Mason Plumlee Player Evaluation
Mason Plumlee had an up-and-down season with the Denver Nuggets this season. After the infamous midseason trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic and a first round pick to Portland, Plumlee has become an integral part in both Denver’s rotation and culture. A hard-worker by nature, Plumlee was forced into competition for most of his life. With two brothers also playing in the NBA, the former Duke and Portland center brought some athleticism and grit to Denver’s big man rotation as soon as he arrived.
As he has spent more time in Denver, his minutes have naturally faded into a natural backup allotment behind star center Nikola Jokic. With the addition of Paul Millsap (though the former All-Star power forward missed 44 games this season), Plumlee’s minutes have lessened. His role on the Nuggets this past season was as the third big man, and because both Jokic and Millsap average greater than 30 minutes a night, it’s hard for Plumlee to see extensive time.
Because of that, he has to pack a punch off the bench in a smaller role. Thus far, he has been hit or miss.
Key Stat - Defensive Ratings with and without starters
Here are the top 15 three-man lineups that Mason Plumlee shared the floor with during the past season, sorted by minutes played and featuring a defensive rating column:
Green is good. Yellow is average. Red is bad. As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to see Mason Plumlee’s value as a defender when he plays next to Denver’s better defenders. One of Gary Harris or Wilson Chandler share the floor with Plumlee in every average or better defensive lineup except for two. Interestingly, no lineups featuring Gary Harris are in the red.
It’s also interesting that all listed lineups featuring Plumlee and Nikola Jokic together perform at least adequately. In fact, the much maligned “Plumkic” combo profiles as one of Denver’s better two-man units. It features a 110.0 Offensive Rating, equivalent to the 6th best offensive unit, a 105.7 Defensive Rating, equivalent to the 15th best defensive unit, and a +4.3 Net Rating, which would be equivalent to the 6th best team in the NBA. Right between the Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz.
The point is, it’s undeniably a playable unit at this point, even though it’s probably best used as a reserve combination.
The problem, of course, is that Jokic is the starter and Plumlee is his backup, so Plumlee doesn’t share the floor enough with Murray, Harris, Chandler, and Millsap in comparison to Jokic to see how tangible the impact is. Denver’s bench features suboptimal defenders as well. Will Barton struggled defensively for roughly the first 70 games. Emmanuel Mudiay was quickly relieved of his duties after having no tangible impact on the defense, and Devin Harris hasn’t been much better. Torrey Craig is good defensively, but he played just 629 minutes across 39 games, so it’s kind of a wash.
As Jamal Murray and Gary Harris continue to grow as offensive players, it will be easier to hide the drop off from Jokic to Plumlee offensively (which is massive). That being said, Plumlee can help contribute to provide a positive defense when surrounded by quality defenders. Denver’s defense features very few defensive aces, if any, so it’s hard to tell what would happen given some roster changes. That being said, Denver’s defense hasn’t tangibly improved over the last three years, and the changes have only been moderate.
Best Moment - Season-saving block vs Oklahoma City
It’s hard to argue with this play, even for those less inclined to praise Plumlee in his best moments. This is a peak Plumlee hustle block. He reads the play better than any other Nuggets player as the back line of defense, and with the season on the line at the end of overtime, he applies the biggest rejection of his Nuggets tenure. This was one of Michael Malone’s patented defensive substitutions, and by bringing in Plumlee for Jokic, Malone saved the game. Jokic, for all his areas of strength, likely couldn’t reach that block at the glass. Plumlee did, and it was glorious.
Areas of strength
Effort/Hustle, especially defensively: It sounds like a negative connotation, but finding the guts to provide effort and hustle for every single second on the court is very rare. Behind Torrey Craig, Plumlee is the next best guy at going for the hustle plays. He runs the floor hard both ways, does everything the right way, goes for loose balls, and sets a great example for Denver’s young, developing players. Plumlee has carved out a role on this team because Malone trusts him to provide 15 defensive-minded, effort-packed minutes off the bench. To this point, he can’t trust Trey Lyles to do the same, and that’s why Plumlee has retained his role.
