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Exit Interview: Mason Plumlee out-performed expectations in year one of his deal

The last Plumlee standing acquitted himself well in his return to a starting lineup.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When Mason Plumlee signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Detroit Pistons last November, there was much consternation and confusion among Pistons fans.

Plumlee was entering his 30-year-old season and didn’t, on the surface, appear to be much of a difference maker for a team poised to rebuild.

As the season progressed, the Duke University product proved his worth as both an on-court contributor and a veteran presence.

The Good

Averaging the most minutes of his career, Plumlee posted or tied a career high in points per game, rebounding rate, and assist rate. You might expect a heavier workload to lower some of productivity and efficiency. Instead, Plumlee proved that he can compete at a high level when being a more-involved part of his team.

He made a big impression as a passer from day one. Detroit found plenty of success getting the ball to Plumlee in the high post and moving off the ball. The former Duke center rarely missed cutters and nearly always found a way to get them the ball in stride. Plumlee’s passing was so impactful it got to a point where there were too many Pistons cutting into open areas because they knew they would receive a pass and opportunity to score if they found seams.

When Plumlee was the recipient of assists or kept the ball himself, he was more efficient than he’s been since his rookie year. He posted an excellent 63.8 true shooting percentage on the strength of shooting 79.8% within 3 feet and 42.2% from 3-10 feet. That all came while being assisted at a similar rate to his career average.

The excellent finishing at the rim was a product of Plumlee mirroring his teammates’ cutting and scoring 1.5 points per possession on those plays, good enough for 88th percentile on what accounted for 22% of his possessions.

Plumlee’s experience and basketball IQ showed on those cutting situations, both as the passer and recipient. His execution sometimes looked awkward, but he understood where he and his teammates needed to be as well as anyone on the roster. And though he was almost certainly a smaller part of the opponents’ game plan, he was a key cog in both initiating and finishing offense.

He also routinely assisted his teammates in his value as a screener. Many of those screens came in dribble hand-off situations where he helped organize the offense and made-on-the-move decisions based on what the defense was taking away. The angles at which he screened helped promote better paths to the basket to the young Pistons as they worked out the nuances of high-level basketball while handling the ball. Even if his efficiency wasn’t at a career-high, the experience he brought was undoubtedly important for the development of a number of Pistons who improved as the year progressed.

Defensively, he also provided value to a young team in directing traffic and communicating for a team that needed louder voices when their opponents had the ball. He certainly has limitations on this end, but his experience alone kept him on the floor for a team who began to build a defensive identity.

The Bad

Plumlee’s defensive limitations are real. He shouldn’t be called a bad defender because of his effort and IQ, but he’s far from a cornerstone on that end.

Although he displayed some unexpected athleticism at times, he couldn’t consistently move fluidly enough in the paint to be a major deterrent at the rim. Opponents shot 61.7% against Plumlee, which is worse than what you would hope for from your center and significantly worse than rookie Isaiah Stewart behind him in the rotation.

Offensively, Plumlee turned the ball over more than you would like given his usage. Some of that is no doubt a product of his many passes through traffic. You can accept some of those, but there were still more than you’d like to see. Then there’s the obvious issue that he can’t create for himself very consistently. When he wasn’t backing opponents down, other attempts to get to the rim on his own often resulted in opponents’ transition opportunities.

This is all to say that Mason Plumlee’s “bad” this year was mostly about the limitations that everyone knew when he was signed last offseason. It was more noticeable at times because he started every game he played, but those limitations are much easier to accept if he’s coming off the bench in the future.

Will He Stay Or Does He Go?

Plumlee should be here to stay... for now.

He was a solid albeit flawed contributor for the Pistons in 2020-21 and can be a useful bridge for Detroit’s youth until they are ready to contend.

It’s fair to assume that Isaiah Stewart will be the starting center next season. If Plumlee is coming off the bench and being paired with players that need the most work, he can be an invaluable asset in assisting in that development. And he can certainly make enough plays to help if Detroit ends up finding themselves in a position where they’re trying hard to win.

With two years left on his contract at roughly $8 million per season, he could also be a valuable expiring contract if the Pistons are looking to make moves beginning next offseason.

Until then, he will provide a valuable veteran presence for a team who looks to be ready to learn how to win.

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