The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers have swapped young centers. Why did the Nuggets pull the trigger on this deal and just how does Mason Plumlee fit in Denver?
The report also says the Nuggets will send a 2017 first round draft pick to the Blazers, which is Memphis’ pick that Denver owned. Portland will give up a second round pick to round out the trade.
What does this all mean for the Nuggets? Why would they trade an emerging young center still on his rookie contract for a player who is four years older and who is going to be a restricted free agent come July?
Simply put, Mason Plumlee is a much better fit in Denver.
The Nuggets experimented with playing Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic in the starting lineup together to open the season, with little success. They clogged the lane and made it difficult for the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler to drive and cut to the basket, while Nurkic slowed the pace of the game with his need to methodically operate in the post.
Both clogging the lane and playing at a slower pace counteracted what Nikola Jokic does best on a basketball court. Jokic is an exceptional playmaker who thrives in an uptempo system. He rejoices in finding cutting teammates out of the high post as well as the block, something he couldn’t do as easily with Nurkic in the game.
Defensively, the pairing wasn’t good enough to justify the offensive struggles either. The team ranked 21st in defensive rating at 104.9 during the three-week stretch when Nurkic and Jokic played next to each other.
Having come to the conclusion that the Nurkic and Jokic combination wouldn’t work, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone elected to start Nurkic over Jokic, something that seems quite unbelievable in retrospect.
When Malone finally inserted Jokic into the starting lineup on December 15, the Nuggets’ offense, and season, gained significant momentum. However, having Jusuf Nurkic come off the bench wasn’t an ideal situation for both the Nuggets and Nurkic. Both parties believe he is a starting center in this league, which brings us to today’s trade.
For Jusuf Nurkic, he gets the opportunity to start for a Portland squad that is desperate for a big body to eat up space in the paint. The Blazers have been unable to stop anybody this season, featuring a defensive rating of 109 — good for 27th in the league.
From a Nuggets perspective, they get an ultra-athletic and skilled big man whose skill set mirrors that of Jokic in a lot of ways.
Plumlee is a selfless and gifted distributer of the ball who will be able to come off the bench and somewhat replace what Jokic does when he is resting. While the Nuggets’ offense has been humming along since the start of the calendar year, the team can still struggle to find a rhythm at times when Jokic is resting.
With Plumlee, Denver has a player who can come into the game and offset some of the playmaking abilities lost when Jokic goes to the bench. In turn, this may help the bench find some potency after struggling in recent times.
Plumlee may actually also be considered an upgrade defensively. Per 36 minutes, Plumlee fouls just 4.2 times compared to Nurkic’s 5.7. Plumlee also has the upper hand when it comes to defensive win shares, adding 8.3 to his team while Jusuf Nurkic comes in at 3.4.
While Nurkic and Jokic playing alongside each other didn’t work, it may be possible to have Plumlee play the 4-spot next to Jokic in some situations. Plumlee is incredibly athletic, so he will have no issues in having to guard more agile players. He also doesn’t need to be in the key to be effective, meaning there is less of a chance that the lane will be clogged.
For Denver, the fact they had to give up a first round pick in the deal isn’t as lousy as what it seems. The Nuggets currently have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young players and that pick will most likely be in the 20s. The team doesn’t need more young prospects, they needed a good fit for Nikola Jokic, and in Plumlee, they have found him.
It will be interesting to see how Plumlee factors into the Nuggets’ plans moving forward. Being a restricted free agent in July, Plumee could come at a cost to keep. However, if he plays well over the next few months, Plumlee could get a big pay day and be a member of the Nuggets for quite some time.