Reverse dunks/alley oops: I mean, how fun is this?
Plumlee’s offensive specialties this year have become reverse dunks and alley-oop dunks. For the most part, he knows his offensive limitations, as 103 of his 221 field goals made this season were dunks. The next closest Nugget was Gary Harris with 46 dunks, and Plumlee’s vertical spacing makes him a valuable roll-man to the rim when the passer can find him.
In order to capitalize on these strengths, the Nuggets have to get him rolling to the rim. That means occasionally using Nikola Jokic as a floor spacer if he’s on the floor. If he’s not on the floor, then using the middle pick and roll with two players in the corners with the weak side lifting has been a nice way to space things out.
Areas to improve
Hands: One of my biggest issues with Plumlee this year has been an ever increasing turnover rate. While he averages less assists, it’s mostly because of a drop in minutes. His turnovers though have increased on a rate basis, going from 15.1% to 18.7% this year.
One of the biggest reasons for this increase is a problem with Plumlee maintaining a hold on the ball.
Among 36 qualifying centers, Plumlee’s 18.7 TOV% comes in at the fourth highest mark, only behind Ian Mahimni, Zaza Pachulia, and Salah Mejri. That’s not a category of player Plumlee wants to find himself in long term, and reducing that turnover rate is extremely important, especially with Millsap and Jokic both starting next year.
Free Throws: This one’s the obvious one. Plumlee is a career 56.5% free throw shooter who shot 45.6% this season. That’s gotta change if Plumlee wants to remain part of the rotation long term. Because he attempted 180 free throws this year, making an additional 40 free throws would have improved his free throw percentage to 67.8%, a much more palatable number. It would simply win Denver more games if he does this.
Work for Moneyball attempts, not post ups: Plumlee usually does a great job of not forcing shots, and his percentages around the rim are great because of this. His 71.4 FG% from 0-3 feet is great, even for a center. What’s NOT excellent for a center is his percentage from 3-10 feet, an ugly 37.1%. Over one quarter of his total field goal attempts come from here, and they usually look like this:
The distance hasn’t been an efficient one for Plumlee, and it’s losing Denver points in the second unit. He’s not a post up guy (37th percentile on post ups this year) and he shouldn’t be treated that way in Denver’s second unit next season.
Expectations for next year
I’m looking forward to Plumlee’s season next year. It’s hard to see where the minutes are going to go, especially with both Millsap and Jokic in-house, but I still see him maintaining the 3rd big role, and I think he will earn it (as far as third bigs go).
So much is made of Plumlee’s contract he signed prior to last season. Now, going into the 2018-19 season, Ma$e will have two more seasons on his contract at an average annual value of $13.48 million per season. It’s not a good number. I didn’t argue for that number, though I favored re-signing Plumlee, especially as the summer progressed. Still, it’s a number that can be worked around if Denver makes other moves to smooth their cap sheet.
I expect Plumlee to be back. I expect his chemistry with Jokic to be even better. I expect him to continue improving his chemistry with Millsap and Trey Lyles. If the Nuggets can find a way to acquire a traditional point guard to run the pick and roll with him in the second unit, then Denver may be able to use his abilities as a passer more frequently on short rolls, to go along with his high flying dunks of course.
If Denver decides to go in a direction with a floor spacer like Lyles at the backup 5, I can’t say I blame them. That being said, Plumlee will be essential in soaking minutes minutes and the wear and tear that Jokic could be taking early in his career. By making things as easy as possible physically for Jokic, Plumlee is providing the team with a great long term service in it of itself.
So, instead of defining the Plumdog Millionaire by his contract, enjoy what he does well. He has made some big plays for Denver for awhile, and he still gets hate for a contract that he accepted. He didn’t offer himself that money.
I look forward to seeing more reverse dunks, some improved offense off the bench as he’s used more frequently in the middle pick-and-roll, and for some timely rejections. Oh, and this: