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How Mason Plumlee flipped the narrative surrounding his trade

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 30, 2018

The trade caught Mason Plumlee completely by surprise.

When Portland dealt Plumlee to Denver 10 days before the 2017 trade deadline, the Trail Blazers’ starting center was averaging a career-high 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Plumlee was not a perfect fit, but a solid one nonetheless alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. And fresh off a Western Conference semifinals appearance, Portland was looking to go one step further with the same core.

“I was one of our better players, and there and there was really no heads up,” Plumlee told BSN Denver reflecting back on the trade ahead of Friday’s matchup (8:30 MT/ALT, ESPN) with the Trail Blazers. “I think every time you are traded, it’s a bit unexpected. But it’s tough to join a new team midseason.”

But maybe Plumlee should have seen the writing on the wall. Portland was wallowing at the bottom of the West’s playoff picture, eight games under .500 and a game back of Denver for the conference’s final playoff spot. Expectations were high coming off a 44-win season, and the Trail Blazers weren’t living up to them.

The trade, which was announced two days after Portland lost for the third time in a span of seven days, sent Plumlee and a second-round selection to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a future first-round pick.

Nearly two full seasons later, the trade has put each team in a better position. Portland raised its ceiling with Nurkic, who has formed a successful pick-and-roll combination with Lillard over the past two seasons that’s led the Trail Blazers to back-to-back playoff appearances. Denver was backed into a corner with Nurkic, who had grown frustrated playing behind Nikola Jokic and wasn’t drawing much interest on the trade block. The Nuggets wound up with a premier backup center who’s proving to be an integral piece to their early-season success.

Plumlee’s impact has been undeniable this season off Denver’s bench. He’s teamed with starting point guard Jamal Murray, along with Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Trey Lyles to form one of the most feared second units in the league. That lineup has outscored its opponent by 36 points in 111 minutes and is allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions — an eye-opening mark for a group that doesn’t boast any name that screams “defensive stopper.”

“We know each other’s games. We trust each other,” said Morris. “And we just try to put all our chips in on defense.”

At the center of the second unit’s defensive is Plumlee, who’s flourishing in the 15-22 minute role he’s playing on a game-to-game basis.

Plumlee has the top individual defensive rating in the league out of players averaging at least 17 minutes per game. Denver is also allowing just 94.7 points per 100 possessions with Plumlee on the floor, good for the lowest mark on the team. How well the Nuggets are defending this season with Plumlee on the floor is reflected in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, too. Plumlee is ranked sixth overall in DRPM and 27th overall in RPM, two slots ahead of Nurkic, one spot behind Joel Embiid and third on Denver behind Jokic and Paul Millsap.

He’s also third on the Nuggets in stocks (steals + blocks) and is shooting 72 percent at the rim, which places Plumlee in the 80th percentile among bigs this season. Offseason surgery to address a core muscle injury has helped him come back with more athleticism and bounce. He’s skying to catch lobs and making head-turning plays on the defense. Here, he rotates over from Steven Adams to deter Russell Westbrook at the rim and then recovers to Adams in time to poke the ball loose. It’s an incredibly athletic play from a 7-footer.

Plumlee’s counting stats don’t jump off the page, and his season averages of 7.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 blocks and 1.1 steals per game won’t win him any hardware at the end of the year. Plumlee has garnered the least amount of playing time of his career this year, but what he is giving Denver is around 17 A+ minutes — his season average — when on the floor.

“From an impact perspective, he is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate,” said Michael Malone. “He comes in the game on both ends of the floor and impacts in a positive way.”

Plumlee isn’t worried about his stats. Actually, he can’t even recall how many points or rebounds he’s averaging a game if asked. Plumlee is the rare NBA rotation player who can’t rattle off his season averages like he’s reading off the back of his own trading card. It speaks to the selflessness that the 28-year-old is carrying himself with this season and the Nuggets’ culture. Denver has fostered an environment where its players are willing to put their personal goals aside for the sake of team success.

“To me, the potential of this team and what we can do in the bigger picture, the excitement of that is bigger than an individual role,” Plumlee explained.

Maybe Plumlee will get back to a starting lineup one day. He’s under contract through the end of next season and is slated to make a little over $14 million in 2019-20. Much was made about Plumlee’s salary when Denver inked him to a three-year, $41 million contract in 2017, considering Plumlee’s restricted free agent status. Plumlee is getting paid starting center money to be Denver’s backup. Fortunately for the Nuggets, he’s playing like the best backup five-man in the league.

“It’s not ideal,” Plumlee said of coming off the bench. “But like everything in this league, you just have to make the most of the situation you’re in, and you never know when you can be asked to have that role again, to do more. My thing is if you do good with the little, hopefully, you’ll get a little more. I don’t view myself as a backup, just because I’m playing fewer minutes. I’m a starter in this league whether or not I come off the bench.”

He’s also helping the Nuggets and their fans forget about the 2017 trade that sent Nurkic, who at one time was viewed by Denver at its franchise center, to Portland for a backup.

“I think Mason is the most underrated player in the league,” said Jokic.

Unlike Nurkic, Plumlee isn’t flashy. He’s not demonstrative in his actions on the floor, except for the occasional Dikembe Mutombo finger wag Plumlee’s broken out after blocked shots this year. Nurkic is a showman, who wasn’t afraid to get in the faces of Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins as a rookie. Plumlee isn’t.

That’s what makes Plumlee a perfect fit on the Nuggets’ second unit. He doesn’t require a certain number of shots per game, and Plumlee’s effort on defense won’t wane if he goes a few minutes without getting a touch on the offensive end of the floor. Whether he plays 10 or 20 minutes, Plumlee is going to approach his opportunity with a selfless and workmanlike mentality that won’t garner much of the spotlight but proves night in and night out to be fundamental to a Nuggets winning effort.

“He’s putting the team and our success above his own personal agenda,” said Malone. “And that speaks to his maturity and his professionalism.”


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