(Stats and some video courtesy of NBA.com, some video courtesy of NBA League Pass)
June 20th, 2017: a day of division among fans of the Atlanta Hawks.
Jubilation and disappointment.
These are the main two emotions felt by Atlanta Hawks fans that day... the day Dwight Howard was traded from the Hawks to the Charlotte Hornets, less than a year after the future Hall of Famer chose to sign with his hometown Hawks in free agency in 2016.
Some were delighted get see the back of Dwight Howard, some were not. It was all very fitting how people viewed his departure from Atlanta because he was as divisive during his one year in Atlanta.
But there was no conflicting opinion about the other big-man involved in this trade: Miles Plumlee. There was a universal and collective groan when it was reported that Miles Plumlee was coming to Atlanta as part of this deal for one reason and that was the presence of his contract.
Plumlee entered this season in the only the second year of a four year, $52 million deal that the Milwaukee Bucks were very generous in handing Plumlee in the infamous salary cap-spike year of 2016.
No matter who you talked to after the Dwight Howard trade there was always one thing that kept coming up when talking about Plumlee coming to Atlanta: ‘Damn, that is a terrible contract’, ‘One of the worst contracts in the league’, ‘Is there any way we can trade this deal??? Please???’ etc.
So, before he has even done/said anything, there’s already a grudge held at Miles Plumlee — because of his contract and how his play doesn’t match that contract — always thinking of ways to ship him to another NBA galaxy far, far away. Away from Atlanta.
Now, let’s get this out there right now: the Miles Plumlee contract is not good. Plumlee doesn’t produce enough on the court to warrant that kind of deal but it’s the deal that was put in front of him: it’s not his fault. You would take it too.
Things didn’t start brilliantly for Plumlee in Atlanta.
On Sept. 5, Plumlee was cited for marijuana possession in New York. Since then, Plumlee has been cleared of these charges but at the time it was a real ‘head-in-hands’ moment for a lot of Hawks fans. A feeling of ‘flip sake, we’re stuck with this for the next three years’, ‘problems off the court and he’s no good on it’ etc... This is generally how Plumlee was viewed: an all-around negative for the Hawks.
When Plumlee did take the court in the preseason against the Miami Heat — in addition to playing very badly — he injured his quad and was subsequently (10 days later) ruled out, initially, for 2-3 weeks.
Plumlee’s recent injury history should be noted here too. In the summer, Plumlee underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and he had missed a ton of games with the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets respectively.
So, overpaid, not healthy and not great on the court initially... A deadly combination, one that got Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons booed at home in the very first game of this season (Parsons has since improved his level of play).
Plumlee eventually made his regular season debut on November 26th in a loss against the Toronto Raptors, scoreless in nine minutes of action.
Under normal circumstances, Plumlee probably wouldn’t feature much/if at all for the Hawks, with Dewayne Dedmon, Ersan Ilyasova, John Collins, Mike Muscala and even Tyler Cavanaugh ahead of him in the rotation.
But the Hawks aren’t, nor haven’t been, operating under normal circumstances this season...
Mike Muscala hasn’t played since November 3rd after suffering an ankle injury — and has faced various complications with that injury since — Ersan Ilyasova has missed time and, right when Plumlee returned to action, Dewayne Dedmon was ruled out for 3-6 weeks with a stress reaction in his left tibia on November 29th and John Collins was ruled out for 1-2 weeks with a shoulder injury he suffered against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As long as you’re healthy and stay ready — even if you’re buried at the end of the bench — there’s always a chance, at some point in the season, when you’ll be called upon because injuries happen. Circumstances change.
After only playing nine and four minutes respectively his first two games, injuries forced Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer to call upon his veteran. In only his third game of the regular season (December 2nd against the Brooklyn Nets), Plumlee was inserted into the starting lineup.
In a matter of days, Plumlee found himself from playing garbage time minutes to starting
Plumlee responded well, scoring and scoring six points while grabbing seven rebounds in 19 minutes.
“... It’s great to see Miles Plumlee get minutes and contribute. A lot of good things: rebounding, blocking shots, finished a couple of plays...” said coach Bud, speaking after that victory against the Nets.
Apart from one game against the Cleveland Cavaliers — where Bud decided to start Tyler Cavanaugh ahead of Plumlee for matchup purposes (wanting to counter Tristan Thompson with Plumlee off the bench) — Plumlee has held down the starting center role since and has played pretty well, especially of late.
We’re going to break down Plumlee’s overall play from his recent games — both sides of the ball and you’re going to be surprised if you haven’t been already by Plumlee’s play.
Let’s start with offense.
Look, we all know who/what Plumlee is offensively. He’s not an offensive juggernaut, he’s not spacing the floor, he’s not stretching the defense with a jumpshot. The important thing is that Plumlee knows who he is offensively.
