On Sunday afternoon, the Portland Trail Blazers had agreed to a trade with the Denver Nuggets, sending their starting centre Mason Plumlee along with a 2018 second round pick in exchange for backup centre Jusuf Nurkic and Memphis's 2017 first round pick.
Both teams are in the playoff hunt. Seemingly buoyed since the London game, Denver have risen to the provisional eighth seed in the Western Conference (albeit with a losing 25-30 record), while Portland are one spot behind that in ninth at 23-32. In trading their starting centre, and with only the returning Nurkic as being an option for a replacement with Festus Ezeli injured and Meyers Leonard hugely underwhelming, Portland essentially gives up the chance of making the playoffs this year. But considering that making the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed would result only in a quick dispatching by the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors, that matters not.
The trade, then, is clearly for the future for both teams. One team was in need of a consolidation trade. The other did not have much to consolidate.
Replete with assets since the day of the Carmelo Anthony trade, Denver has been accumulating first round picks and young talent for a few years now. Concurrent with this, they have floated in the awkward area between truly terrible (and the high picks that come with it) and good enough to be relevant. They have been floating in this space while trying to find a young core of players, and in particular finding one young star to build around. And in Nikola Jokic, they have now found one.
Any designs that Nurkic may have had on the centre spot in Denver have long since been blown out of the water by the astronomic ascent of Jokic. We lavished praise on Jokic before, during and immediately after the NBA Global Game in London, and he has only gotten better since then, with outings including his first two career triple doubles (including one ridiculous 17 point, 21 rebound, 12 assist effort) and a 40 point scoring effort versus the New York Knicks. Jokic is on his way to the very top of the NBA, an extremely brilliant big in a league that does not lack for talented centres right now, and so Jurkic was only ever going to project as Jokic's backup in the Mile High City.
However, so might Plumlee. The very fact that Jokic is becoming a star centre should mean that finding his backup should be the lowest priority matter on the list. This is not to say that a backup to the star player does not matter – see, for example, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ big hole at point guard behind Kyrie Irving – but on a sub-.500 team with four other positional questions still to answer, backup centre should be the last piece to target. And yet here the Nuggets are, trading for a starting centre and likely asking him to become a backup.
Trading for a centre does not preclude addressing the team’s guard or defense problems at a later date, but the success of this deal itself is contingent upon many unknown factors just sort of “coming good”
The Nuggets may here be thinking that Plumlee can be the answer to one of those positional questions, and aim to slot him in at the power forward spot alongside Jokic. A frontcourt trio of Jokic, Plumlee and Kenneth Faried, flanked by Darrell Arthur as a screener/defender and with Danilo Gallinari and Juancho Hernangomez getting minutes in small ball lineups, is a talented unit. However, the fit is not as simple as that.
Offensively, both are willing and capable passers. Jokic is in particular, yet Plumlee's continued development into being a quality passing big man has been both surprising and highly beneficial. Jokic can also spread the floor, with range out to and including the straightaway three-pointer. In this respect, the pair might be able to co-exist – Plumlee can pass out of the high or low post, the forwards can cut and spot up, Emmanuel Mudiay can be ready to run back on defense, and Jokic can find anyone anywhere. It is not an especially optimal fit on account of the fact that Plumlee’s favourite passing areas are the same as Jokic’s – however, as a high/low pairing, they could work well together.
Defensively, though, is where the main concerns lie. Neither is plodding, but neither is fast. Plumlee hedges and hedges hard, trying his best defensively, yet he has not the foot speed to be defending perimeter fours on the regular – he already struggles with quicker fives, especially those who can handle and attack his hedges. The same is somewhat true of Jokic, and while he has the tremendous hands, those hands are not best served running at shooters or being thrown up against jump shots he has sagged off of.
Perhaps more importantly, neither is much of a rim protector. Both can protect the post in man-to-man situations - Plumlee with his strength and positioning, Jokic with his incredible hands - yet neither is the athletic shotblocking presence around the rim to change, contest or deter shots. Nor really is Faried, who only sometimes uses his physical tools in this way.
Even in an era of small ball, two centre lineups are conceivable. This isn't pairing Yao Ming with Kelvin Cato – the NBA’s small ball revolution has not eradicated the big man. Indeed, this is an era replete with big man talent (as evidenced by the fact that Nurkic was a backup centre, and Plumlee is soon about to be).
What it has done is largely eradicate the unskilled centre, the Stiff, the seven foot lane clogger whose job is to rebound, try and block, yet mostly foul. Jokic and Plumlee are far from being this – they are highly skilled players. But having two skilled centres does not automatically mean a seamless cohesion. And without a seamless cohesion, Plumlee becomes the odd man out from day one.
Considering his abilities, the cost of acquiring him and the cost of retaining him this summer as he hits the first free agency of his life (to be examined later), Plumlee is going to need to play. There is no point acquiring him just to limit him to 15 minutes per game. He was too expensive for that, and is too good for that. But for that to work, Plumlee needs to be able to play alongside Jokic. There is little to suggest in either player’s career to date that this is a good idea – both are fine players, but only as centres – and if Plumlee is a sub-standard pairing at power forward, then the Nuggets have hardly taken the optimum strategy.
If the Nuggets really did acquire Plumlee to be primarily a backup centre, then at least they got themselves a very good one. When we profiled Plumlee earlier in the year, we found a talented offensive player who tried his best defensively, and that pattern of play has continued. Plumlee averages 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.2 blocks in 28.8 minutes per game, with a PER of 18.7, a net rating of +7, and a BPM of 3.0. Should anything happen to Jokic, this is a really good backup plan.
Plumlee is certainly an upgrade on Nurkic, an enigmatic and confusing player. The Nuggets have given plenty of minutes to Nurkic when he has been healthy, and given him the opportunity to prove himself in the NBA. But after a promising start to his career, Nurkic has stagnated. The problems of his rookie year (being a black hole on offense, many a missed layup, the occasional bewildering decision) continue, and while he scores with touches and defends with size, he only does this when he is happy.
This season, Nurkic showed up in shape and started the first 25 games. However, his playing time dwindled thereafter to the point he began to receive DNP-CDs. Ostensibly the best defensive big man on the team, Nurkic could not stem the tide of the Nugget’s woeful early season defense. With the rise of Jokic, someone had to go, and although Faried has his limitations, the athletic fan favourite brings dimensions to the team not found elsewhere in the frontcourt players. Faried paired better with Jokic than Nurkic did, and when sent to the bench, Nurkic compounding the problem with selfish, disinterested play in the few opportunities he did get.
Denver’s season has picked up as they have found an identity offensively. With Jokic as the half court lynchpin, they have gone smaller, found incredible floor spacing from the forward positions, pushed the tempo more and cast up outside shots. With his plodding, half-court, post-up style, Nurkic was a bad fit for the Jokic-era Nuggets offensively, and, considering they played the same position defensively without the foot speed to ideally defend perimeter bigs, it was he who made way. At best, Nurkic was only ever going to be Jokic’s backup, a role he was openly unhappy with.
So, however, might Plumlee. And while Plumlee entered the league at 23 and is about to enter his prime, Nurkic is still only 22 and hugely far short of his. For all the bad vibes of the last two months, Nurkic had time to work them all out. Denver may well have seen diminishing returns on a player who lost his starting role and was never going to get it back, but those returns surely had not yet diminished to the point where a first round pick in a strong draft had to be attached just to upgrade his position slightly.
While not the meat of the deal, the first round pick is not insignificant here. By including it, Denver expends two assets on a big question mark. It is true that they were very expendable assets, but it is also surely true that the returning player is going to be instantly diminished as an asset based on his newly marginalised role. Fighting Nikola Jokic for minutes versus fighting Meyers Leonard for minutes is a hugely different proposition, and it is not for nothing that Plumlee is approaching his first ever free agency.
