Now that Mason Plumlee has signed a 3 year, $41 million deal to stay with the Denver Nuggets, what does that mean for the team going forward?
1) It means backup center is locked up through at least the Millsap Era. If Plumlee had taken the Qualifying Offer of $4.6 million he would have been a free agent after this season. Denver obviously didn’t want to be back in the market for a backup center to Jokic next year, and Plumlee’s ability as a passer means the offense shouldn’t completely derail and lose its principles if Jokic stubs his toe and has to miss a couple of games.
Don’t take too much from Plumlee’s struggles last year - most players struggle with mid-season trades, and completely switching from a guard-oriented offense to a center-oriented one mid-stream could not have been easy. Finding a center who can be even a shadow of Jokic and the role he will have to perform for this team is hard, and Denver paid a premium to make sure they had one. That’s the problem with building the entire offense to hub around a unicorn, and one Denver had to solve.
2) It wasn’t strictly an overpay, but that doesn’t make it anything like a bargain. For reference:
Alan Williams - 3 years, $17 million
Christiano Felicio - 4 years $32 million
Kelly Olynyk - 4 years $48 million
Mason Plumlee - 3 years $41 million
Plumlee has put up far more sustained quality than most of those players. He could start for a few teams in the league or be one of the best backup centers and is being paid accordingly now. With the early word out that Plumlee’s three years are all fully guaranteed it’s not even a two-year frontloaded contract with a low likelihood of the team picking up a third year option.
The Nuggets paid full freight for this deal, long past when they might have been forced to by another team bidding Plumlee up. Whatever leverage the Nuggets had on Plumlee they didn’t use. Perhaps their experience with Jusuf Nurkic last year soured them on having unhappy big men in the locker room (which of course brings up the question of how they plan to keep Kenneth Faried happy now). Denver threw a first rounder and Nurkic at the Portland Trail Blazers in order to secure Plumlee’s services and get an advantage in negotiations and after a summer of staring across a negotiating table at each other, it looks like the Nuggets blinked rather than let Plumlee leave after this year.
3) There are not enough front-court minutes. This has not changed since draft day, really, but now that Plumlee is definitely back (and being paid handsomely for his expected 20-25 minutes a game) The Nuggets are unlikely to run him out just a Jokic’s backup for 15 minutes. If Plumlee had taken the QO, maybe they would have been fine with that, but salaries create lineup pressure. A potential breakdwn of frontcourt minutes looks something like (Jokic - 30 mins, Millsap - 33 mins, Plumlee - 22 mins, Juancho/Chandler - 11 mins). Not listed are Faried or Trey Lyles. Wilson Chandler and Juancho Hernangomez will be splitting time at small forward, but in small ball lineups one of them is likely to slide to power forward. It’s very hard to see how Denver can deploy Faried’s energy rebounding or Lyles in any significant, consistent way.
That of course continues to make a mess of Denver’s draft night efforts, as Tyler Lydon has zero shot at even getting garbage minutes without some significant roster adjustments and Lyles will have to fight just to get on the court. He’ll need to show a lot of chemistry with some unit in training camp and the pre-season to try to secure any foothold in the rotation. And for Faried, who has said he’s now happy his name keeps coming up in trade rumors because it means somebody wants him, he’s going to need one of those many trade rumors to come to fruition. The Nuggets have stacked the deck against him receiving even last year’s diminished minutes.
4) Plumlee seems happy to be in Denver. It’s easy to cynically state that anyone should be happy getting $41 million to play a kid’s game, especially when he’s not a starter, but Mason Plumlee has always had a reputation as a pro’s pro. Damian Lillard didn’t call him one of his favorite teammates of all time for no reason. Plumlee didn’t make a great impression on Denver’s faithful at the end of last year, but he published this letter on his website today which included this note:
I am thrilled to be a Denver Nugget. I am grateful that we got a deal done and excited for the challenge of the season to come. I meant what I said when I was traded here last year. This is an exciting, talented young team with a bunch of high character guys and I’ve always admired the loyalty and dedication of Nuggets fans. With some of the big additions this summer and another year of experience for the young guns, I believe this team can compete with anyone in the league.
Plumlee seems like a great guy, which is yet another reason I hate this contract. There is essentially no way for him to live up to this deal with the minutes and role he’ll be given. For a team that has prided itself on getting fair deals with players like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, or even under-market bargains like with Will Barton, the Nuggets overpaid at the position they arguably need the least. Plumlee at $8 million a year might get some slack from fans; at $13+ million a year he’ll get none. Last year he struggled to fit in with his new role and a new team - neither he nor the Nuggets can afford that now, and he’ll have to play better both with and without Jokic not to be blamed for any Nuggets woes.
The Nuggets set up every advantage their way and still couldn’t - or wouldn’t - secure a better deal for the team. That helps Mason Plumlee, but when the Nuggets are paying $40 million a year for their center position alone (once Nikola Jokic gets extended) we’ll see how much it helps Denver.