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Mason Plumlee finished a strong season on a rough note

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Profiling Mason Plumlee’s up and down 2018-19 season with the Denver Nuggets

I gave Mason Plumlee a hard time during the playoffs.

There was a lot of criticism of how he handled the minutes without Nikola Jokic on the floor. For much of the regular season, the Denver Nuggets bench was a positive for Denver, or at least a neutral. Plumlee was a major reason for that success. His two-man game with Monte Morris and his passing on the second unit made life easier for bench guys. I figured that this would translate to a playoff atmosphere, or at least allow Denver to hold their heads above water when Jokic went to the bench. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Despite the struggles, it should be noted that Plumlee was one of the best bench big men during the regular season, and his individual improvement was one of the biggest factors in the Nuggets winning 54 games this season. This was Plumlee’s best passing season in Denver and probably his best defensive season. The Nuggets bench defense turned into an asset for most of the year, and Plumlee’s ability to protect the rim, switch ball screens, and make hustle plays was a major reason why.

Steady as she goes offensively

After struggling through a core injury during the 2017-18 season that involved surgery last summer, Plumlee recovered nicely and offered Denver exactly what they needed: 82 games of steady backup center play that replicated some of Jokic’s tendencies. When Denver traded for Plumlee in February of 2017, the goal was to pair Jokic with a backup center that provided some similar traits, passing chief among them. For teams with important stars that impact how teams run their offense, it’s difficult to replicate that offense when the star goes to the bench. For a full 82 games this year, Plumlee offered a facsimile of the Jokic offense.

Plumlee’s best trait offensively is his creation off the dribble and playmaking for others at the center position. The Nuggets use him in similar actions that they utilize with Jokic. Plumlee understands how to read the defense in similar ways, quickly pitching the ball to Malik Beasley and mimicking one of Jokic’s most common actions with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

Plumlee makes passes on the move as well, especially out of the pick and roll with Monte Morris. Those two share a great pick and roll chemistry, and Morris generally sets Plumlee up well to roll to the rim with time to make passes out to the perimeter for open threes.

In addition, Plumlee’s passing out of the post was great, often finding open shooters when bench defenses relaxed for just a second. He would pivot into the lane, jump into the air like he was about to shoot, and make a pass to the opposite wing or corner. Eventually, playoff defenses caught on, but it was a major weapon in the regular season.

Plumlee averaged 3.0 assists per game this season, the second most for a backup center all time (less than 20 starts). The only backup centers to average over 2.0 assists per game are as follows:

  • Alvan Adams - Phoenix Suns in 1983-84 (3.1 per game)
  • Mason Plumlee - Denver Nuggets in 2018-19 (3.0 per game)
  • Greg Monroe - Milwaukee Bucks in 2016-17 (2.3 per game)
  • Bill Walton - Boston Celtics in 1985-86 (2.1 per game)

His skill set is incredibly unique for a center, and the Nuggets have tapped into those skills well, allowing for the bench offense to run through him at times.

This also put him in a position to score frequently, and while he wasn’t always effective, he made the most of his opportunities. From the pick and rolls, to the post ups, to the cuts off ball for Jokic to find him for a reverse dunk, Plumlee had his opportunities and was relatively efficient.

While the post up efficiency doesn’t scream steady scorer, Plumlee’s ability as a passer allowed him a number of 1-on-1 situations. Generally, Plumlee’s post ups came with the shot clock below the 10 second mark. It wasn’t the first option, but when a shot needed to go up, Plumlee could create one for himself.

As I alluded to above, Plumlee was at his best when he was finishing a pick and roll, primarily with Monte Morris. Not only did Plumlee finish a number of tough shots around the rim using excellent touch with either hand — the alley oop became a staple in Denver’s playbook because of Plumlee’s athleticism.

Plumlee converted 117 of his 125 attempted dunks this year, a proportionally high number to most players that attempt as many jams as him. That 93.6% dunk conversion rate tied for the 7th best in the NBA. When Plumlee went up for a jam, he was almost certainly finishing the play, forward or backward.

Improved Defensively

By all accounts, the Nuggets needed another option at center after the 2017-18 season. Nikola Jokic struggled at times last year, and while Plumlee was better, he wasn’t good enough to make an impact on the bench defense. That changed in 2018-19, partially because of the improved rotation, but also because Plumlee was simply better than before.

The best way to quantify his bench defense contributions at a survey level is to check out Denver’s defensive rating with Plumlee on the floor and Jokic off the floor. This pegs Plumlee as the only center on the floor and doesn’t confuse his role at all. He’s the captain of the defense in these scenarios, and year over year, Denver has improved defensively.

The progression of Denver’s bench rotation has certainly helped here. Monte Morris and Torrey Craig played a fair part in this year’s bench rotation, and both players are good positional defenders. Paul Millsap frequently rotated onto bench units as well when the Nuggets couldn’t trust Juancho Hernangomez or Trey Lyles for too long. Plumlee was certainly insulated more, but one player a defense does not make. All five players have to be competent and execute.

Plumlee did his part though. This year, his defensive rate statistics were all improved, posting the best defensive rebounding rate, second best steal rate, and second best block rate of his career. The only bench players in the NBA to match Plumlee’s marks in those categories were Richaun Holmes and Nerlens Noel, but neither guy matched Plumlee’s offensive value.

That overall level of increased activity showed up on the film as well.

He rotated well on defense, anchoring and backing up the guards and forwards on the perimeter with both quick hands for steals and solid instincts blocking shots.

Plumlee has never been known as a rim protector. He probably never will be. He’s not physically imposing the way most guys are like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Despite possessing less size though, Plumlee makes up for it with solid positioning, contesting a number of shots and making life just 10-15% more difficult for the opposition. His ability to get out on the perimeter and defend guards against switches is another potential advantage. He gets burned by guys like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Klay Thompson, but the next tier of shooters is a group Plumlee can stick with and apply some pressure.

Overall, a solid defensive season from Plumlee. He still struggles when dealing with players that are physically stronger than him, guys like Steven Adams and Karl-Anthony Towns, but he has enough versatility to make an impact in different areas. A jack-of-all-trades.

The Playoff Struggles were real and concerning

I’ve been pretty positive on Plumlee thus far, and there hasn’t been much of a reason not to be. For what the Nuggets asked him to do in the regular season, Plumlee did it extremely well, maximizing his passing skill set, playing above the rim for Morris in the pick and roll, and working hard defensively. Unfortunately, that impact didn’t translate to the playoffs, and there were signs of struggle before then.

From month to month, Plumlee grew into more and more of a pass first player, uncomfortable with his own scoring on most nights. The passing was great for sure, and he averaged over 3 assists in each of the last four months of the year. Heading into the playoffs, teams could game plan for Plumlee’s offense, and it worked. The points and assists numbers dropped off as a result.

A defense that can study Denver’s sets and know what the Nuggets want to do with the Morris-Plumlee pick and roll can take that away. Both Morris and Plumlee struggled in the playoffs, and it had as much to do with one as it did the other. After doing my Monte Morris player breakdown, it became clear that the primary reason Morris is so effective was because of his in-between game. His jump shot has to work, and Plumlee’s man will have the ability to wall off Plumlee on the roll if they don’t have to take away Morris’ jumper. Zach Collins is a smart, heady rim protector, and he knew exactly how to guard that screen and roll action.

After that, Portland and San Antonio just played the percentages with Plumlee’s offense. They paid more attention to the perimeter shooters to limit Plumlee’s assist opportunities. They let Plumlee try and isolate in the post. They allowed the occasional cut off ball.

But that’s the primary extent of Plumlee’s offense. He has the occasional transition opportunity. He grabbed put back rebounds for layups. In a playoff environment though, both San Antonio and Portland will live with that as long as they shut down the best bench action the Nuggets had in the Morris-Plumlee pick and roll. And it worked. Both guys struggled, which shortened Denver’s bench rotation considerably.

I was willing to stalk up Morris’ playoff struggles to some inexperience and nerves. Plumlee is a playoff veteran though as this was his fourth appearance. Should the Nuggets and Nuggets fans cut him some slack for struggling?

There are very few bench bigs the Nuggets could acquire that would make more of an impact in the playoffs though. The final eight teams in the postseason had very little bench big talent as a whole. Some of the best guys were Serge Ibaka...Kevon Looney...Aron Baynes? That seems to be a fact of the NBA today: most teams end up going small with their benches in the playoffs. The Warriors go to Draymond Green at center. The Milwaukee Bucks used Giannis Antetokounmpo and occasionally Nikola Mirotic as their bench center.The Houston Rockets went to PJ Tucker early and often at the 5. PJ is probably 6’4 even though he’s built like a truck.

The point being, Denver’s final form may not include Mason Plumlee on their roster. Despite clearly being a good player, the playoffs are a different entity. Denver got lucky that the bench lineups they were facing involved Zach Collins, Evan Turner, and Jakob Poeltl. Plumlee should have been able to excel defensively in these playoffs while matched up against like sized players, but the normal impact Plumlee had defensively in the regular season was limited in the playoffs. While he posted a 104.0 defensive rating while on the floor without Nikola Jokic in the regular season, that number jumped to 115.2 in the playoffs, an unplayable number with the best offensive Nuggets player sitting on the bench.

When the 2019-20 season hits, Plumlee will be in the last year of a deal he signed in the 2017 offseason. He’s owed just over $14 million, a pricy mark for a backup center who plays next to Nikola Jokic in big lineups. Assuming Plumlee is a Nugget for the 2019-20 year, they will have a decision to make on retaining the big man. At that point, many of the younger players become more expensive, and the Nuggets are clearly interested in being players on for the top free agents in the NBA. Can Denver afford what Plumlee offers to them? Should they try to find a cheaper option?

If the Nuggets believe in Plumlee as a playoff player next season, then the answer is yes. They should keep him, spare Nikola Jokic from the intensive labors of the regular season and keep a guy who can help the bench offense flourish when Jokic sits.

If the Nuggets don’t believe in Plumlee as a playoff player, then the waters grow murkier.