With Plumlee, it’s all around/near the rim and it’s mostly dunks — 19 of his 27 total field goal makes have been dunks and only seven of his 46 total shot attempts on the season have come from beyond five feet. He knows who he is on offense, unlike the man he was traded for, Dwight Howard, who saw/sees himself as an elite post-up player, which drove many people mad last year.
For the season, Plumlee is averaging 4.4 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting from the field and an average of 3.3 shots per game.
The more and more time that has passed this season, the more and more healthy and spry Miles has looked and it would’ve been easy to forget — with all the injuries and possibly looking at ‘Miles Plumlee, the contract’ and not about ‘Miles Plumlee, the player’ — is that Plumlee is very athletic, explosive.
He’s good at attacking the rim in the pick-and-roll, displaying nice burst and explosion at the rim, including this one vs. Cleveland:
A nice spin and burst from Plumlee, this time against the Miami Heat:
This explosion at the rim — the ability and willingness to take the ball up strong to the rim — (and John Collins has this going for him too because of his ferocity) makes defenders who consider challenging the dunk pull out of any contest they may have been thinking about, and that’s big when you’re opponent gives you that respect. It’s kind of like when people just get out of the way when LeBron James comes steaming down the lane with intentions to dunk, except scaled waaaaaay back... Way back.
Plumlee is also a big man. When you’re that big and take it up with that kind of force, you’re going to think twice about it. This is part of the reason why Plumlee has only missed one dunk this season.
Plumlee also benefits from having players who are able to penetrate/collapse the defense. Here, against Memphis, Kent Bazemore makes a great cut and forces the rim protector (Deyonta Davis) to have to collapse onto him, freeing up Miles Plumlee. Bazemore makes a nice pass and Plumlee finishes with authority:
Again, it’s Kent Bazemore who draws the opposing big (this time it’s Domantas Sabonis) and Baze lays it off to Plumlee for the jam:
Plumlee does a decent job putting himself in the right place to receive the pass, searching for a pocket of space away from the crowd. Look at that play (the Pacers one) and notice how he doesn’t just stand still and wait for the pass, he moves to the optimal spot.
Perhaps this is a better example, most recently vs Dallas:
This isn’t world beating by any means, but it’s the little things that all add up...
The Hawks also have an action they run and Plumlee is a key part of it (yes, the Hawks run plays/a play for Plumlee) and here it is:
Plumlee sets himself baseline, usually near the three-point line. Now, if you’ve seen Plumlee behind the three-point line, I don’t blame you for laughing because he’s obviously not a three-point shooter. But Plumlee, unlike Al Horford in years past — who would set himself up in the corner to take occasional threes — isn’t in/near the corner to shoot threes but he’s usually waiting for a pick-and-roll to collapse the defense and then he cuts to the rim, receives the ball and usually dunks it.
Here’s an example (with Dennis Schröder and Ersan Ilyasova being the pick-and-roll combo to collapse the D):
It’s a very clever play, because the opposing big is more than happy to leave Plumlee lurking near the three-point line, where he poses no threat, and the cut takes the opposition unawares.
It was surprising that they ran this play again (yes, they ran this play more than once in this game) because Gasol blocked it the first time:
It’s the same action that led to the famous ‘Miles Plumlee reverse dunk’ vs. the Pacers: Plumlee sets up on the baseline, pick-and-roll penetration collapses D, Miles cuts for a dunk:
The Hawks also ran a very nice play out of the timeout against the Mavericks that resulted in a Plumlee dunk:
If you haven’t been able to tell — despite his injuries — Plumlee is still athletic, and he’s not as slow/lead-footed as you might think — he’s certainly capable of racing up the floor:
Look at him go! (I was surprised too but his lateral quickness is more so a problem on the defensive end, which we’ll get to)
One thing Plumlee also has going for him that no one else really has on this team is that his body is massive. He is, by far, the chunkiest screen-setter, and this obviously has its uses for his teammates, this one gets Prince separation from his man and he draws the foul:
Here’s a fantastic screen vs. Memphis but it all counts for nought as Bembry lobs it too early and it results in a turnover:
He’s not always the cleanest screener (has been called for quite a few illegal screens) and gets away with a bit of a hold here to free up Dennis Schröder for a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter:
At 6’11”, Plumlee is capable of mixing it up on the offensive glass. This can create some easy offense for himself:
Or create second chance opportunities for his teammates:
Plumlee’s passing has come along nicely too and he seems to have a decent understanding of what the Hawks like to do when it comes to moving the ball.
Here against Miami, Plumlee displays good awareness and vision to recognise the open Taurean Prince in the corner:
Here vs. Indiana, Plumlee — on the move — makes the right play and finds the open DeAndre’ Bembry for three:
This isn’t a regular occurrence for Plumlee (playmaking), but it’s nice to see that he has this in locker and can take it out when the time is right/situation calls for it.
