When Portland GM Neil Olshey began to pick up the pieces of the post-LaMarcus Aldridge Trail Blazers and piece together a new roster this past summer, he didn't exactly go into it with a definite plan. It wasn't as though he had a pecking order established from day one - this guy leads the way, these next two play major supporting roles and so on. A more accurate way to put it is Olshey knew for a fact that Damian Lillard was in the driver's seat but beyond that, he'd only be guessing. His game plan was to toss 14 other guys into the gym and see who stuck.
In large part, that's what this season has been about - seeing who sticks. You watch the games each night hoping to see a Blazer win, and in the grand scheme of things, it would be nice to see the team compete for a playoff spot, but this year is about much more than accumulating results. It's also a matter of experimenting with different players, and different combinations thereof, and finding out who works and why.
If you're anything like me, probably the biggest question on your mind with the Blazers this season is - who's a franchise building block? Who are you hoping Olshey sticks with for the long haul?
We know Lillard is a yes. That was a given all along. C.J. McCollum looked like a likely yes entering this season, and his explosive growth into a nightly 20-point scorer has left no doubt. Meyers Leonard has been somewhat disappointing this year, what with the early injury and the relative shooting slump he's endured, but he's very much still in that conversation as well.
It gets interesting when you start looking at the guys at the margins. To me, one of the most questionable guys entering this season was Mason Plumlee, the 25-year-old backup center that the Blazers snatched away from Brooklyn on draft night last June for Steve Blake and a pick swap. Dealing for Plumlee didn't necessarily mean they wanted to build around him - they were simply acquiring flexible assets, and a capable young center on a team-friendly contract is certainly that. The Blazers started Plumlee right away, but that doesn't necessarily make him indispensable either - he still could just have been a stopgap in the starting lineup until next summer when Olshey finds a real replacement. Plumlee carved out a role in Portland quickly, but it didn't mean that role was his for good.
With his play so far this season, however, I would argue that Plumlee has earned a bit of staying power.
The chart you see above is a snippet from the NBA's leaders this season in real plus-minus, the all-encompassing stat that measures players' impact on their teams on both ends of the floor. Adjusted for teammates, adjusted for schedule, adjusted for everything, the numbers bear out that Mason Plumlee is the only Blazer among the NBA's top 40 players this season. He's just a few spots behind some perennial All-Star guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis. The next 10 names include Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gobert and Marc Gasol. Ed Davis is at No. 42, while teammates McCollum (No. 71) and Lillard (No. 75) are buried far deeper.
Before we proceed any further, a word of caution about plus/minus. It's a great stat - after all, what's more important to measure than whether you outscore your opponent or not? - but it's also very, very noisy. Even halfway through the season, there's a great deal of risk that a confounding variable or two might screw up your numbers. The stat allegedly adjusts for your teammates, but that's not always easy to do - for example, of Plumlee's 1,079 minutes this season, 963 have been with Al-Farouq Aminu and only 116 have been without. How do we know that Aminu doesn't deserve more credit for Plumlee's success? What if those 116 minutes without his running mate were fluky? It's hard to say. RPM is useful, but it's not gospel.
Having said that, a stat like this is still interesting. When I see a metric that tells me "Mason Plumlee is the Blazers' MVP," I don't laugh and reject it outright - I at least probe a little deeper and try to figure out what's going on. Even if Plumlee isn't the star of the team (for the record, I don't think he is), there's still probably some hidden nuggets about him worth digging up. If nothing else, surprising stats like this can pose some questions.
So - what's the deal with Plumlee? Why do the stats love him?
First and foremost, it's the defense. ESPN has Plumlee tagged as the 17th best defender in the NBA this season, preventing an adjusted 3.24 points per 100 possessions compared to a league-average player. One of the things RPM has taught us is that big men are far more important defensively than everyone else - basically everyone in the league's top 25 is either a big or Kawhi Leonard. Centers are especially important because they provide a unique combination of rim protection and help against pick-and-roll players that attack the paint. They're called "anchors" for a reason. And Plumlee, no doubt, has anchored the Trail Blazers well this season. He's been especially tough the last few weeks, as evidenced by the 12-for-26 and 3-for-12 nights to which he recently held DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol, respectively. That's arguably the two best centers in the game, stifled.
With Plumlee, the most obvious strength he brings to the table is his ability to guard pick-and-rolls. He's got the right skill set for it - with a combination of the instincts to position himself well and the nimble footwork to get to those positions quickly, he's really tough to attack in the paint.
Here he is against Boogie, from the Blazers' game in Sacramento the weekend after Christmas. Watch Plumlee as Boogie goes to the top of the key to set a screen on McCollum - he wisely positions himself at the left elbow. He's far enough to his right that he can defend against a Rondo drive to the rim, but he's also hedging over to Cousins, keeping an eye on both guys at once. By getting out, but not too far out, he's also ready to contest a pick-and-pop jumper but also primed to roll back for a Cousins dive to the rim.
Eventually, the latter happens and Cousins dives. Plumlee takes two steps back, plants himself at the rim and teams up with Meyers Leonard to form a brick wall in front of the basket. Impressively, he stands his ground even as a 270-pound dude comes flying at him, and said 270-pound dude misses as a result. That's solid D.
The pick-and-roll is a natural fit for Plumlee because of his instincts and quickness. We know this. But it's also worth noting that he can be a staunch defender against opposing centers too, when he needs to be. Not everyone gives him credit for this part. He's a thin, wiry guy who doesn't look capable of standing up to opposing bigs who try to back him down. Then again, looks can be deceiving.
The work that Plumlee does on Gasol here is pretty tremendous. There's two ways to guard a center when he sets up shop in the low post like this - you can front him, getting between him and the ball-handler to deny him that first entry pass, or you can get behind him and protect against the post-up. Against elite centers, it usually takes two guys to do both - Memphis' opponents have been known to help off of an offensive non-threat like Tony Allen or Matt Barnes and devote an extra body to a Gasol or a Zach Randolph. With Plumlee, there's no need, because he does both himself.
Watch him as he fronts Gasol first, pushing and shoving with him to jockey for position on the left block. When Gasol finally breaks free and gets the ball from Mike Conley, Plumlee seamlessly drops back and begins to protect the rim from the big Spaniard, draping those ridiculous arms of his all over Gasol's airspace. Gasol flails left, then flails right, then tosses up a hopeless miss.
Plumlee does work like this in the post every night. It goes underappreciated mostly - partially because in general this stuff isn't glamorous, and partly because Plumlee just doesn't look like a post defender - but it's real. He's making an impact.
He helps defensively in other ways too. He's quick enough to get out to the perimeter against shooting big men who pick-and-pop. He runs the floor well in transition for a center, helping to prevent fast-break buckets that would otherwise happen pretty often against a turnover-prone Blazers team. He also scraps a lot for rebounds, keeping opposing bigs from getting easy putback buckets. Defensively, he's really proven his all-around worth this season. The stats and the eye test agree.
As for the offense, it's admittedly not developed anywhere near the point of his D. Real plus-minus actually has him pegged as a slight negative on that end, and if you break down his performance by play type, the raw productivity numbers agree. Plumlee is averaging 0.84 points per attempt when he shoots in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports, and 0.95 points when he gets the ball in the post; neither number is horrendous, but they ain't great either.
But I've talked to some Blazers fans who have roundly dismissed Plumlee as an offensive player, even going so far as to say they hate combinations like Plumlee/Aminu and Plumlee/Noah Vonleh because they're pairings of "two offensive zeroes." I think that take's a little too strong. Plumlee's not a dominant player on the offensive end, but he does have some subtle ways of contributing that have gone unnoticed.
Let's frame it this way. Before the season began, I criticized the Plumlee acquisition because the young big man appeared to be a poor fit next to Ed Davis, who thrives around the rim. Based on Plumlee's track record in Brooklyn, he looked like a player who clogged up the paint with his inability to provide any offensive range - last year as Brook Lopez's backup with the Nets, he took an absurd 74.4 percent of his shots from within 3 feet or less of the rim. It didn't look like a recipe for success in Portland, who already had a more productive version of that player on the roster in Davis.
I was wrong about this problem for two reasons. One, the Plumlee/Davis pairing hasn't been an issue because Terry Stotts has been smart and avoided using it - the two bigs have only played 64 total minutes together all season, per basketball-reference lineup data. Secondly, I may have underestimated Plumlee's ability to evolve offensively. He's still only 25, and it's his first season as a full-time starter - he had plenty of room for growth still ahead of him.
Plumlee is slowly starting to move his game away from the rim. It's a subtle thing, but it's happening. He's taken a career-high 30.0 percent of his shots from a range of 3 to 10 feet this season, up from 23.3 percent last year. It's been a slow process, but he looks to be gradually developing the confidence to take that shot from a bit farther out.
In this play from last week's Clippers game, the Blazers run a nice play to spring Lillard free from Chris Paul for just a split second, using a dribble handoff to give their point guard some space to attack the paint. Rather than dropping back against Dame, the Clippers opt to defend the pick-and-roll by trapping - both CP3 and DeAndre Jordan leap out at Lillard, surrounding him and forcing him into a difficult decision with only eight seconds left on the shot clock. Lillard finds Plumlee, and Jordan's got to drop back to defend him, which he does. But watch where Jordan goes! Rather than smothering his man on the catch, 10 feet away at the elbow, he drops back to the rim and dares Plumlee to shoot that 10-footer. I remember watching this play and cringing when he pumped for a second and hesitated. But then - he took the shot! He really took it!
This is a play that Mason Plumlee the Nets backup would not have made last year. That guy would have either dribbled a step closer and gotten rejected by DeAndre, or he would have kicked it out to a wing shooter at the last second for a questionably good look. But Plumlee's willing to shoot a little bit now, and this is a huge thing. It makes the Blazers a lot tougher to guard. A Lillard/Plumlee pick-and-roll is much more complex now. Defenders can't hone in on just the perimeter, or just the rim; they've got to police against open looks like this.
That bucket, and a few others like it that we've witnessed recently, are cool. But what's perhaps even cooler is that Plumlee is also capable of passing out of those situations when he sees an opportunity. Now, when he catches the ball in the mid-range, he's a dual threat either to score or to create for a teammate:
Aminu gets the ball on the wing here and is covered by OKC's Kevin Durant, so he swings it to Plumlee on the left block. Here's what's interesting - watch Durant as he responds to Plumlee's catch. Rather than let Steven Adams guard Plumlee straight up and contain him singlehandedly, Durant cheats a couple of steps back rather than follow his man, Aminu. He stays close to Plumlee, who he knows is a little bit of a threat to create an open shot in the paint if he's got space. It's a subtle move - just a couple of small steps - but it's enough! Aminu fades back beyond the 3-point line and Plumlee recongizes the open man with perfect timing. Aminu drills the 3.
In a way, we're not even talking about Mason Plumlee the player anymore. This is a team thing, really. Plays like this one happen because of a combination of little steps the Blazers have taken - Plumlee's a better mid-range scorer and passer than he used to be, and Aminu's an improved shooter. (He's 35.4 percent from long distance this year, up
considerably from 27.4 percent last year. Suddenly that $30 million contract doesn't look so silly.) The overall thrust here is - these are the joys of watching a young, improving team! It's the little victories you get from observing the long-term process of player development.
That, in two words, is what the Blazers right now are all about. Player development. In his appearance this week on Adrian Wojnarowski's podcast, Neil Olshey told the Yahoo NBA guru that development has always been a priority in Portland. And it has to be - Portland has never been a premier destination for free agents, and only rarely have the Blazers had a top lottery pick to work with. (That one guy they drafted No. 2 once is now chillin' down by the Alamo, so ... yeah.)
Here's Olshey on his approach:
"Guys know that when they walk into that building, they're going to have an opportunity to get better because all the support staff is there for them - from the health and performance people, to the training room, to on the court. We feed them year-round, so they don't have to worry about that. It is important to me, because look. You've got draft, you've got trade, you've got free agency. But at the end of the day, the other player acquisition vehicle is player development. If you can get a B player and turn him into an A player, it can completely change the course of history for your franchise."
To me, that quote says it all. The theme of the next four years or so, in all likelihood, will be the Blazers' quest to turn B players into A's. Mason Plumlee may not have been a blue-chip prospect when he first got off the plane from Brooklyn last summer, but he's got a chance to become one in the years ahead. Let's all sit back and let it happen.
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