The Portland Trail Blazers traded center Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for center Jusuf Nurkic and a protected 2017 first-round draft pick on Sunday afternoon, ending months of speculation on their willingness to make a mid-season deal. Let’s compare the two centers by the numbers.
The Tale of the Tape
On the surface, the numbers are clear. Portland got a younger, taller, heavier center, a player cut closer to the classical mold. Nurkic does not have the footspeed or the thundering dunk ability that Plumlee had on the break. The Blazers seldom were able to take advantage of either of those characteristics anyway. Plumlee’s feet carried him places his arms and instinct couldn’t master. He wasn’t that effective at stopping opponents when he ranged around the court, nor was he a great standstill defender against larger, heavier centers. Seldom did his leaping and dunking threat prove credible with opponents camping between him and the rim, all too aware of his offensive limitations. Take away Plumlee and the Blazers still have plenty of quickness in the frontcourt. They lack “big”. Nurkic gives them that element.
As staff writer Eric Griffith explained earlier, the hidden numbers behind the salary line provide a better explanation for the deal than Nurkic’s considerable size. Plumlee is scheduled to enter restricted free agency this summer. Portland is slated to cross the luxury tax threshold. A $14 million offer sheet to Plumlee could double or triple in real dollars depending how far afoul of tax penalties the Blazers run. Everybody likes Mason Plumlee. Nobody’s going to drop Damian Lillard money on him. Nurkic is a year further removed from his decisive contract year and hasn’t yet proven he’ll deserve as large of a contract. The Blazers hope he will, but they’ll also hope they’re out of tax peril by the time they have to sign it.
Verdict: Makes Sense
Thanks to our friends at basketball-reference.com we see that Plumlee’s production outpaces Nurkic in two obvious areas: minutes and assists. Those numbers are influenced, in part, by roles with their respective teams. But even with sufficient opportunity, Nurkic will not pass like Plumlee in the middle of Portland’s offense. He’s far more likely to turn over the ball.
Nurkic is a better per-minute scorer and rebounder than Plumlee. His offensive rebounding production is fantastic. Nurkic’s superior height and wingspan haven’t produced more blocked shots than Plumlee manages, and this was considered one of Plumlee’s weaknesses.
It’s also worth noting that if Nurkic didn’t produce more points than Plumlee, eyebrows would raise. Mason isn’t considered an offensive superstar. Nurkic isn’t either.
Verdict: Kind of a wash.
The wash in production gets aired out to dry when comparing percentage and advanced stats. Plumlee streaks ahead of Nurkic in every non-rebounding category. Nurkic scores less efficiently, shoots free throws worse (ugh), and turns over the ball more.
Complex extrapolations get dicey, but the entire bottom half of the table leaning Plumlee’s way doesn’t assure.
Nurkic does have offensive range over his predecessor. Plumlee hits 66% of his shots within 3 feet but plummets below 40% when he’s more than an arm span from the hoop. Nurkic at least stays above the 40% line out to 16 feet. Neither center should be taking shots beyond that range.
There’s also hope that Nurkic’s relatively poor showing in comparison to Plumlee has something to do with Mason’s stable role in Portland’s system versus the second-string yo-yo from which Nurkic hung in Denver. But hope is speculative. Plumlee produces now.
Verdict: Uh oh...
Those looking for this deal to transform the Blazers immediately are likely to end up disappointed. Nurkic hasn’t produced more than Plumlee. And let’s face it, the Blazers weren’t succeeding with Plumlee-level production in the first place. Plus Nurkic lacks experience.
The trade structure—future salary savings plus a draft pick coming Portland’s way—screams “later” more than “now”. The numbers bear that out. If this is the only move the Blazers make before June it’s less of a rallying flag than a white flag: retreating for the year to return another day, hopefully with more potential and more assets in tow.
Three Big Questions
Is this Portland’s only move?
Just after the trade news hit, this tweet emerged:
Sources say that this trade does not take POR out of the Okafor running. Could pair him with Nurkic long term at C. Extra picks to deal now. https://t.co/xnYAH8EcmM— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) February 12, 2017
Given Nurkic’s inexperience and lack of production—plus impending salary cap doom if the current roster remains intact—few think the Blazers are finished dealing. The Nurkic trade in eventual context will reveal far more than in isolation. At minimum we need to see how Portland uses the first-round pick acquired in the swap. They’ll probably need to do much more for this deal to make sense in any way beyond bald salary savings.
If not, what about Nurkic’s attitude?
Almost all reports agree that Nurkic’s reluctance to play behind emerging star Nikola Jokic hastened his demise in Denver. Fair enough. Bad situations can turn a good player into a relatively poor and surly one. But what if Nurkic isn’t good enough to get the starting nod right away in Portland? Or what if the Blazers do land Okafor in an unlikely swap? Will pick and roll turn into pout and shout? With no clear star playing in front of him, no history with the franchise, and no obvious path to relevance in front of the team, Nurkic has even less reason to take perceived slights well in Portland than he did in Denver.
How much of the potential is real?
If Nurkic is the centerpiece of this deal, its success hinges on him fulfilling his potential. But what, exactly, is that? 22-year-olds get an automatic grace period and the Blazers get credit for getting younger, if nothing else. But if the Big Reveal ends up being a larger, slower rendition of Plumlee numbers, the Blazers won’t prosper.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be approaching the end of their current contracts before Portland finds out how good Nurkic will be. The front office has just sent their star guards a message that they’re willing to slip backwards for the remainder of the season in order to regroup and retool. Unless future momentum brings the team farther ahead than they are now, neither the deal nor the next contracts the Blazers want those guards to sign will be perceived as worth it.
Stay tuned for a big-picture wrap up of Nurkic-Plumlee Mania later today from Blazer’s Edge Radio host Peter Sampson.
—Dave email@example.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard