portland Trail Blazers has colored the opinion of the trade since it was made. The goal of the trade was to acquire a player that would help bring continuity to the second unit, while improving the overall level of play for the team down the stretch. The trade accomplished those goals, and while it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, it cannot be understated that the team improved.
Lost in all of this is that Plumlee had a quality season. He was better as a Blazer than he was a Nugget this year, but after spending a season and a half there and gaining a comfort level next to two elite guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, it shouldn’t be surprising. Plumlee was the beneficiary of good guard play in Portland, with players that could shoot comfortably off the dribble and draw multiple defenders away from the paint. In Denver, he was afforded no such luxury.
A good example of this is pull-up shooting from the guard position. Players like Lillard and McCollum draw a metric ton of attention due to their propensity to pull-up and shoot from any distance. This can be seen in their dribble pull-up (DPU) numbers, especially when compared to Nuggets players.
|Player||DPU attempts per game||DPU percentage||DPU 3-point percentage|
The key indicator here isn’t the percentages (though the Blazers’ guards are clearly more efficient) but rather the attempts. Lillard and McCollum combine for 17.5 DPUs per game, while Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Jameer Nelson, and Will Barton combined to post 15.0 DPUs per contest.
The reason this is such a big deal is the gravity created.
Let me bring Nuggets fans back to the least fun game to watch in awhile against those same Blazers on March 28th. Nurkic was going off on the Nuggets, but it had much more to do with Lillard than Nurkic.
Basic pick and roll to start. Lillard and Nurkic are setting up to play the two-man game at the top of the key with two shooters on the strong side and C.J. McCollum on the weak side.
Jokic does the right thing and comes over to defend a jump shooting threat in Lillard. His technique is terrible, and it doesn’t allow him to recover to his own man, but the point still stands that the simple threat of Lillard has dragged him away from Nurkic.
As Lillard makes the pass, the lane has parted for Nurkic. My grandmother could dribble down the lane and score against those contests. She’s 89.
And that’s exactly what Nurkic does. Still, proper spacing around the perimeter and a guard that draws Nurkic’s man away are what allows for this to be effective.
Contrast that with the space the Nuggets were able to create for Plumlee to operate, and it’s night and day on most possessions. This set involving Murray and Plumlee shows why.
Murray and Plumlee should be able to run a similar set, but instead, they are running a hybrid pick and roll with Murray being forced to his right. Notice where Noah Vonleh, Plumlee’s defender, is aligned.
Vonleh simply doesn’t respect the pull-up from Murray, which allows him to be in position when Plumlee catches the ball. Ideally, Plumlee dribbles over to Barton for a handoff into a side pick and roll here, as the floor is spaced well for that.
Ideally, he dribbles into a side pick and roll with Will Barton on the other side of the floor, given the great spacing for that free flowing play. Instead, he tries to do too much on his own, forcing his own shot and missing a difficult layup.
A theme of Plumlee’s time in Denver was simply trying to do too much. It was clear that he was pressing for much of the year, attempting to prove his worth to his new team. He missed a lot of easy shots/reads because of it, and fans soured on him quickly because of that. Still, the Nuggets themselves didn’t do him a ton of favors, given that Denver has some of the worst guards in the NBA at creating offense for others AND spacing the floor off the dribble.
Still, there were very few players that were as productive as Mason Plumlee. He was one of just 17 big men to accumulate 6.0 win shares on greater than a 55.0 true shooting percentage this year. The other names would widely be considered to be in the top 20 of centers (some power forwards) in the NBA. The other names will also AVERAGE $17.3 million earned during the 2017-18 season, including the rookie salaries of Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner, and Nikola Jokic.
There’s also the fact that Plumlee attempted 66.3% of his field goals within three feet of the hoop while with the Nuggets this year. He made 65.0% of those attempts. Of the 118 players that attempted over 200 shots from inside three feet this season, Plumlee’s field goal percentage ranked 45th. By comparison, Nikola Jokic ranked 32nd and Kenneth Faried ranked 52rd.