For all the quality centres in the league today, some teams still lack for one, especially long term. Teams such as the Chicago Bulls (who are trying to cash in on current stopgap centre Robin Lopez), the Dallas Mavericks (who cannot rely upon the oft-injured Andrew Bogut and who are currently making do with Dirk Nowitzki at centre, despite him being as much threat to challenge a shot as would be an anvil) and the New Orleans Pelicans (stuck with Omer Asik, a shell of his former self) may have designs on Plumlee this summer, and all have (or can easily enough engineer) the cap space to make a Mozgov-sized offer. The Nuggets have the right to match and are plenty able to do so with their cap flexibility, but considering all of the above, they will have to, unless they intend to let Plumlee walk after a 30 game audition. This is a bind, and a self-induced one.
Meanwhile, although giving up a good player for future assets is plenty defensible enough when you are nine games below .500 and not going anywhere this year, Portland’s decision to move Plumlee comes at a cost, and is symptomatic of their own self-induced problem.
Last summer, Portland fell victim to the “Use It Or Lose It” mentality, and spent an extreme amount of money, including every shred of cap space they had. Taking advantage of cap space they had not had for a while and were not expecting to have again, the team spent large amounts of money on outside free agents Evan Turner (four year and $70 million for averages of 9/3/3) and Festus Ezeli (two years and $15 million; has never played for the team, and probably never will), before committing nearly $270 million combined on their own players in the form of four year contracts for Leonard, Mo Harkless, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe.
“Use It Or Lose It” is a dangerous theory, however. It often ignores the lack of certainty regarding cost of retaining incumbent players, and trusts upon a continuing rise in revenue and salary cap that is not guaranteed. Moreover, big long contracts (even for good players) hugely limit roster and salary flexibility.
The reasons why contracts have gotten progressively shorter over recent CBA is precisely because the longer contracts made for stagnated rosters, with teams unable to wriggle free from misguided long term deals unless concurrently giving up assets to do, thus handicapping their short and medium term futures. Even teams at the top want a fluid cap situation so as to be able to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances around them. By loading up their cap in one spending spree, Portland has completely clogged up their cap for the foreseeable, plannable future. And the Plumlee trade is the first side effect of that.
All of the spending on the back court has thus cost the Blazers the best part of their front court. Plumlee is being moved not because he is a disappointment or irrelevant player, nor because he was the one they wanted to move for those always-coveted young assets, but because they could not afford to keep him.
The Blazers, rather toothless and meek on the court at the moment, fumbling their way through a poor, frustrating and anti-climactic season, have lost one of the few bright lights because they overpaid the lower lights. And in doing so, they have annoyed Damian Lillard. Mason Plumlee did nothing to deserve being moved except forego signing an extension, gambling on further proving his worth in 2016/17, and getting more in free agency next summer. And in being right about that, he has now been pushed out.
For both teams, this deal raises many questions. Plumlee is a slightly-above-average to good centre, acquired by Denver for the cost of two assets not likely to reach that level, all the while opening up a precious roster spot. Yet he plays the same position as their best player, cannot play alongside him, and is about to hit free agency, thus either about to get a huge contract or to leave the team in 30 games time. Meanwhile, Portland takes their biggest hole and makes it bigger, and while they got themselves a good shot at two worthy prospects going forward, it came at the cost of annoying their lone superstar, and of taking a backwards step when already pretty poor.
Both teams are supposed to win trades, else they shouldn’t be made. Given free rein at centre, Nurkic might now break out, and put up the flawed-yet-significant production of someone like Jahlil Okafor, hopefully with better defense. But he also might not, and might continue to foul and pout, never becoming the dependable starter he often seems capable of being. Similarly, Plumlee might fit in with Jokic, become a great third wheel, re-sign for a market rate and be a part of a new era of playoff Nuggets basketball. But he also might not, and might be gone in five months.
This was a weird deal. And I’m wondering who rang who first.