All in all, Plumlee certainly isn’t useless on offense as some might think and provides the Hawks with a different — though, limited — option, a different type of body.
Here’s where Plumlee has been surprising people.
Let’s start with his body: it’s huge. As such, it can take the punishment of opposing bigs banging down low better than anyone else on the Hawks. Look how little ground Marc Gasol makes when trying to back down Plumlee, forcing Gasol to look elsewhere, leading to a turnover:
Not to say Dewayne Dedmon couldn’t defend Gasol in the post, but I’m not sure he’d be as immovable as Plumlee was here.
We’ve established that Plumlee isn’t as slow as you might think but he’s a bit slow on the defensive end and that does prove problematic at times, here, Channing Frye (old man Channing Frye) is able to get the better of Plumlee and scores off of the dribble:
This is definitely Miles’ biggest weakness defensively, the fact that he’s not laterally quick enough to keep up with opponents off of the dribble. But Miles is decently long (seven foot wingspan, not the longest for a 6’11” guy but not completely awful) and can sometimes use this to recover from a slow first step defensively, here vs. Myles Turner:
And here vs. Bam Adebayo:
Miles can be up and down as a help defender. Sometimes he doesn’t recognise that he needs to help before it’s too late, and sometimes it’s great.
Here, Plumlee reacts a little too late to the Mario Chamlers drive and Chalmers already has his shot away by the time Plumlee comes to contest (though Chalmers somehow missed, Davis cleans it up):
Here against the Thunder, Malcolm Delaney (on more than one occasion) had issues guarding Russell Westbrook in the post. Plumlee is looking elsewhere, and doesn’t recognise he needs to help Delaney, after the Westbrook move to the basket, until it’s too late and it’s an easy one for Russ:
But more often than not, Plumlee is alert to the danger is able to help deal with effectively — whether it’s a block or a good contest that deters the shot:
(Borderline goal-tend here on Barnes:)
Here, Dennis Smith Jr. has thunderous intentions but has to adjust mid-dunk when Plumlee comes over to contest instead of making the highlights, it’s a missed layup for DSJ:
One other slight negative for Plumlee defensively: he has a tendency of letting players slip away behind him for ally-oops, it happens more often than you think.
Dallas actually ran this for Maxi Kleber twice and scored twice:
Not sure if better team defense might avoid this, but it always seems to be Miles back-peddling in this situations and getting, somewhat, dunked on.
But this is a minor blot on the defensive copybook, which has been more impressive than you might imagine.
Out of anyone who plays regular minutes for the Hawks, Miles Plumlee has the best defensive rating at 100.8 (the Hawks as a team average a defensive rating of 108.7 per game). But do take that with somewhat of a grain of salt, since Plumlee has played only 14 games and averages just 17.3 minutes per game... At the same time, he’s quite a number of points ahead of the next closest player and even more so when it comes to the next Hawks big (not named Mike Muscala, who hasn’t played for a while).
The on court/off court numbers also tell an interesting story
In terms of plus/minus, the Hawks are plus-1.3 points with Plumlee on the floor. The Hawks are minus+5.4 with Plumlee off the floor.
That’s right, the Hawks are statistically worse when Miles Plumlee isn’t on the floor.
On the floor with Plumlee, the Hawks have a defensive rating of 100.8. With Plumlee off the floor, the Hawks’ defensive rating slides to 110.1 — that may come as a surprise to many of you I’m sure.
Added to that, opponents shoot an average of 9.6% worse than they normally do less than six feet from the rim when Miles Plumlee is guarding them. For reference, opponents shoot 13.5% worse than they normally do six feet or less from the rim when Joel Embiid is guarding them (but, again, take minutes into account).
On the whole, Miles Plumlee’s defense has some shortcomings but has been better than you would think. He shows flashes of a rim protector, contests shots well and he can absorb contact...
And that’s been the story for Plumlee as a whole on both sides of the floor this season: he has been better than you think or even want to admit — he has honestly been solid for the Hawks.
It’s unclear what role he will have when Mike Muscala (seemingly nearing the floor) and Dewayne Dedmon eventually return from their respective injuries. He obviously won’t be starting when Dedmon is fit and firing — in fact, you could argue it’s already quite something he’s starting ahead of John Collins.
Will he go back to being a DNP-CD? Will he see 10 minutes a game? He certainly deserves some court time.
It’s worth pointing out that all of this — while encouraging, while very solid — doesn’t make his contract a good one, and if you’re the Hawks you still try and find a way to move on from it.
But, right now, he isn’t going anywhere. And that’s fine (the Hawks don’t need the cap space until the summer anyways), because Miles Plumlee is having a positive impact on the Atlanta Hawks and not many people could’ve predicted that coming into the season.