On Sunday, Adrian Wojnarowksi of The Vertical reported that the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick (via the Memphis Grizzlies), which is top-five protected.
As with any significant trade, there is always a rush to decide who got the better end of the deal. Broad statements like “the team that got the best player always wins a trade” are often used, but those sort of statements often overlook the other reasons why teams make certain deals. Concerns like salary cap relief, chemistry, long-term team building, tanking or addressing a team’s weakness are just a few of the things teams consider, which was no exception in this case.
Let’s take a look at the deal for both teams to try and determine what each team was looking to do and whether they accomplished their goals.
Nurkic’s time in Denver was destined to end sooner rather than later once it was apparent that Nikola Jokic had superstar potential. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone tried to pair Jokic and Nurkic together in the frontcourt earlier this season, but the two big men were a disaster on the court together. In the 108 minutes that Jokic and Nurkic shared the court, the Nuggets have been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/stats.
Denver must be hoping that Plumlee is able to play alongside Jokic more effectively than Nurkic could. Plumlee is set to become a restricted free agent after this season and will likely land a significant contract in free agency. The Nuggets certainly want to retain Plumlee past this season and understand what his value will be on the market, so it wouldn’t make much sense for them to acquire him unless they believed he could be a starter next to Jokic.
Plumlee has a unique skill set for a big man. Plumlee is one of the best passing big men in the NBA, which was on full display during the playoffs last season. The Los Angeles Clippers tried to aggressively trap Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum throughout the first-round matchup, which was initially very effective. However, Lillard and McCollum started using Plumlee as a pressure release valve, dumping the ball off to him in the middle of the court while L.A.’s defenders were scrambling to recover from their traps. Plumlee routinely rolled down the middle of the lane, either attacking the basket for a bucket of his own or kicking the ball out to open teammates behind the three-point line.
Plumlee continues to be a solid playmaker this season. He is averaging four assists per game and 5.1 assists per-36 minutes, which puts him just behind his new teammate, Jokic. By comparison, Nurkic is averaging 1.3 assists per game this season and 2.6 assists per-36 minutes. With an offense that is already playing at a high level, Plumlee has the chance to come in and be a facilitator and playmaker, while scoring predominantly off of the ball.
The issue with this pairing is that neither Plumlee nor Jokic is a Swiss army knife type of defender like Draymond Green. Neither is particularly well-suited to guard stretch-fours on the perimeter or off the dribble, and neither is an elite rim protector that can clean up any mistakes their teammates may make. The Nuggets’ defense is already an area of weakness, so it will be imperative that Plumlee and Jokic can find enough defensive chemistry to stay on the court together.
Acquiring a 2018 second-round draft pick is nice, but it is a net loss in regards to sending Portland a top-five protected first-round pick for this year’s draft. The 2017 draft class is considered to be deep, so it’s possible that Portland can find a young prospect who can eventually develop into a role player.
All things considered, this is a questionable trade for Denver. Plumlee does little to help the Nuggets’ defense and his long-term value is highly dependent on his ability to play alongside Jokic. It could end up being an effective pairing, but Denver will have to give Plumlee a big contract after this season to make it worth their while. However, there is value in turning Nurkic, a center who had clearly lost the motivation to compete at a high level this season, into a hardworking big man who can be a facilitator on offense and potentially a stabilizing force on the second unit.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers have struggled this season. Expectations were high entering this season after Portland advanced to the second round of last year’s playoffs. Offseason additions like Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli haven’t worked out as planned, and matching the Brooklyn Nets’ significant offer sheet to retain swingman Allen Crabbe hasn’t paid off.
Portland had relied on Plumlee as one of its main offensive facilitators – a role that Nurkic is not equipped to fill. Nurkic is a throwback style center who prefers to do his damage at the rim. A high percentage of Nurkic’s offense comes from post ups – something he has the skill set for, though his efficiency hasn’t been great this season. Nurkic will need to emphasize being a playmaker out of the post for Portland for this shift in strategy to be effective.
On defense, Nurkic has surprisingly light feet and a good sense of space and timing. He isn’t as explosive as DeAndre Jordan, as good of a shot blocker as Hassan Whiteside or as gifted defensively as Rudy Gobert, but he is strong enough to hold his own against Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins and mobile enough to protect the weak side as well.
For a team that had little offense coming from the post, Nurkic is a nice addition. Also, at just age 22, and with another year on his rookie contract, Nurkic represents nice long-term value and growth for Portland. It wasn’t so long ago that he was considered to be one of the best up-and-coming prospects at center. Injuries and the ascent of Jokic got in the way of that, so Portland is hoping that a change of scenery will get Nurkic back on track.
Beyond Nurkic, the Trail Blazers landed another 2017 first-round draft pick. This is a significant since the 2017 draft class is considered to be deep and because it gives Portland another tool to add depth to their roster on a cost-controlled contract. Neil Olshey deserves credit for flipping Plumlee, whom the Trail Blazers didn’t want to pay as a restricted free agent, and a future second-round draft pick for a young, talented center and a first-round pick this year. With all things considered, it looks like Portland got the better end of this deal.
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