Plumlee was a productive player in the restricted area for the Nuggets, especially when given time and space to make a good decision with the ball in his hands. There’s a possibility that he improves his percentages due to an increase in experience and effectiveness from his guards. Players like Mudiay, Harris, and Murray were poor creators out of the pick and roll for most of the year, and it prevented of the same opportunities the big man had in Portland to create. Still, Plumlee posted a 15.9% assist rate in Denver, which would rank 7th among centers during the 2016-17 season.
In a normal free flowing set, Plumlee performs a dribble hand off with Harris, utilizing good spacing with the right matchup (Enes Kanter is the main defender).
Harris takes the ball from Plumlee and attacks the middle of the lane. Kanter is forced to slide over, at which time Harris (who did show progress as a facilitator) uses a pocket pass to find an open Plumlee.
Plumlee can try and rise up here and try and yam it on Steven Adams’ head, but that’s not his game. He’s looking for the efficient shot, which he already sees in his peripheral vision.
A normal big man facilitator would look for the dump off to Jokic after Adams has moved over, but Plumlee already saw Andre Roberson, the All-Defensive player he is, slide down to cover up Jokic. Instead, Plumlee is two steps ahead and jumps into the air to fire a pass to Danilo Gallinari in the corner.
At the moment of the catch, Gallinari has no one within 10 feet of him, and there’s nothing the Thunder can do it about it. Gallo knocks the shot down, but it’s because Plumlee was smart enough to turn a contested two into an on-the-money, uncontested corner three.
As Plumlee continues to adjust to his teammates and each of their play styles, he should continue to gain comfort in the system as well. He’s clearly a “comfort” player, someone who gets in and out of being in the zone and plays up or down to that level. The more time he spends as a big man in the Nuggets’ system, the more comfort he will have with his teammates. Too often there were miscommunications and poor sets on the second unit in the second half, yet the effect of having Plumlee out there still improved the second unit drastically.
As Murray, Harris, and hopefully Mudiay continue to improve in their ability to create efficiently and shoot confidently off the dribble, Plumlee stands to gain the most from it. He certainly needs his personal shot attempts created for him, but once that occurs, the athletic big man generally makes the right decision with the basketball. He shoots efficiently from the restricted area, he makes interior and exterior passes, and he’s an athletic big defensively. Time will tell if he’s a better defender than the analytics say he is, but he’s had to cover up for Damian Lillard, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jameer Nelson as primary defenders on-ball, an absurd responsibility for almost anyone. If the defense from the guard position can improve, I suspect Plumlee’s defensive metrics will follow suit.
The biggest question will always be money though, and while Denver can afford to place a premium on his services, it cannot be a massive premium. Jokic is due for restricted free agency following next season, and he will likely command more than $100 million over four seasons. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for Plumlee on the payroll.
If the Nuggets are able to re-sign Plumlee for a contract, whether it be three or four years, that totals less than $50 million annually, then they should be pleased. They could also offer Plumlee a four year, $60 million contract with a team option on the fourth year, which still pays $45 million in guaranteed money across three seasons. Any higher than those deals, and Denver shouldn’t feel obligated to retain him long term.
In an era where Timofey Mozgov receives 4/64, Ian Mahimni receives 4/64, and Bismack Biyombo receives 4/72, Plumlee receiving 4/60 or less shouldn’t be considered an egregious contract by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is he making less annually, but he’s a better player by a large margin than any of the aforementioned bigs. He is a better immediate option than any draft-able big man, and he will do what the Nuggets need him to do in about 24 minutes per game.
Don’t give up on Mason Plumlee because of what the Nuggets traded for him. That ship has sailed. Instead, let’s continue to reevaluate the player that he is and the player that he can be if the Nuggets continue to improve at the guard position. I expect players like Murray, Harris, and Mudiay to improve, and if they do, Plumlee will be worth the next contract he signs.