Why Trading Mason Plumlee Made Sense

The Nets left the 2015 draft with four new players: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Steve Blake, Chris McCullough, and Juan Vaulet (whom is going to play overseas this coming season).  Brooklyn’s active draft night, however, did not come without drama.  In acquiring Hollis-Jefferson and Blake, the Nets traded fan favorite Mason Plumlee, as well as the rights to Pat Connaughton.

In light of the Knicks trading Tim Hardaway Jr. for the 19th pick in the draft, Jerian Grant, there have been murmurs that the Nets did not get enough for Plumlee.  However, the bottom line is that the Nets did well for themselves in the Plumlee deal.

First things first, while it occurred in the same draft, to compare the Plumlee and Hardaway Jr. trades is unfair.  The Hawks trading down from 15 to 19, then moving the 19th pick for Hardaway Jr., was inexplicable, and unrepresentative of the market for a middling young player heading towards the expiration of his rookie deal.  Some believe the Hawks made the trade to save money to retain Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll.  The 15 pick will make $295,680 more than Hardaway next year (if signed at the 100% mark on the rookie scale), the 19 pick (if they merely accepted Washington’s offer of two seconds and the 19 for the 15, and took a player at 19) just $5,780 more than Hardaway Jr. Millsap and Carroll are likely to make approximately $30 million combined on the market this summer–negligible savings like that are not changing anything.  As a neutral observer of what the Hawks did, it was inexplicable: either they are unaware Hardaway Jr. is not good, or are pocketing whatever little savings they can.  Some may say the Nets should have made the deal with the Hawks, but with Horford as their centerpiece, if the Hawks wanted a wing and not a big like Plumlee (especially a big who cannot shoot in their floor spread system), what could the Nets do?

Rather, any Plumlee deal must be judged by two circumstances: where the Nets’ talent lies on its roster, and the typical, usual market for a player of Plumlee’s caliber and with Plumlee’s contract.  Through that prism, the Nets did well for themselves.

Starting with the player Plumlee is, while all young players go through rough patches and development is not linear, some of the stunting in his growth is concerning. Plumlee is 25, and will turn 26 during the 2015-2016 season: he is not as young as one may believe.  He has his attributes, that should not be denied.  He runs the floor.  He sets good picks, and excels at rolling to the basket in the pick and roll and filling open spaces.  Those are skills that would fit well with an elite guard running the pick and roll — a thing the Nets do not have, but will likely target in 2016.  And his man to man defense is good.

However, Plumlee has weaknesses that have not improved much during his first two seasons, and which may never improve all that much.  There is a reason, after all, that he was taken 22 in the draft, why 21 teams decided to pass on him.  Most importantly, Plumlee has yet to grasp defensive rotations.  Despite his athleticism, he often finds himself lost defensively, beat to spots and beat to rebounds as a result of being beat to spots.  One concern: he is a very hard worker, and a very high character man, and yet he still has these weaknesses.  It is not as though his effort has been poor, and one wonders if his rotational defense would improve by simply trying harder.  The effort, rather, is there, but the results are not: will they ever be? Maybe, but maybe not.  In addition, Plumlee lacks the touch to score on anything beyond a dunk, or layup if he gets position over another big.  His jump shot is nonexistent, and while he is a center, the league is trending towards maximizing floor space, and that is something Plumlee does not provide.

Couple that with the Nets’ roster crunch, and trading him made sense.  The Nets hope to pay Brook Lopez this summer, and for his weaknesses, he was very, very good for Brooklyn down the stretch, and progressively improved as he grew confidence moving around on his surgically repaired feet.  If you take Lopez’s play since 2011-2012, and eliminate his foot injuries, as well as games where he was clearly recovering from those injuries, Lopez has been very good for several years, and has trended into an elite scorer, who also protects the rim.  According to NBA.com stats, opponents shot 49.7% over Lopez at the rim this season, a figure better than Tyson Chandler, Omer Asik, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Nene, Tristan Thompson, and Nikola Vucevic, among others.

Can that improve playing with better defenders, rather than scrambling to fix others’ mistakes?  And while Lopez’s slow feet are an issue, Thad Young’s versatility helps counter that, and playing versatile perimeter defenders around Lopez allows Lopez to drop back in pick and roll coverages, where his length and size becomes more amplified and effective, and his slow feet minimized.

The NBA is trending toward teams playing small and fast, and that simply does not permit for a team to start Lopez and Plumlee, and be effective.  Plumlee may be cheap now, but he’s a free agent in 2017, likely seeing a deal in the 4 year, $32 million range at that point.  The Nets simply could not commit big money in the smallball era to both Lopez and Plumlee, and while Plumlee has many good qualities, Lopez is the better player.  It is easy to overlook that he was the best player on the court in the Nets-Hawks series.  He overwhelmed Lopez and Millsap, and forced Atlanta to adjust its defense to adjust to Lopez’s pick and roll game, and make other Nets beat them. Horford and Millsap went on to have a much better time dealing with Marcin Gortat and Nene in round 2.

With paying Lopez and Plumlee not a realistic option, the Nets made their choice.  And while some hoped for the Nets to “reestablish Plumlee’s value,” that also was not a realistic option.  First, if Lopez is healthy, it would be tough to envision Plumlee playing so well in bench minutes as to earn more than a first rounder like Hollis-Jefferson in return for his services.  Some, presumably, wanted to deal Plumlee for a star, but he is nowhere near the caliber of player worth dealing a star for.

Second, the true value of the NBA’s rookie scale is that draft picks are underpaid.  However, that changes when rookie contracts expire: suitors know the young player is going to get paid, and being paid decreases their value.  Chandler Parsons made $926,500 in 2014, and $14,700,000 in 2015; there is a huge value change there.

In 2013, the Sacramento Kings decided they would not keep restricted free agent Tyreke Evans.  The return? Greivis Vasquez.  A clear reserve for a very solid NBA starter with potential.  Why did the Kings get so little? Because Evans was restricted that summer, and poised to get paid.  It killed his value.

In 2014-2015, the Knicks (ironically) decided to trade Iman Shumpert before his restricted free agency summer of 2015.  The return? A 2019 second round pick.  Sure, including JR Smith’s contract in the trade hurt Shumpert’s value on paper.  But for all the jokes about the Knicks getting an eighth grader for Shumpert, it happened for a reason: young players on their first contract (especially non stars) lose value as their free agency approaches, because the recipient is not getting cost control, but is going to be forced to pay the player.

So for all the talk that Plumlee could reestablish his value, in reality, his value in trades is more likely to decline as 2017 approaches.  If the Nets waited until 2016-2017, they would have gotten nothing for his services: or perhaps a second rounder or reserve guard.  And even if they waited until the 2015-2016 season, his value is trending downward because his cheap contract is ticking toward expiration.

The Nets, had they waited to trade Plumlee, likely would not have gotten Hollis-Jefferson and Blake for his services.

The final piece to all this: while nobody can definitively say what Hollis-Jefferson will be, he projects on paper as the exact type of piece Brooklyn needs. The Nets need athletes. The Nets need players who can guard multiple positions, especially if they want to build around a slower center.  The league is trending towards teams with multiple rangy, 6’6′-6’9 wings who can switch, guard multiple spots, and run the floor.  Steph Curry gets the accolades, but one masterstroke in Golden State is that they can throw Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and even Klay Thompson (who defends better than many realize) at teams defensively. Hollis-Jefferson appears to be have the type of defensive skills and motor that is needed in today’s NBA, and he makes much more sense on a roster with Lopez on it than Plumlee does.

Briefly touching on Blake, he is also a decent addition to the Nets.  He is limited, but is a capable reserve guard who is smart, can shoot the ball, and does not make mistakes.  In many ways, he is the polar opposite of Jarrett Jack, who has more talent than Blake but is not as smart of a player.  Blake enables the Nets to dump Jack this summer, and if the Nets cannot find a point guard this summer (and given their lack of free agency money to spend or tradeable assets, that possibility is very real), he can patch up the spot with Deron Williams for a season.

Perhaps it can be argued the Nets should have traded Plumlee last season. Perhaps the Nets should have been patient with Lopez, and realized his early season struggles were due to psychologically thinking about his foot while he was playing, as well as getting into game shape.  In such an instance, perhaps the Nets could have traded Plumlee at the 2014-2015 trade deadline.

However, whether the Nets would have beaten this package for Plumlee, even at that time, is unclear.  In addition, if he was just used to dump Deron’s contract, that may have been helpful, but the Nets would not have gotten an asset of Hollis-Jefferson’s caliber.  Also, the Nets chose to hold onto Plumlee because they worried about Lopez going forward, until he lasted a full season: that is a reasonable worry to have.

Alas, at least the argument the Nets should have traded Plumlee earlier than this summer.  However, if one looks at the Nets’ situation roster wise, and the typical market for players like Plumlee nearing the end of their first contract, the idea that the Nets failed because of what the Knicks got for Hardaway Jr. is simply unfair.  That trade represents an aberration, and by no means the norm (and were I a Hawks fan, I would be livid).

Plumlee is not the liability his naysayers say he is.  And he is a high character man, a great person, and a player with a clear skill set who does not take plays off. He wore Brooklyn on his chest proudly, represented the organization well, and stood for traits like effort, intensity, speed, and passion that made him popular, and at times, gave the Nets life.  He will be missed, by myself and by many Nets fans, and I wish him well in Portland.

Still, the Nets made the right call trading him.  Welcome to the Nets, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Steve Blake.

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