The conventional center has been dying out, but there are still some who keep the tradition alive, like Denver’s Mason Plumlee.
If told you that Plumlee was the best center in this year’s free agency class, how crazy would I look? At first glance, I’d seem like a lunatic. But, after some research, that statement doesn’t sound bad at all. Among this summer’s unrestricted and restricted free agent centers, Plumlee is in a class of his own. And his versatility is going to net him a payday that nobody saw coming.
Back in February, the Portland Trail Blazers packaged Plumlee with a second-round pick and cash in exchange for then-Nugget Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick. It was the first major deal of the season and, surprisingly, both teams benefitted from the trade. Because of the emergence of Nikola Jokic, Nurkic wasn’t getting much playing time, and going to Portland was the best thing that could’ve happened to him. Once with the Blazers, he put together a torrid 20-game stretch and averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals. Additionally, he revamped Portland’s offense and gave them just enough of a push to break into the playoff picture. Nurkic then got hurt and missed the playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, and it would’ve been fascinating to see how the Blazers played with him in their lineup.
Plumlee’s role looked eerily similar to Nurkic’s. His minutes dropped from 28.1 to 23.4, which meant that the numbers took a hit as well — on a per game basis. Per 36 minutes, Plumlee was close to what he was doing in Portland, and that meant being a walking double-double who had a great passing touch. Even with the lessened role, Plumlee put together his best season to date, and he’s come a long way since his rookie season with the Brooklyn Nets. He averaged career-highs in points, assists and blocks with 10.4, 3.5 and 1.1, respectively while pulling down 7.5 boards a night. Staying out of foul trouble is where Plumlee needs the most work, but there’s so much more he can do that won’t muck up his earnings.
According to Spotrac, there are 10 free agent centers this year, including Plumlee:
- Joel Anthony
- Roy Hibbert
- Alex Len
- JaVale McGee
- Nerlens Noel
- Kelly Olynyk
- Zaza Pachulia
- Mason Plumlee
- Walter Tavares
- Jeff Withey
Plumlee, 27, isn’t the youngest, but the team that signs him knows what kind of player they’re getting. He’s going to do a bit of everything. None of the nine other guys score, rebound, pass and play defense. The closest is Noel, who only lacks in the assist column. (He’s someone who might also get a big deal, but Plumlee is a safer option at the point.) Among this group, Plumlee leads in points, rebounds and assists; he’s second to Noel in steals and third in blocks behind Tavares and Len. He also leads in minutes (26.5), making him more of a sixth man than a role player and it means that coaches can leave him out there and he won’t do much bad for his team. Plumlee also suited up for 81 games, and, historically, his durability has never been an issue.
In conjunction with his numbers, he brings great athleticism, and that would be a plus for any team who wants to run up-and-down. However, the metrics contradict — his 0.94 points per possession placed Plumlee in the 23rd (23.7) percentile. If we take those out of the account for just a moment, Plumlee’s a threat because he’s an athletic big who runs the floor. Placing the ball in the hands of a precision passer can do a lot of good for him. Plumlee’s strong frame and explosiveness also make him a threat out of the pick-and-roll, which is becoming the default set for a lot of teams. With the guard bringing the ball up, setting a screen is an easy way to put people in motion and get the offense started. If there’s nothing there, pull it out and run an actual set.
With Denver, 18.4 percent of Plumlee’s possessions came as the roll man. He’s average at 1.02 points per, but there’s so much to his game than just scoring; in a sense, some European wrinkles have entered his play. Portland loved this about him. And it worked so well because of the potency of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If they weren’t running a straight up pick-and-roll, either guard would replace it by receiving a handoff and leading their man into Plumlee. (NBA.com decided to remove his “playtype” stats from this year with the Blazers, so I can’t justify this with numbers.)
Since he doesn’t have a jump shot, the only choice is to go downhill, and that forces the defense to react to him in various ways. Initially, they want to prevent him from getting an open look at the rim. If his defender falls asleep, it’s almost a guaranteed dunk. After that, there’s the threat of an extra pass. Where the pass goes is dependant on where the help comes from. If someone helps off a shooter in the corner, it’s a kick; if the big comes away from the rim to contest, it’ll be a lob or a dump-off to whoever’s on the baseline. Having that secondary decision-maker is a luxury not many teams can afford.
Plumlee is hitting the market with a number in his head. We don’t know what it is. If I had to speculate, it’s probably upwards of $15 million and, if he’s as irrationally confident as I hope, he believes he’s worthy of a max deal. He won’t be getting one, but guys like Timofey Mozgov and Joakim Noah got ridiculous contracts and aren’t the players that Plumlee is. With that said, he does a couple of glaring deficiencies. First, he’s a mediocre foul shooter. At 58 percent, he’s able to be on the floor without having to worry about “hack-a-Plum,” but he isn’t consistent. Plumlee’s free throw percentage went down from his rookie year to his sophomore year before rising in year three just to have it fall again. I don’t believe it’s a mental thing. If it were, it’d plateau at a certain number.
The other thing that might have teams apprehensive is his inability to create for himself. Only 28.1 percent of all his makes are unassisted. It’s not as low as someone like DeAndre Jordan, but it’s important to remember that Plumlee isn’t going to carry a team like Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis. He has his role, and he plays it well. Dunks are the number one source of Plumlee’s points, so it’s natural that his teammates are going to set up those looks for him. What’s bad about this is Plumlee’s unlikely to expand his offense much. I don’t see him suddenly turning into Hakeem Olajuwon or extending his range, and some executives might be turned off by a big who can’t space the floor.
After aggregating everything, Plumlee should be able to fetch at least $10 million annually. And that would be the steal of the summer. However, once we get a Woj bomb saying that he signed four-years, $64 million, I won’t be surprised. I wouldn’t be skeptical, either. According to Basketball-Reference, there were five players to average at least 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one block per game this year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Mason Plumlee.
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