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20 Questions: Do Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee fit into the Denver Nuggets long-term plans?

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Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee have played great in their roles, but do they fit the long-term view of this team?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets, under the leadership of GM Tim Connelly, have steadily developed one of the best young teams in the NBA. Last season, outside of Paul Millsap, 33, Will Barton, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee, all 28, were the team’s only rotation players that were over the age of 24. Plumlee and Craig are both in the final years of their contracts, and the Nuggets may look to move on from both in favor of developing the young core.

Head coach Michael Malone has shown a ton of loyalty to Plumlee during his time in Denver. During the 2 1⁄2 seasons that he has been with the Nuggets, he’s averaged right around 20 minutes per game despite the remainder of the NBA going small. Will Malone be all right with losing a key bench player that has been one of the most consistent players for them during his time with the team?

For Craig, he became a cult-hero with the Nuggets last season during the playoffs. He started the team’s final 11 games in the playoffs, and he played his best basketball of the year over that stretch. After returning with a broken nose during a series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the fans were in love with him. He’s still young enough that Denver could still see him in their future.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Case for Torrey Craig

At only 28 years old, turning 29 in December, Craig is still in his prime. He’s coming off of the best stretch of basketball in his young two-year NBA career. During 14 playoff games, he shot 47.8 percent from the floor and an astounding 47.2 percent from 3-point range, which was a 15.4 percent improvement over his 3-point shooting in the regular season. Playing off of center Nikola Jokic, who hits shooters when they’re open, he will look to improve that shooting again during the 2019-20 regular season.

Last season, the Nuggets averaged 17.9 wide open (6+ feet to the nearest defender) 3-point attempts every game. On those attempts, they shot just 37.9 percent. Craig can be a part of that, but he has to be better than he was last year. On wide-open attempts last year, he shot just 31.7 percent. At the very least, he will shoot those shots from deep which requires the defense to honor him outside.

The area of the floor that Craig makes his money is on the defensive end. Last season, he was a -1.0 in the Offensive Box Plus/Minus department, but he was +0.9 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus, a notable improvement over his rookie year. The Nuggets are always looking for more defense with their starting group that has been more focused on their work on offense than defense over the past few years.

“Depending on how everything pans out, my goal is to make a defensive team next year. If I make it to a defensive team, it will be a successful season for me.” - Torrey Craig

This came from an interview that Craig did back in August when he was with the USA Select Team before the FIBA World Cup. During the playoffs, Craig was the player that the Nuggets were using to play defense on opposing teams’ best players. In the Portland series, he was tasked with harassing Damian Lillard, and he did a pretty good job of that. In that series, Lillard only led the Blazers in scoring three times in seven games.

If Michael Porter Jr. is healthy and playing at the levels the team is hoping for, he can claim the starting small forward spot. However, if he isn’t, or the Nuggets choose to bring him along slowly for the end of the year, Craig can start for them. The small forward spot is the Nuggets’ biggest question mark, and outside of Porter, the plan in place for that position is unclear going forward.

Craig will be a 29-year-old wing that can guard multiple positions during free agency next offseason. He’s unlikely to command a high price tag on the open market, and for a Nuggets team that has limited spending power, it makes a ton of sense to keep him in the fold. Wings that can guard multiple positions while shooting consistently from outside don’t grow on trees, and if Craig’s shooting is real, the Nuggets should do what they can to keep him in the fold.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Case for Mason Plumlee

Plumlee has a strong track record as a big that can throw down dunks around the basket while rebounding at a high rate, and he’s going to give you a consistent 20 minutes every night. In his career, he has played in 70 or more games each year. If the Nuggets work to conserve Jokic throughout the year, Plumlee has filled that role in the past. Malone has rarely played a small-ball center in Denver, and there is no guarantee that he plans to change that this season.

Last season, Denver ranked eighth in the NBA in total rebounds, and they were second in offensive rebounds. Plumlee was a major part of that as he averaged 10.9 rebounds per-36 minutes. When he’s on the floor, he gobbles up rebounds, which is not an area that the remainder of the team is largely successful in. Jokic, Plumlee and Paul Millsap were the only players to top nine rebounds per-36 minutes last season.

As mentioned previously, Plumlee was a great player around the rim. He shot 73.5 percent at the rim which included an incredible 94.1 percent on dunk attempts. Plumlee often plays with Monte Morris and Malik Beasley who get to the rim at a high rate. When Morris gets there, he likes to hit the big guys around him, and, if Plumlee is hitting those shots at a high rate, that makes life easier on everyone else when defenses are unable to rotate away from him.

“He is one of those, I call them, utility-type infielders. They’ll do whatever is asked, “Popovich said on Monday. “He plays good defense, he rebounds, he runs – he’ll do whatever it takes for his team to win. He’s an ultimate teammate and that’s why he’s here.”

Like Craig, Plumlee was a member of Team USA for the FIBA World Cup. He received high praise from Coach Gregg Popovich who called him the ultimate teammate. Those are the types of players that every championship team has. He won’t put up huge box scores, but he’s going to play hard every minute that he’s on the floor. For a group of young guys that are still growing, he’s got the mentality that you want them to learn from.

The Verdict

In reality, the Nuggets are unlikely to keep both Craig and Plumlee when free agency hits next offseason. With that in mind, it behooves the Nuggets to identify who makes more sense for them to be a consistent contributor in the long run. Plumlee has steadily developed during his six seasons in the NBA, but, at the end of the day, he’s a backup center behind Nikola Jokic, and there will be many players on the open market who can fit into that role.

If the team keeps just one of these two, Craig is the one that makes the most sense to be re-signed. 3-and-D wings don’t grow on trees, and, even if Porter is the future for them at this spot, Craig gives them a rotation-level wing that can come in off the bench. At age 29, he’s not going to command a top-dollar contract, but he can still contribute to a championship contender no matter what lineup they’re using. And yet, with only two seasons of NBA experience on his resume, Craig’s arrow is still pointing upwards. With a team that’s trending upwards, that’s the type of player that you want on your roster in the modern NBA.