Miles Plumlee is probably the player on the Atlanta Hawks roster that fans are least enthusiastic about seeing play this season. That probably has more to do with his contract than his actual basketball skill set and there seems to be an assumption that he will play behind Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala at the center position for all of the 2017-18 season. That may or may not be true.
If the Hawks want to rehabilitate his value, he is going to have to play. If the plan is to potentially move Dedmon at the trade deadline, it could open an opportunity for Plumlee to play regularly down the stretch as to position him for a potential trade next summer.
Regardless of what you think of his contract, Plumlee is an NBA player. Or at least he was a year ago when he signed a contract with the Milwaukee Bucks for 4 years and 50 million dollars. The contract may appear to be an albatross now, but consider that last summer Joakim Noah, Bismack Biyombo, Timofey Mozgov and Iam Mahimi signed more lucrative contracts than did Plumlee.
Last summer, Plumlee was coming off of his best NBA season. Early in his career, the Phoenix Suns tried to groom him toward being a starting NBA center. In his second season in the league, he started 79 games and averaged 24.6 minutes per game for a Suns team that exceeded expectations and won 48 games. He led the team in rebounds and blocks and had a team best individual defensive rating and the second best defensive box plus-minus per basketballreference.com. The Suns had the 13th best defensive rating that season and Plumlee was their starting center.
Fast forward to the 2015-16 season and Plumlee was settling into a backup role after the Bucks spent big money to acquire Greg Monroe. He played in 64 games averaging 14.3 minutes per game and played only 90 minutes fewer than John Henson despite the fact that Henson had agreed to a 4-year, $44 million dollar extension with the Bucks prior the start of the season. Monroe, Henson and Plumlee largely combined to make up a 3-man big rotation with some of the Bucks combo forwards playing up to the power forward position at times. Over the season, it became increasingly clear that the Bucks struggled to rebound the basketball when Henson played at center.
Plumlee improved offensively to the point that he had a career best 13 points per 36 minutes and a career best field goal percentage of 60.1. Prior to that season, he had never reached even 55% shooting from the field. When considering his improvement as an offensive player and his impressive mobility and vertical ability for a player his size, the Bucks decided to invest in him with the four year contract. And the Bucks, lead by the head coach Jason Kidd, have seemingly struggled to make sense of the front court rotation since.
Last season, the Bucks found themselves in 9th place in a weak Eastern Conference at the end of January but their young starting power forward Jabari Parker was having a break out season. Knowing they would need cap space to try to secure Parker with an extension to his rookie scale contract prior to October 31, it became clear that if an opportunity to move Monroe, Henson or Plumlee became available it would be wise to do so.
Meanwhile in Charlotte, the Hornets were struggling to make progress in securing a playoff spot after winning 48 games and tying for the third best record in the Eastern Conference during the 2015-16 season. They played a 5 game stretch in early January without their starting center, Cody Zeller, in which they went 1-4. As they hit the end of January it became clear that Zeller might have to miss extended time and frankly they were a terrible team when their starting center was not on the court.
On February 2nd, the Bucks found the opportunity to move one of their expensive big men and traded Plumlee to the team with whom they were fighting for playoff positioning, the Hornets. The Bucks acquired Roy Hibbert, who was on an expiring contract, and Spencer Hawes who had a player option for the 2017-18 season of just 6 million dollars.
Plumlee had been struggling offensively which could be understandable with both Giannis Antentokounpmo and Parker reaching new levels of offensive usage and production. Even Greg Monroe was putting his offensive game back together but the Bucks at that point had played their best on the defensive end of the court when Plumlee played at center.
The plan that each team had in mind when this trade was made went completely haywire for both teams as the season progressed. Although the Bucks played well down the stretch and eventually earned a playoff bid, Jabari Parker went down with a second serious knee injury 8 days after the trade.
Plumlee struggled to stay healthy and struggled even more to adjust to the Hornets defensive scheme. The Bucks play an unconventional defensive scheme based upon trapping and taking risks in an effort to create turnovers and opportunities to initiate transition offense.
Plumlee’s mobility and athleticism worked well in that scheme. The Hornets defensive scheme is based upon the Van Gundy principles of always staying true to the defensive techniques and never taking the risk of giving up an easy basket by gambling for a steal.
One can see what the Hornets were trying to accomplish. Plumlee had always been good in the offensive pick and roll action and one of the things Charlotte missed most when Zeller was not available was a pick and roll partner for their all-star point guard Kemba Walker. But he seemingly never earned the trust of head coach Steve Clifford on the defensive end of the court and Plumlee’s spot in the Hornets rotation and his value as an NBA player sunk to a new low.
Now, the five-year veteran former first round draft pick is with the Hawks basically so that Dwight Howard is not.
If Plumlee is to earn playing time in a front court filled with other established NBA players, it will have to start with his exceptional ability to operate in pick and roll action. But he is going to have to put in some serious work to make progress with his defensive fundamentals and demonstrate an improved level of defensive discipline.
He is a naturally gifted rebounder and uses his explosive vertical skills when the opportunities to do so are presented. But both Dedmon and Muscala will be ready to execute the Hawks defensive scheme from the very start of the season.
Plumlee faces an uphill battle to rebuild his reputation in a league in which traditional centers are in decreasing demand. But his combination of size, mobility and athleticism are still quite unique. (He and John Collins will make it worth the effort to get to the arena early enough to see them warm up in the layup/dunk line.)
If Plumlee allows himself to be coached and responds to the challenge of playing with increased discipline, his contract next summer might look more favorable than it does now. And that would be a victory for both player and team.