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Should the Blazers Keep Mason Plumlee?

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A reader wants to know if the Blazers should hold onto their current starting center. We detail all the reasons it’d be nice then explain why they can’t.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Hi folks. Before we get to today’s Mailbag question about Mason Plumlee and his future with the Portland Trail Blazers, I’d like to point out this post on Blazer’s Edge Night. As we do every year, we’re trying to send hundreds of underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play. We have recipients lined up but we’re a few hundred tickets short and the deadline for donations is approaching. If you love, or at least benefit, from what we do here, would you consider clicking that link and donating a ticket or two so these kids can go to see Blazers-Sixers on March 9th? Both we and they would appreciate it.

On to the question of the day!

Hey Dave,

I feel like I'm drinking crazy juice over here or maybe I'm just paying attention to different things than everyone else, but why wouldn't we have interest in keeping Plumlee as opposed to bringing in a Noel/Whiteside/Vuc type? I'm not a huge Plumlee guy and he has a new contract coming, but data dives discussed in multiple recent articles point out that our rim defense numbers are near the top of the league and his passing ability is a fantastic relief valve for our the attention our guards get. Doesn't it make more sense to address our perimeter defense instead of sending out multiple players for one that doesn't appear to have as much of an impact to make?

Thanks,

Benjamin

You’re not crazy. Mason Plumlee is a serviceable center with good passing skills. He plays hard. He’s mobile. There’s nothing wrong with that. If anything he suffers from the same malady that has afflicted Portland centers since Greg Oden: he’d be one of the finest reserve pivots in the league but as a starter, he’s just sort of ordinary.

Plumlee’s shortcomings are exacerbated by the company he keeps on the front line. If he played with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum he’d look like a much bigger asset. As it is, opposing teams know they can basically leave him alone on offense, guarding him loosely until he gets near the bucket. They also know they can leave Al-Farouq Aminu alone. They also know that Moe Harkless is unlikely to kill them. They also know that Noah Vonleh is not a serious threat. They also know that Meyers Leonard needs to stroke threes to be viable, otherwise they don’t need to care about him either. The beat’s so regular Chance the Rapper could go multi-platinum with it. It’s just too much. This isn’t even close to being Plumlee’s fault, but since he always starts and he’s standing right there in the middle of the floor touching the ball, he catches the heat for it.

I’d actually be on board the “Keep Mason” train—or at least on board with “Don’t favor trading him above any of Portland’s other non-offense players—were it not for that contract situation you mentioned. The Blazers are famously edging the luxury tax line this season, close enough that a Tim Quarterman Christmas bonus would put them over. CJ McCollum is making $3 million this season. He’ll make $24 million next. Guess where that puts them?

Even if the Blazers dumped every conceivable bit of optional salary, they’d be paying $130 million for their roster next year. That’s going to be over the tax line. And that’s not including Plumlee’s contract or incoming draft picks. That changes their view on acquiring, or keeping, assets.

If Mason decided to play for a one year qualifying offer of $3.4 million—almost certainly a prelude to becoming an unrestricted free agent the year following—he’d still be driving them up. God forbid he should sign a decent qualifying offer. Forget the luxury tax apron; the Blazers would be perched atop the luxury tax chef’s hat. Their trade ability would be restricted and they’d be paying at least $2.50 for every dollar on Plumlee’s deal. You’d gulp hard doing that for a major supporting player on a championship contender. For an interchangeable part (downplaying Mason a bit too much here) on a team winning 35-45 games (being charitable here) that’s functionally insane.

When you assert the Blazers should keep Plumlee, you must also name 1-3 players they should trade away for little or no salary in return to make it feasible. That argument can be made, but it’s not simple. The most direct route forward would be letting Plumlee go unless he gets zero offers and they could low-ball him to the point that dumping a little-used player for a second-round pick would make the ledger balance.

We should also note that the sentence, “keeping Plumlee as opposed to bringing in a Noel/Whiteside/Vuc type” has enough wiggle room to sail an aircraft carrier through. Hassan Whiteside would transform the team and the Blazers would have to jump at an opportunity to get their hands on him. Nerlens Noel would be an intriguing prospect at a bargain price and they probably should do that too. Nikola Vucevic is a different kind of player than either and, while still a nice addition, he’d be easier to pass on. The case to keep Plumlee over Vucevic is relatively easy. Plumlee over Noel is more difficult to justify but could boil down to money and perhaps character. Plumlee over Whiteside—for the sake of Plumlee’s talent and contributions as opposed to cost of acquisition—would be a take hot enough to melt a penguin’s britches.

I have nothing bad to say about what Mason Plumlee has brought to this team. If the financial situation were different, I’d be all for keeping him. Given the current climate, that option will either require roster reconstruction or a huge tolerance for checkbook pain. I don’t see the Blazers enduring the latter for more than five seconds after the season ends. Unless the former happens, Plumlee’s days in Portland may be numbered despite his fine service.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard