After playing for three different teams through his first five seasons in the NBA, Mason Plumlee hopes he’s found a more permanent home at his latest stop.
The 27-year-old centre hits restricted free agency today, but the 27 games he played with the Denver Nuggets in the second half of last season could be enough to give Plumlee a sense of belonging amidst a young, budding core that provides the franchise with a bright outlook.
It wasn’t a seamless transition. Mid-season trades rarely are.
Despite enjoying a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers, with whom he was averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0
assists, Plumlee was sent along with a second-round draft pick and cash to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder in February near the trade deadline.
The trade somewhat blew up in the Nuggets’ face, with Nurkic enjoying a rejuvenation in the northwest. Plumlee, meanwhile, played nearly five minutes fewer per game with his new team and saw his role reduced.
It wasn’t the first time Plumlee experienced being shipped to a new city and forcibly started over. In the 2015 offseason, he was dealt from Brooklyn, who drafted him 22nd overall in 2013, to Portland.
The transition was a positive one for the big man as he appeared to find his place in an up-and-coming Trail Blazers squad, only to be on the move once again a season-and-a-half later.
Stability may certainly be a factor, but Plumlee’s eagerness to
remain in Denver stems from a desire to continue developing alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and others.
“It was great. It was unexpected. It was the first time that I’ve experienced being traded in the season – when I went from Brooklyn to Portland it was in the summer – so it was very different,” Plumlee told Sport360° in Dubai earlier this week, while hosting a basketball camp in collaboration with Duplays and East Sports Management.
“But I enjoyed my time in Denver and even though we missed the playoffs, we were a better team after the trade. I enjoyed it and I look forward to growing there.
“There’s a lot of talent there, man. I think we can do some really special things if we keep the core together and grow.”
Plumlee, of course, doesn’t have the final say on where he ends up next season. As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets hold his rights and can match any offer sheet Plumlee signs with another team.
Considering how much the Nuggets parted with to acquire him, especially in hindsight, it’s reasonable to believe the sentiment of his return is mutual between Plumlee and the franchise. That shouldn’t stop him from at least exploring his options and testing the market to extract his first big contract since signing a four-year, $6.4 million (Dh23.5m) rookie deal.
For most 27-year-olds coming off the rookie salary scale, landing the most money would be a priority. Winning is great and all, but there’s still time later in a career to fill any championship void. For Plumlee, however, being part of a successful team is one of the most important factors in his decision-making.
“The biggest thing is winning and the people. It’s such a long season, the NBA is 82 games, and over half the year you’re spending with these people – whether it’s coaches, team-mates, front office – you want to like who you’re working with and feel you have a common goal. You’d think it would be easy to find that but it’s not,” he said. “So I look forward to playing with a team that is trying to win championships and competing for that.”
If Denver do bring Plumlee back, likely at a starting annual salary of at least $10m, they’ll continue to have two of the best passing centres in the league.
Jokic led all NBA centres with a 26.6 per cent assist percentage – a figure which was fractions behind the likes of stars Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Golden State’s Draymond Green – while Plumlee ranked sixth at the position at 18.7 per cent.
No player is more important to the Nuggets’ present or long-term prospects than Jokic and after playing alongside the versatile offensive engine, Plumlee is full of admiration for his team-mate’s unique abilities.
“He’s so ball-friendly,” Plumlee said. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s very comfortable whether that’s scoring, passing or handling. You aren’t going to make him unc-omfortable and he’s going to make good decisions for the most part.”
Passing has never been a question for Plumlee. His lack of rim protection and shooting though, are threatening to further diminish his impact in a league which values floor spacing more than ever.
Despite attempting just 15 3-pointers in total through five years, Plumlee, who also shoots free throws at a lacklustre 58.2 per cent clip for his career, will eventually have to extend his range.
Whether it’s with the Nuggets or another team, more triples should be on the way sooner than later.
“We’ll get some up this season,” Plumlee said of shots from beyond the arc. “Even more important for me is being able to go to the line and be 70 to 80 per cent from the free throw line. I think guys who you can depend on down the stretch in every facet of the game are very valuable and I embrace being on the court at the end of the game, so that’s something that’s going to have to happen if I want to continue being in that position.”