Last week, I wrote an article evaluating how Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan would fit on the Blazers. At the end of the piece, I stated my intention to end the series by discussing the "Bluelight Specials - Tiago Splitter and Kostas Koufos". I was planning to outline a scenario where signing them could free up cap space. That cap space could then be used to upgrade a different position, most likely in conjunction with a Nicolas Batum trade. I was hoping it was going to be an interesting cost-benefit analysis considering how much worse the center position would be compared to how much better the small forward position could become.
Since then, all hell has broke loose. Batum has already been traded and the rumblings about Aldridge leaving have become a deafening roar. Many pundits believe his departure is already a given. In one week, the whole context of the team changed. The two options moving forward appear to be: (a) impress Aldridge with a splashy free agent acquisition or (b) start a rebuild.
Neither Splitter nor Koufos are going to impress Aldridge and the team already found a cheap center to free up cap space to go after someone else. His name is Mason Plumlee and he makes less than two million dollars next year. His acquisition and Aldridge's apparent hesitancy makes my original question moot.
Oh, the poor life of an amateur analyst.
In response, I propose a brief overview of Koufos and Splitter (because by golly I didn't do all that research for nothing!) followed by a more thorough breakdown of Plumlee's game. Hopefully, readers will still find this relevant and helpful.
Splitter is a jack of all trades and a master of none. He can defend the post and the perimeter as well. He's even capable of hedging screens when called upon. That combination was one of the main reasons the Spurs were able to control both Lillard and Aldridge in the playoffs. He could check Aldridge on the block and contest Lillard's pull up threes. Rebounding and rim protection are his worst qualities on the defensive end but he's not terrible at either. All in all, Splitter is an above average defender but probably not a transformative one.
On offense it's a similar story. Splitter can do a little bit of everything. He can post up if he needs to, especially against smaller players. He's about average in the pick and roll but can make beautiful interior passes. His main weakness is his jumpshot which he basically never takes. You could make a coherent case that he's an upgrade over Robin Lopez and would fill some of the team's biggest weaknesses.
Koufos is not nearly as well rounded but his defensive numbers are elite. He can't do anything with the ball except for a decent right handed hook. As a result, Koufos struggles in the pick and roll and on the block. He's not much of an offensive rebounder and struggles to collect even a few points.
Koufos sees the court because he's one of the best defenders against the pick and roll. Some of this can be credited to Memphis' defense as a whole but his positioning is impeccable. He's also great on the block as we all saw during the last playoff series. Aldridge really struggled to score against his length. Unfortunately, Koufos isn't an intimidating presence defending the basket. This prevents his defense from being transformational as well and he would be a significant downgrade from Robin Lopez.
Plumlee, on the other hand, isn't so much a downgrade as a completely different player. Simply compare the physical profiles of Robin Lopez and Mason Plumlee and that much is clear. On one hand, you've got a big, burly man with crazy hair who stays near the rim and challenges people who come near it. On the other, you have a slender, young, clean shaven player who runs around and tries to dunk everything in sight. Olshey said he wanted to get more athletic and Plumlee sure fits the bill. But what did he give up?
Pretty much everything else to some extent. Mason's individual rebounding percentages are ok but the team collected a lower percentage with him on the floor. Watching film he seems to get pushed around fairly easily and doesn't box out like the diligent Robin Lopez. His size also makes it difficult for him to protect the rim. Nylon Calculus' rim protection stat (discussed in the previous articles) rates him as below average, allowing more points at the rim than expected. Plumlee's numbers aren't terrible in either of these categories but he falls well short of Lopez. Robin's strengths are Plumlee's weaknesses.
The hope is Plumlee's value derives from his mobility. This should allow him to defend the pick and roll more effectively and in a wide variety of ways. Mason is certainly more active during games but he is still learning the nuances of positioning. He was often caught leaning or lunging from place to place in the games I watched. The result was Plumlee allowed 1.14 points per possession (PPP) when defending the pick and roll. That places him in the ninth percentile and well behind Robin. These stats are far from perfect but that's a pretty damaging number. Mason has some serious refining to do.
The one place his athleticism does shine through is on the offensive end. Plumlee rolls to the basket hard and can finish a lot like DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler. He's not as big as either of those guys and his timing isn't quite as developed. As a result, he only scored 1.06 PPP as the roll man. That number is less than Robin's as well but the dynamism with which Plumlee can attack the hoop forces extra defensive attention. This should be a net positive for the Blazers but his overall effect on the offense is still ambiguous. Plumlee doesn't set screens as well as Lopez or grab as many offensive boards. The magnitude of all of these factors and the net effect on the offense is anyone's guess but it would greatly depend on the system and the rest of the roster.
One thing that is clear is that Plumlee's shooting needs to improve and he has almost no post game to speak of. This would make it much easier for teams to double Aldridge or put their best post defender on the Blazers' All-Star. No one guards Plumlee away from the rim, so flashing Mason to the free throw line wouldn't be an effective counter to fronting Aldridge in the post. His free throws are also a problem as he shot less than 50% last year. If he starts for the Blazers next year, there could be more than a few instances of hack-a-Plum.
In order to maximize Mason's talents, the Blazers would need to play more pick and roll, run fewer post ups, and have a much more aggressive and active defense. These things are possible, perhaps even likely with the most recent moves by Neil Olshey. All signs point to the team becoming more athletic and less focused on spacing for Aldridge's post game. If Plumlee does earn a large role in a new system, he could be poised for a breakout year. Mason was somewhat similar to CJ McCollum in that they both performed well when playing significant minutes and struggled when playing just a few.
Plumlee won't blow anyone away next year but he's a young talent on a great contract. His style of play is somewhat foreboding but the team should be excited to have him. He's an intriguing asset whose value could skyrocket with the right role. He's not a better player than Lopez next to Aldridge but he's much closer to the prototypical center of the new NBA -- an incredibly mobile player that can roll hard and collapse defenses. It's tough to appreciate that right now given what that implies for Aldridge but, once all the dust settles, Portland fans should appreciate a new type of center.