If it feels like I keep harping on this point every other week, it's because it deserves every bit of the harping - I still kinda can't believe the Blazers spent $347 million this summer on the roster they have today. That's the total amount that Paul Allen shelled out to keep CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless while adding Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli: $347 million. It's mind-boggling, really. Michael Jordan made $91 million in his whole career on the court. Tuvalu has a gross domestic product of $38 million. Thomas Jefferson spent $15 million to purchase the land for about one-fifth of the United States. Three forty-seven! It's a mystifying number.
What makes the situation even crazier is that even after all that spending, it still isn't clear whether Allen and Neil Olshey have secured themselves a starting center for the future. It might be Leonard, if he's able to be a true center and he's good enough to start consistently. It might be Ezeli, if he's ever healthy. It might also be Mason Plumlee - but not a dime of that $347 million went to the Blazers' current anchor, who's still slaving away this season for a paltry rookie salary of $2.3 million.
What does the future hold for Plumlee? No one knows. The Blazers could have resolved this issue back in October by simply tacking an extension onto the end of his rookie contract - just as they did with McCollum, who was also a first-round pick in that same 2013 NBA Draft class. Olshey could have likewise handed Plumlee a new deal; he declined. Or, perhaps more accurately, he made overtures at re-signing Plumlee, some negotiation happened and the two sides failed to agree on a number.
This is hardly surprising. Both sides had an incentive to back away from the negotiating table and wait a season before making any big decisions. Plumlee himself said as much on Oct. 31, as the deadline to extend rookie contracts passed him by. As he told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian that day:
"It's an opportunity to play another year, to prove myself and I'm excited about it. There's not going to be pressure. We have enough to play for as a team, enough to prove individually, it's not about a contract. I've always felt if you're part of a winning team, everybody gets taken care of. So that's the way I look at it."
In other words, Plumlee doesn't mind waiting on the contract thing. As long as he takes the court and performs well, he'll get his money eventually. He could even play his way into a raise, Bismack Biyombo-style.
As for the Blazers, they understandably want to take another year and figure out what kind of value they've got in Plumlee. The market price for a solid young center is through the roof right now - Biyombo got $72 million from Orlando this summer, and he's only started two games the whole season. Steven Adams recently signed an extension with the Thunder for $100 million. Rudy Gobert got $102 million from Utah. Before the Blazers commit anywhere near that kind of money to Plumlee, who's probably somewhere in between the Biyombo and Adams/Gobert tiers among young NBA centers and thus could easily command $80 million, they've got to think. The Blazers can pay that money out if they want to, despite the salary cap restrictions. With Plumlee's Bird rights in hand, they can go over the cap to keep him - it's only Paul Allen's cash, and he's got a lot of it. But does he really want to spend it until it's clearly deserved? This year is Plumlee's chance to prove it is.
Whether he admits it or not, this is a big season for Mason Plumlee. If he steps up and plays well, it could be worth millions to him. Maybe even tens of millions. His quote above about just being "part of a winning team" is both true and not - yes, it's important to be a team-first player and do what's best for the collective, but there's pressure on him individually as well. We're smart enough now that we can isolate individual performance from a team's results. If the Blazers lose but Plumlee plays well, we'll know it. Conversely, if they win but he stinks, we'll know that too.
Statistically, one of the best ways to isolate a player from his team is to use ESPN's real plus-minus, which adjusts players' ratings to account for the quality of their teammates and opponents. You can easily have a good RPM for a bad team or vice versa. And according to RPM, Plumlee has had a decent season, making the Blazers better by an adjusted 0.81 points per 100 possessions. He's the 18th best center in the league, ahead of big names like Joel Embiid, the aforementioned Adams, Jonas Valanciunas and Hassan Whiteside.
Most of that success comes on the offensive end, though, which is weird because it's almost never the case for centers. Most 7-footers provide the lion's share of their value on the defensive end of the floor, whereas Plumlee is worth 0.74 points on offense and 0.07 on D. Offensively, he's the sixth-best big in the league; defensively, he's the third-best Plumlee.
This is not only unusual, but it's also disheartening for a Blazers team that doesn't exactly need help on that end. The Blazers' efficiency numbers have them pegged at sixth in the league offensively and 30th - yes, dead last! - defensively. Usually when you're lacking defense, it's your center who helps you shore things up in that area. While most modern NBA centers zig that way, Plumlee zags. Offensively, he's a wizard; on D, he's got some work to do.
So far, the Blazers are just taking that in stride, accepting the good with the bad. In their defense, the good is often mighty good.
One of the key things Plumlee brings to the table is his keen awareness of the gravity that Damian Lillard and McCollum have on opposing defenses. When either one of Portland's star scorers has the ball, he's likely to draw the attention of more than one defender, and that gives the rest of the Blazers a lot of advantageous situations. When Lillard draws two defenders, all everyone else has to do is win a game of four-on-three. Plumlee is usually the floor general in that subgame within the game.
Sometimes, he excels in that spot just by calling his own number. Why overthink it? In the play you see above, where Plumlee sets a screen on Lillard's man, Houston's James Harden, there's no need to get fancy. Plumlee's man, Clint Capela, jumps out to trap Lillard, and that leaves an easy path to the basket for Plumlee. Plumlee could use this four-on-three situation to initiate a ping-ping-ping series of passes and get someone an open jumper, but why bother? He's got a path to the rim for an easy dunk, and Lillard finds him without much trouble. Easy bucket.
Plays like this are cool enough already, but what makes Plumlee really special offensively is his ability to mix it up and make plays for others by reading the defense. When teams try to take away the Plumlee rim-roll, he still finds a way.
This play is like the one above, but with a little wrinkle. Again Plumlee comes with the screen for the Blazers' star ball-handler - in this case McCollum. Again both defenders - this time, New Orleans' Omer Asik and E'Twaun Moore - hang back on the perimeter and engulf McCollum, so again McCollum finds Plumlee on the roll going to the rim. The only difference is this time, the opposing defense brings a third guy to meet Plumlee on the roll, as the Pelicans' Anthony Davis helps off of Meyers Leonard to protect the rim instead. Unfortunately for Davis, Plumlee is a great passer as well as a rim-roller, and he's able to find Leonard on an easy baseline cut to the rim. Alley, meet oop.
This is a great example of why Plumlee is so useful to the Blazers offensively, even when he's not scoring - in a motion-heavy, constantly screening and cutting offense, the Portland center always finds a way to get players involved, even when they seem completely removed from the primary action. Jared Dubin wrote a great feature for Vice recently describing this phenomenon - he aptly called Plumlee the Blazers' "connector," meaning he's responsible for connecting one side of the Blazers' offense to the other.
This is exactly right. Rewatch the clip above and see how the play originates - the possession begins with Leonard setting a screen for McCollum at the top of the key and the two dispersing in opposite directions, with McCollum going to the right wing and Leonard, the left corner. At this point, they're 50 feet apart with basically all five Pelicans defenders between them. It seems inconceivable that the Blazers could whip the ball from CJ to Meyers for an easy bucket in a matter of seconds, but it just so happens that they do it easily. Plumlee's unique ability to screen, roll, read the defense, react and pass is what makes it possible. That's not something you get from just any old center off the scrap heap.
All of this is the good news. The bad is that Portland's real need, especially from the center position, is defense, and that's what they're not getting enough of from Plumlee:
Often, it's not a lack of focus or effort that makes Plumlee a weaker defender. Instead, he just gets caught making weird decisions that end up getting him lost in no man's land, scored on easily. It's strange because on the offensive end of the floor, I'd consider Plumlee one of the smartest players in the NBA. Defensively, the intelligence doesn't always translate.
The play above was most notable, as SBN play breakdown guru Mike Prada pointed out, for the ridiculous pass that Harden made to find Capela at the rim. If you watch it closely, he actually hits Capela with a no-look - he's dribbling across the paint, looking forward, then lobs the ball to Capela from his side without even turning his head. It's like he's got eyeballs in his ears. But to me, what's more interesting about this play was trying to figure out what the hell Plumlee is doing.
Originally, he clings to Capela along the baseline, which is smart. But as Harden starts to pound the ball inside and post Lillard up, Plumlee wanders out to offer some sort of half-hearted double team. It doesn't really make sense, because Lillard is solidly in front of Harden and Plumlee can't really affect the play at all from his position directly behind Lillard. He's basically just standing there wasting space. And to do it, he's got to take three steps - nay, three massive crow hops - away from Capela. Every scouting report ever written on Clint Capela will tell you he's a terror at the rim if you leave him open for a lob. Plumlee surely knows this, yet he wanders off anyway, and for no good reason. Easy dunk.
Offensively, one of Plumlee's greatest strengths is his understanding of how to be creative in open space, either to score or to create for others. This is why it's so maddening to see him make bizarre decisions against opposing centers who are equally crafty. His awareness on defense is no match for what he can do on offense. If Mason Plumlee ever had to guard Mason Plumlee, I'm pretty sure Mason Plumlee would score every time.
What's especially tricky about using Plumlee defensively is that on this team, Terry Stotts is still tinkering with different matchup combinations. He's still trying to figure out, for instance, which of his big men should guard fives and which are better against fours. Plumlee, who may well be the best overall athlete among Blazer big men not currently rehabbing from knee surgery, would ideally be able to do a little bit of both. In reality, he's struggling with both.
There might be no tougher test of defensive big man versatility in the NBA today than facing Cleveland. Because they give so many minutes to players like Kevin Love and Channing Frye who can shoot, you have to have big men who are capable of chasing pick-and-pop guys out to the perimeter all night long. When the Blazers faced the Cavaliers last week, they tried giving the Love assignment to Plumlee - as you might remember, this went dreadfully. Love went off for 34 in the first quarter against Portland, an all-time record for the opening frame of an NBA game. A lot of that was Plumlee's fault. Look how far away he is when Love catches this pass on a side pick-and-roll with Kyrie Irving! It's almost like Plumlee forgot who he was guarding. Against, say, Tristan Thompson, dropping back like this would be totally understandable. Correct, even. Against Love it's inexplicable.
Up and down the Blazers' depth chart, they're having trouble figuring out what their big men are capable of doing on defense. Can Ed Davis guard pick-and-pop guys who can hit 3-pointers? Can Leonard? Can Noah Vonleh stand up to big bruisers in the post? All sorts of questions are unanswered. It would be nice if Plumlee could be the one versatile defensive big that Stotts didn't have to worry about. Considering his athletic ability and smarts, he's got the tools to be that guy. So far, though, the results say he's not.
This is the tragedy of Mason Plumlee. He's a good player overall - quite good - but his limitations as a player are maddeningly well aligned with the Blazers' weaknesses as a team. If he could protect the rim or defend well in open space (really, I'd settle for just one of the two), it would be a whole different story, but he's struggled mightily in those areas this season.
I suppose this is just how it goes in the NBA. Very, very few players are capable of doing everything well at their positions, and those who are tend to be premium targets in free agency. The Blazers tried to get that kind of guy. They made a run at Whiteside this summer; it didn't work out. Now, though, it's too late to dwell on that. The Blazers simply have to move on and make the best of the situation they're in now. As promising as Plumlee is, it's unclear what role he plays in that effort, either in the short term or the long.
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