Two centers with marginal long-term prospects on their Northwest Division teams will switch spots in hopes of brightening their outlooks.
The Blazers have agreed to trade starting center Mason Plumlee and a 2017 second-round pick to the Nuggets for reserve center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick, according to Yahoo Sports. The 2017 pick originally belonged to the Grizzlies.
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Let’s grade the trade.
Portland Trail Blazers Grade: C+
Blazers acquire: Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick
Once CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard all got paid last fall, something had to give. Count Plumlee, 26, as the first official casualty of the Blazers’ 2016 spending spree, which has backfired badly and left Portland fighting for the West’s final playoff spot. Acquired from Brooklyn in a 2015 trade and given every opportunity to establish himself as the center of the future, Plumlee (8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG) just wasn’t up to the task.
A willing and able passer who plays with energy and represents a vertical threat with his finishing ability, Plumlee hasn’t paired his intriguing offense with capable defense. In his two seasons as starter, Portland ranked 20th and 27th in defensive efficiency, and he posted an abysmal defensive rating of 111 this year. On a team built around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two limited backcourt defenders, it made no sense to spend big in free agency this summer to retain a center who provides little cover. Given Plumlee’s nonexistent untapped potential, Portland’s failure to sustain positive momentum in recent weeks, and the prospect of a 2017-18 luxury tax bill, the Blazers were better off getting some return now for Plumlee rather than watching him become too expensive to keep come July.
The return package is modest, and probably best judged once this month’s trade deadline passes. The first-round pick from Memphis should fall around No. 20, giving Portland three first-round picks in June’s draft. However, it’s conceivable that Blazers GM Neil Olshey will need to part with draft assets to grease other trades in an effort to reduce his bloated payroll.
Given that Lillard is 26 and McCollum is 25, Portland is set up more for a “win now” timeline rather than a retooling effort via the draft. What the Blazers still need, especially following Plumlee’s departure, is a defensive-minded starting-quality center. They needed that last season, last offseason, and now — not in three or four years when a 2017 draft pick develops.
Nurkic (8 PPG, 5.8 RPG) isn’t the answer. The 22-year-old Bosnian seven-footer might be an Internet cult hero due to his fearsome physical presence, but he hasn’t been a positive difference-maker in his two-plus seasons in Denver. This year, his -10.3 net rating and 98.2 offensive rating were the worst marks among the Nuggets’ rotation players, and he rightfully lost his starting job in mid-December. From the team perspective, Nurkic represents a step backwards from Plumlee offensively given his mediocre scoring efficiency, turnover issues and floor-cramping paint-bound game. And remember, Denver is one of just three teams with a worse defensive rating than Portland this season. While Nurkic has had the chance to be a savior for a poor defense, he hasn’t even played effectively enough to warrant true starter minutes.
The biggest plus regarding Nurkic from Portland’s standpoint is his rookie contract: The Blazers add him on a low salary number ($1.9 million this year and $2.9 million next), much like they did with Plumlee two years ago, and plunge forward with their search for a real long-term solution in the middle. The cycle continues.
Nuggets acquire: Mason Plumlee and a 2017 second-round pick
There’s a decent amount of intrigue in this move from Denver’s side. Most importantly, it represents a clear step towards life with Nikola Jokic as the team’s franchise player.
Given Nurkic’s limited effectiveness, shaky commitment and untenable pairing with Jokic (together they posted an atrocious -15.6 net rating), Denver had no reason to force the issue and hang on to a hopeless cause. Already stocked with too many prospects to play and their own 2017 first-round pick, parting with a late-first was a reasonable price to acquire Plumlee, a player who is well-suited to playing a key reserve role.
Now, Jokic and Plumlee run the risk of redundancy given their shared limitations on defense, but this move allows coach Michael Malone to keep a clear offensive identity across his rotations. It’s hard to envision the Jokic/Plumlee pairing functioning all that well together, but the ability to keep at least one on the court for 48 minutes sets up Denver for a fun, open attacking style that can help compensate for the limitations of Emmanuel Mudiay and provide structure as both Mudiay and Jamal Murray grow.
While Plumlee looks like a Jokic back-up long-term, he’s a winner here, as he can make his case for a summer payday by attempting to boost Denver into the postseason for the first time since 2013. Unlike Portland, Denver is well-positioned to retain Plumlee as a restricted free agent this summer. The Nuggets, loaded with players on rookie deals, already project to have significant cap space and may have more if they move additional veterans before the trade deadline.
Longer-term, the Nuggets are likely to run into the same frustrations as the Blazers did with Plumlee. He won’t solve their defensive issues, he’s overmatched against the West’s top bigs and his poor free-throw shooting makes him a hack target. But the responsibility for driving Denver’s future falls first to Jokic, not Plumlee, and the latter should settle in nicely as a complementary option who can hold the fort.