Throughout the 2015-16 season, Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee often drew the angst and ire of fans and writers (guilty) alike when the team came up short on the defensive end. NBA culture at large has bred fans to proclaim that centers are the end-all, be-all epicenter of defensive awesomeness. However, if you look around the landscape today, so many of the best and most integral pieces to defenses lie in the wings - literally. With the Blazers revamping and retaining their roster, it’s high time someone apologized to Plumlee on behalf of Blazers fans.
So here goes: Dear Mason Plumlee, I’m sorry. Throughout much of last year I, and countless others, unfairly laid a lot of the defensive shortcomings of the Trail Blazers at your feet. This year you start on a clean slate and get a fair shake - not that it matters to you - and there’s a number of reasons why.
Chemistry and culture have been discussed a lot lately. A familiarity with one’s surroundings is a huge boost to individual and team success, particularly as it pertains to coach Terry Stotts’ defensive system. In his first year at the helm the Blazers were a subpar defensive team, then mostly the same team returned and cranked things up on that end. A number of the players and coaches credited familiarity with the system and chemistry within the team. Naturally this sounds like a credible argument.
There’s no real metric you can use to show what you can expect on year-to-year growth in a system, but typically you don’t see any kind of real drop-off from players so young and healthy. So one would hope - maybe even assume - that Plumlee could be the primary beneficiary of that internal growth and development. This of course is more on the margins and dependent on so many other factors, but it’s worth considering.
One of the big contributors that’s been discussed ad-nauseam is the perimeter defense, or lack thereof. It’s not a state secret that the pairing of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum struggles on the defensive end. What’s a bit strange is that their faults on the defensive end seem to be decoupled from Plumlee’s on the interior. While many want to hang the brunt of the defensive failures on Plumlee, they are easily dismissed at times on the perimeter. Why? Is it because the duo put up such obscene offensive numbers that the noise of defensive deficiency is silenced? The old adage of players being treated fairly but not equally rings true here.
Asking Plumlee, or any big, to cover up for the misgivings of the perimeter defenders does seem a bit out of whack. Two big changes this season could help alleviate some of those issues going forward.
First is the transition of Al-Farouq Aminu to the power forward spot on a semi-permanent basis. Aminu is a defender first - everything else is a bonus. That’s the foundation of his game. He’s going to give you much more, but that’s the hat he puts on in the morning. His versatility, length, strength and mobility allow him to switch and rotate out high on the pick-and-roll. This also allows him to stay closer to the rim where his length and closing speed allow him to offer weakside support and shot blocking. This alone will allow Plumlee to be more at ease in his role. Aminu is the only player outside of Ed Davis, and perhaps Maurice Harkless, who allows for some shot-blocking protection on rotations.
The second factor in an improving Blazers defense is the acquisition of Evan Turner. If you go back last year and look at the bigs he played alongside with the Boston Celtics, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynk, you don’t exactly think "world-beaters" on the defensive end. The Celtics gave up 43 points in the paint per game last season, good enough for No. 14 in the league. Portland? They checked in at No. 8 with 40.9 per game. Not exactly terrible. In the grand scheme of things it’s really a wash when you factor in frequency or shot attempts inside 6 feet per game.
Back to the Turner acquisition...What if the addition of Evan Turner allows the Blazers to buoy their perimeter defense enough to not have to rely on someone like Plumlee to cover up for all of their faults? This isn’t to say that Plumlee can’t cover up from time to time or that he’s the next defensive player of the year. Perhaps though, he’s the player Portland needs right now. If you look at Plumlee’s allowed field goal percentage inside 6-feet against that of both Zeller and Olynk, Plumlee actually rates the best of the bunch allowing 57.7 percent.
Surprised? I was.
While there has been much discussion of what Turner brings to the Blazers on the offensive and defensive ends individually, it feels like his team impact on the defensive end could be the area he potentially increases the most. He has size and length with good defensive instincts. With a projected starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Aminu, and Plumlee the Blazers might improve enough defensively to share the blame and the fame equally.
Today’s NBA calls for mobility across the floor from positions one through five. Plumlee gives you that level of athleticism and mobility at the position that teams crave. Last year perhaps his shortcomings - a lack of wingspan and offensive contribution - overshawdowed what he did bring.
So What exactly did he do last year?
Here’s a quick look at a game against the Denver Nuggets. Plumlee shows up high, venturing ever so slightly above the free throw line. Enough so that Joffrey Lauvergne doesn’t think about shooting or putting the ball on the floor. The play is designed to get Faried the ball down low, with deep post position, allowing him to attack either way. Faried does a very nice Jerome Bettis impersonation, bullying his way into position before receiving the entry pass and sealing Noah Vonleh off. More often than not this turns into a drop step and dunk - particularly for someone like Faried. However, Plumlee recognized the signs of trouble and came down early to help, altering Faried’s shot and igniting the transition offense.
Plumlee is not Robin Lopez. He doesn’t have the size or length to protect the rim and patrol the paint exclusively. He’s also not Anthony Davis, able to pick a player up above the 3-point line and stay with him step-for-step all over the floor. He’s a bit of a tweener. That used to be a death sentence in the NBA and the NFL. Now? Team’s are killing to get that guy on their roster. Take a look at this seemingly innocuous play:
Plumlee again takes his place at the nail and sees Houston Rockets big man Clint Capela step up to set the screen for guard James Harden. Plumlee recognizes that Capela is zero threat outside 3-feet and sits in, waiting for Harden to attack. Love him, hate him, or anything in between, Harden is a nightmare going to the rim. He changes direction and euro steps through traffic so effortlessly on a nightly basis it’s easy to forget how good he is at it. The key for Plumlee here however is how he flips his hips at the last second when Harden dips inside. I’m pretty confident that the list of NBA bigs who could flip like that and recover is incredibly small. Not only does he get back on track, he manages to get the block on Harden…without fouling.
That type of play right there gets lost in the flow of a game, a week, a season. Those are the simple plays that a player like Plumlee can make, and make it look so easy. The addition of Turner, moving Aminu into the 4-spot, and another year in the system could all come together and allow for Plumlee and the Blazers - to steal a phrase from Willy Raedy - a fresh start on their path to becoming an average defense.
Mason Plumlee may not be the best player for the Blazers. He probably isn’t a long-term answer for them either. But he may be the right player for the Blazers right now.