The best part of Mason Plumlee’s three-point field goal on Saturday night wasn’t the hilarious shimmy celebration that he gave as he strutted back down the court, nor was it the Pepsi Center crowd blowing the lid off of the building in pure excitement and pandemonium after the shot went in. It wasn’t that it was the first three-point make of his career. It wasn’t even the fact that the shot was a de facto back-breaker for the Utah Jazz, capping off an 11-4 start to the fourth quarter and propelling the Denver Nuggets to outscore the Jazz 35-15 in that final period of play.
The best part was the bench and the crowd’s reaction the moment Plumlee rose up to take the shot. Before the ball ever left his fingertips, the Nuggets bench could feel what was about to happen. They were all pulling for him and, in a weird way, seemed to have faith that he’d knock it down. Just watch how excited everyone was before, during, and after the ball went through the net.
“It’s a fun group to play with,” Plumlee told reporters following the team’s 103-88 win on Saturday night. “I think if you asked 400 of the guys in the league, or however many players, everybody would love to start. Everybody would love more minutes. But it’s more fun to be on an 8-1 team and playing well. So I just feel fortunate to be a part of that.”
Things weren’t always this fun for Mason. He arrived in Denver following a stint as a fan-favorite and beloved teammate on the Portland Trail Blazers. His brilliant passing and commitment to hustle were easy traits for fans to root for on a team that had become the Cinderella story of the NBA.
But in Denver, Plumlee was the understudy to the fanbase’s chosen star, Nikola Jokic. Like Plumlee, Jokic’s best skill was his passing so the thought was that Plumlee’s arrival meant the Nuggets could maintain the same style of play regardless of which Center was on the floor. But where Plumlee’s passing was impressive for a center, Jokic’s passing was transcendent for any player at any position, a generational skill that defies qualifiers.
Mason was thrown into an impossible situation. Any minutes he played were either minutes in Jokic’s place or minutes alongside him, a front court pairing that was better than people realized but was criticized nonetheless for its impact on the spacing in the half court.
Meanwhile, the player he was traded for, Jusuf Nurkic, was having the best stretch of his career. “Nurk Fever” had taken over Portland at the same time as the Trail Blazers were overtaking the Denver Nuggets in the standings. The contrast between the two players and between their respective fanbase’s relationship to the player, was stark. The trade was graded as a tremendous failure for the Nuggets. And that was that.
If Plumlee wasn’t popular among Nuggets fans in the immediate weeks after joining the team, when Denver re-signed Plumlee to a 3-year, $41 million deal in the summer of 2017, many analysts and Nuggets fans completely turned on him. Why pay a backup center so much money? And what important role did he really have on this team?
Quietly, Plumlee began to rework his game to fit the needs of his new team. His assist numbers fell but his rebounding and field goal efficiency climbed as he started to play more off ball, moving along the baseline rather than running pick and rolls out along the arc. He was a solid defender in Portland but in Denver, he’d need to become a defensive anchor, especially after Paul Millsap went down with a left wrist injury that would cost him 44 games in the middle of the season. Mason tallied career-highs in his block and steal rate as he became known as the team’s backbone on the defensive end.
But defensive specialists and hustle guys are often underappreciated by a team’s fanbase, and Plumlee was no exception.
“I don’t know why people love to, on these freakin’ blogs and posts, they kill Mason Plumlee,” head coach Michael Malone said following a win over the Dallas Mavericks back in January, probably referring to Denver Stiffs among other blogs and local Nuggets media outlets. “He does the dirty work for this team. He’s the unsung hero of this team and I think people gotta get off his damn back.”
But sometime between then and now, things have taken a turn for the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps it all began with Malone’s condemnation of fans and analysts who were quick to dismiss Plumlee’s value to focus on his flaws. Perhaps it was the way the team immediately got hot on the offensive end, leading the league in offensive efficiency from that point in the season going forward. Maybe it’s that they’ve begun this season looking like the team we all hoped that they were capable of becoming. Winning, above all else, can change the narrative.
But Pepsi Center didn’t erupt following his three-pointer on Saturday night because it was merely an out of the ordinary play during the most important stretch of the game. That cheer was as much about who took the shot as it was that it went in. The same was true of a breakaway dunk that Plumlee threw down a week ago against the Golden State Warriors, when the 7-footer got out for a breakaway and elected to go for a reverse dunk, a shot that has become his signature move. The crowd loved that one, too, and they loved it because, despite their initial hesitancy, Nuggets fans have come around on Mason Plumlee.
Plumlee has made himself a key piece of Denver’s roster. So much so that Jokic himself felt Plumlee ought to have closed the game against the Jazz:
“They were playing really good and I told (Nuggets assistant coach, Jordi Fernandez) just let them roll. They were playing really good.”
“I think about this all the time,” Michael Malone told reporters after the win over Utah. “Mason was a starter on a playoff team, and he’s here, he’s backing up one of the best young bigs in the NBA. Not an easy situation. I don’t think anybody can handle it any better than Mason Plumlee has.”
Malone’s point struck home. Much like Nurkic, Plumlee was forced to take a step down in his role to make way for Denver’s most important player. But unlike his predecessor, Mason has never complained. He’s never asked for more. He’s simply put his head down, gone to work, and established himself as an integral part of this Nuggets team.
So much of team success in this league comes down to individuals not just accepting their roles, but learning how to flourish within them. What a gift it must be for a coach and a locker room to have a player who seems to grasp that like Mason does.
The Nurkic-Plumlee trade was about more than just the swapping or comparing of talents. Denver was forced to give up a starting caliber center, and for that, they couldn’t settle for a replacement level player in return. But it wasn’t enough for Tim Connelly to find someone with comparable talent. He needed a player that was willing and able to accept and flourish within the role that Nurkic decided was beneath him.
In hindsight, it’s clear now more than ever that the Nuggets got exactly who they were looking for. Mason Plumlee feels fortunate to be a part of this team, and the Nuggets should feel fortunate to have him.
That trade is starting to look better and better by the day, and Nuggets fans are finally starting to embrace their unsung hero.