I'm guessing I wasn't alone among Portlanders last week when, upon seeing that new Trail Blazers big man Mason Plumlee had put up a monster stat line in Thursday night's USA Basketball Showcase, I quickly and excitedly began scrounging around online for details on Plumlee's big night. I wanted the stats, the highlights, everything.
I figure I'm also not alone when I say - the results of my search were both satisfying and not. On one hand, there's no denying that the raw numbers were awesome. Plumlee, the former Duke Blue Devil and Brooklyn Net who was traded to Portland on draft night earlier this summer, posted 20 points, 11 rebounds and a block despite only seeing the floor for 17 minutes. He led the USA Basketball "white team" to an impressive 134-128 victory over the "blue team" to conclude the summer minicamp in Las Vegas. He outscored more heralded teammates Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and (perhaps most satisfying for Blazer fans) Arron Afflalo, even though he played fewer minutes than any of them.
On the other hand, the way Plumlee got his points was... well, underwhelming. The defense against him was half-hearted at best. Andre Drummond, Amir Johnson and Kenneth Faried were ostensibly the opposing bigs guarding Plumlee for the men in blue, and on some occasions they actually bothered to get down the floor and contest his shot attempts, but not often. More frequently, they merely showed up in the general vicinity of the basket and paid lip service to the general idea of defense. On one play, Johnson actually appeared to move out of the way and offer Plumlee a clearer path to the basket. The result was a 10-for-12 shooting night for Plumlee, with the 12 attempts coming on a motley mix of layups and dunks. To be honest, he should be ashamed that he even missed two.
This leads me, quite conveniently in fact, to the bad news about Mason Plumlee. If you're a Blazer fan looking to get the skinny on Portland's new big man, you should know this right off the bat - layups and dunks are his game. Pretty much exclusively. Plumlee is a quick guy in a muscular 6-foot-10 body, so he doesn't have too much trouble getting to the rim, but that's the thing. He'd better get to the rim. Otherwise, he's pretty much never going to score.
That's a shot chart from Plumlee's second season in Brooklyn. Not much explanation is necessary. Note the very, very large dots around the basket and the tiny (mostly blue) dots far away. If you'd prefer a numerical explanation: Sure, here goes. Plumlee attempted 489 shots last year with the Nets - three 3-pointers and 486 twos. According to basketball-reference data, 74.4 percent of Plumlee's shots were within 3 feet of the rim. Another 23.3 percent were between 3 and 10 feet away. That's 97.7 percent total. In other words, Plumlee only shot from greater than 10 feet away from the basket 11 times the entire season.
Plumlee, therefore, is an anachronism in the modern NBA. Look around you, and everyone is finding success by using the opposite type of player. Stretch bigs are everywhere you look. The Warriors won the championship by benching Andrew Bogut in the Finals (and David Lee for basically the entire season). The Hawks dominated the East all year by playing five-out with Al Horford and Paul Millsap as their bigs. Chris Bosh has reinvented himself as a shooter over the last half-decade in Miami. Look at the Celtics, too - they just made the playoffs, and their best player according to plus/minus was stretchy center Kelly Olynyk.
On the other hand, we tend to overrate trends like this because bloggers like me harp on them too much. Yes, shooting big men are en vogue, and it's an interesting league-wide development to think/talk/write about, but it doesn't mean that traditional bigs are completely irrelevant. You can still succeed with a low-post guy playing heavy minutes - just ask Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, or Kevin McHale in Houston. You just have to be smart about it.
Obviously, an NBA game is not the same thing as a USA Basketball Showcase scrimmage. Open lanes to the basket do not magically appear in front of you - you have to earn them. Floor spacing is at a premium in today's league, and non-shooting bigs have a way of clogging it up. Plumlee is a textbook example of a guy you've got to be careful with. He'll only be effective in certain lineups, certain schemes. Miscasting him leads to certain death.
Here's another interesting fact about Plumlee, again culled from the depths of basketball-reference's advanced stats: On the Nets last season, Lionel Hollins used Plumlee and Nets center Brook Lopez together in the same lineup for 373 minutes. During that time, the Nets were absolutely terrible - opponents outshot them by 6.0 percent, and they outscored them by 15.6 points per 100 possessions. On the other hand, Hollins devoted a similar amount of playing time to a very different pairing - Plumlee with Mirza Teletovic, a 6-foot-8 power forward who attempted over 60 percent of his shots last season from long distance. The result was considerably better - the Nets outshot opponents by 4.0 percent and outscored them by 0.7 points per 100.
For Terry Stotts, the moral of the story is pretty obvious. Plumlee works well with players who can space the floor. He doesn't with guys who don't. On this current Blazers roster, that means he probably shouldn't play much with Ed Davis (96.1 percent of his shots last season from 10 feet or less). He'd fit better with Chris Kaman (63.4 percent) and better still with Meyers Leonard (35.9 percent). The more stretch, the better.
This brings us to the good news. Around-the-rim guys like Plumlee can be very, very effective when you use them right. He won't hit any game-winning 15-footers for the Blazers next season, but he will prove useful as a scorer in a wide variety of ways. Just because you only score in a particular location does not mean you're predictable.
Let's take a moment to look at some things Plumlee did well in a Nets uniform last season.
For a guy in a muscular 6-foot-10 body, Plumlee sure does get up and down the floor quickly. Plumlee engineers this transition bucket from beginning to end - he begins the play by doing a nice job in isolation defense against Houston's Kostas Papanikolaou, poking the ball loose and into the waiting hands of Bojan Bogdanovic, and the moment Bogdanovic secures the ball, Plumlee takes off down the floor like a cheetah, bolting past a Rockets team that's slow to get back in transition. Plumlee gets past James Harden, puts a nice crossover on Trevor Ariza and gets right to the rim for a slam.
The play is unusual because most teams don't look for their centers on transition opportunities. A lot of the league's best fast-breaking teams tend to look for their quick, ball-dominant guards on the run - unsurprisingly, the NBA's leaders in transition points last year were Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry and John Wall. But Plumlee is the rare big man who can get out and run - according to Synergy Sports, he averaged 1.37 points per possession in transition situations last year, a dynamite number that topped all four of the above leading men. Lesson learned: If all you can do is score at the rim, it helps to get there really, really fast.
Against a set defense, though, Plumlee's not too shabby either. Here he is doing work in the post:
This play begins with Plumlee cutting hard from the left side of the floor to the right, attempting to set a screen for Nets teammate Joe Johnson. His man, Toronto's James Johnson, fights through the screen and sticks with the former Johnson (sorry, this is getting confusing, isn't it?). Plumlee rolls to the basket, and in the process he manages to lose the Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas and get switched onto Amir Johnson (three Johnsons!) instead.
Amir's a good defender, but he's a mere (heh) 6-foot-9 and not particularly long. Plumlee has the advantage of being able to shoot over him without much difficulty, which ultimately he does. He demands the ball in the post, takes a couple of dribbles to back Amir down, fakes to his right, then fires to his left. Valanciunas, who's now way out of position, can do nothing but goaltend. Count the basket.
The play works because Plumlee identifies a mismatch and goes after it. He's not a great post-up player overall (just under 0.70 points per possession, per Synergy), but in the right matchup, he's capable of exploiting a smaller player and making it work.
When that fails, it takes a little bit of extra playmaking to get Plumlee going:
This play is a fine example of how a Mason Plumlee pick-and-roll can be used as a secret weapon. The pick-and-roll is a staple of the modern NBA offense because it forces defenders to make tough decisions, and when push comes to shove, those defenders rarely choose to pay too much attention to the backup center averaging just 8.1 points per game for his career.
On this play, Joe Johnson comes curling around from the left corner, and he uses a Plumlee screen to temporarily break free from his defender, Sacramento's Rudy Gay. The Kings' Carl Landry had been guarding Plumlee, but what effectively happens as Johnson takes the pass from Jarrett Jack is that both defenders end up committing to Johnson. Gay comes chasing at Johnson from his left side, while Landry lurks in the paint and waits for Johnson to drive right, thus covering him from both sides.
Their decision to focus on Johnson is understandable - after all, Johnson is a seven-time All-Star with 18,000-some career points to his name, and Plumlee is (I think I mentioned this already?) a backup center. But fortunately for Plumlee, Johnson is also a great passer. All he has to do is set his screen, roll back to the baseline and wait for Johnson to find him at the rim. Both players execute their roles perfectly, and Plumlee gets an easy dunk.
There's only so much wisdom you can cull from the above plays, of course, because Plumlee made them in a Nets uniform, and his teammates aren't Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Johnson anymore. Success in the NBA is always context-dependent, and the context surrounding Plumlee is dramatically different now. But having said that, there are definitely ways you can see Plumlee succeeding the same ways in Rip City that he did in Brooklyn.
For starters, I can definitely see Plumlee's knack for fast-break offense being a major asset in Portland. With youth and speed as two of their main strengths, the transition game is a natural fit for the talent on the Blazers' roster (in fact, I wrote about this very topic last week). While generally, it's the perimeter guys who lead the running game (and Damian Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu are no doubt up for the challenge), it's not unreasonable to think Plumlee might play a role as well.
Beyond that, Portland should also be able to go to Plumlee in the post when he has favorable matchups against smaller players. There's been a trend toward going small in the modern NBA, but Plumlee has the post skills to punish teams who overuse the strategy. Try sticking Draymond Green on Plumlee for 15 minutes a night and seeing how well you do.
As for the picking-and-rolling, Plumlee may well carve out a role in Portland that's much like the situation he had in Brooklyn - overshadowed by bigger stars and finding sneaky scoring opportunities when opposing defenses overlook him. What do you do if the Blazers run a pick-and-roll with Lillard and Plumlee? In all likelihood, you jam the paint against Lillard and make the big guy beat you. I suspect that on many occasions next season, he will.
Mason Plumlee doesn't look like a center that you build a lineup around in 2015. He's a throwback. His ability around the rim would have been welcomed with open arms by any team in the 1990s, but he feels out of place today in a league obsessed with shooting and spacing. That doesn't mean he's hopeless. Rather, he's an imperfect player on an imperfect team who just needs to work a bit harder to carve out a role.
The Trail Blazers are not the Warriors, reinventing the wheel with an all-world spacing and switching machine as their de facto center. They're not the Hawks, patrolling the perimeter with sweet-shooting bigs. They're a rebuilding team that's still in the early stages of designing their own experiment, and they're going to build something their own way. It might not be in line with the league-wide trends that are ongoing around them, but that's fine. With Plumlee, the Blazers are trying something. More often than not, that "something" will be taking place a foot or two from the rim. So be it.