Trade grades: Who wins the Blazers-Nuggets deal?

February 12, 2017, 3:31 PM

The deal

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Nuggets get:?Forward Mason Plumlee, 2018 Portland second-round pick

Blazers get:?Center Jusuf Nurkic,?2017 Memphis first-round pick (top-five protected)

Denver Nuggets: C-

ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported that the Nuggets made this trade because they felt Nurkic fit poorly with franchise centerpiece Nikola Jokic, and they think Plumlee will fit well alongside him. I agree with precisely half of that sentiment.

The shortcomings of the Jokic-Nurkic duo are inarguable. According to, Denver was outscored by an incredible 15.6 points per 100 possessions with Jokic and Nurkic on the court together, ghastly no matter the sample size. With Jokic establishing himself as a future All-Star and Nurkic surely chafing in a small role, a trade was inevitable.

But why this one?

Offensively, a Jokic-Plumlee pairing seems more viable. Plumlee can operate as a traditional finisher when the offense runs through Jokic in the high post, and he is enough of a threat as a passer that he can step to the perimeter when Jokic plays down low -- something Nurkic wasn't really capable of doing.

Defensively, however, I don't see how it works. Neither Jokic nor Plumlee is quick enough to defend most of the league's power forwards, and Plumlee isn't the kind of elite rim-protector you'd want next to Jokic if the Nuggets wanted to take him out of that role.

If Plumlee merely helps solidify Denver's reserve units without Jokic, that should help the Nuggets make the playoffs this season. Their net rating is minus-6.5 with Jokic on the bench since he ascended to the starting lineup, according to, and even worse (minus-8.1) with Nurkic on the court in that span.

Yet if Plumlee is nothing more than a backup to Jokic, that seems like a poor investment of resources. Not only did he cost a first-round pick plus whatever the Nuggets could have gotten for Nurkic in an alternative deal (possibly another late first-rounder), Plumlee is about to get much more expensive as a restricted free agent.

The Nuggets may be able to afford all of it. They've still got all of their own first-round picks to add to a roster that's already flush with young talent. And because Plumlee's cap hold this summer is small ($5.8 million), Denver can still clear enough cap space to offer a player the maximum salary if Danilo Gallinari opts out of his contract as expected.

Still, given the Nuggets' ability to mine international big men through the draft (in addition to Nurkic and Jokic, drafted 16th and 41st, respectively, they've also got Juan Hernangomez and the rights to 2016 second-round pick Petr Cornelie), I'd have rather taken my chances there in the long term and looked for a short-term upgrade at center to boost Denver's playoff chances.

Portland Trail Blazers: B

From a value standpoint, this deal is a great one for the Blazers. They get an extra year of a center on his cheap rookie contract, a crucial consideration, given that Portland was already projected to be above the luxury-tax line before considering a new contract for Plumlee. On top of that, the Blazers add another 2017 first-round pick and will almost certainly have a league-high three picks in the first round, giving them the flexibility to try to move up or merely add several low-cost contributors to fill out their bench.

At the same time, make no mistake: This deal means a huge stylistic change for a team that is a game back of the Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Plumlee's versatile skill set was a big part of Portland's offense, and Nurkic brings a very different style.

Among starting centers, Plumlee's 4.0 assists per 36 minutes ranked him fourth in the league, just behind Jokic (4.2). The Blazers relied on him as a secondary playmaker when opposing defenses trapped guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, most notably in last year's playoff series against the LA Clippers. Plumlee averaged 5.7 assists per game in the series. By contrast, per, Nurkic's career high is five assists.

My read is Portland was inspired to make this deal in part by Evan Turner's move into the starting lineup. Turner is also a source of secondary -- and even primary -- playmaking, and if the Blazers view Turner as their permanent starting small forward after he returns from a fractured metacarpal on his right hand that will sideline him five to six weeks, Plumlee is a little bit less of a necessity.

The other intriguing adjustment for Portland will be to Nurkic's post-up game, something the Blazers have lacked in recent seasons. According to Synergy Sports tracking on, 35.4 percent of Nurkic's plays this season (shot attempts, trips to the free throw line or turnovers) came on post-ups, the league's third-highest mark.

Despite his limited playing time, Nurkic has finished 152 plays in the post this season. The Blazers as a team have finished just 218, the league's third-lowest mark. Nurkic will add some diversity to the Portland attack, but he must be more efficient as a post scorer than he was in Denver. He has averaged just 0.72 points per play on post-ups, second-lowest among players who have finished at least 150.

The best part of the center swap from the Blazers' perspective is that Nurkic is still just 22 and two years removed from being one of the league's most promising rookies. Plumlee, who will turn 27 next month, is already near or at his peak as a player. Nurkic gives Portland more room to grow, something that's necessary given that the Blazers, as currently constituted, don't appear capable of competing in the West.

By getting that upside plus a first-round pick, Portland comes out ahead in this deal despite taking a step backward in the short term.