PORTLAND — Nuggets reserve big man Mason Plumlee can’t tell you how many points he’s scoring, how many rebounds he’s hauling in or how many shots he’s altering this season.
Truthfully, he doesn’t really care.
All Plumlee cares about is winning, which is often more a noble goal than a reality. But with Plumlee and the 14-7 Nuggets, it’s authentic. Asked about his super-sub role and why he never rocks the boat even while playing just 17 minutes, Plumlee explained the team’s goals are more important to him than anything else.
“I think the biggest thing is that we’re winning and we’re playing well,” said Plumlee, who was acquired in 2017 from the Trail Blazers in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick. “And also, not just that, not just the record now, but also the potential of this team and what we can do in the bigger picture. So, to me, the excitement of that is bigger than an individual role.”
His selflessness, not surprisingly, has endeared him to his teammates and gotten the attention of opposing coaches.
“I think Mason is the most underrated player in the league, the way how he protects the paint, aggressiveness,” Nikola Jokic said. “He cannot shoot, but he’s doing everything else.”
Plumlee’s mid-range shooting remains a work in progress, but he’s become devastating near the hoop and has the highest field-goal percentage on the team at 61 percent. He’s especially dangerous in pick-and-roll situations with point guard Monte Morris, in part because he’s finally healthy after battling a core muscle injury that he played through last season. When Morris penetrates and draws both defenders, Plumlee instinctively knows to look for the alley-oop lob.
“Party time,” Morris calls it.
Plumlee’s modest stats — 7.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game — belie his true impact. Lakers coach Luke Walton called Plumlee a problem prior to their recent visit to the Pepsi Center.
“Plumlee is one of the best backup bigs, I mean he’s really a starting big,” Walton said. “He’s just in their second unit, but he’s huge for how that second unit succeeds.”
The Nuggets’ bench, led by Plumlee and Morris, is tied for the second-highest plus-minus in the NBA at 3.2 points per game, and individually, Plumlee has the highest net-rating on the team. That’s despite drawing defensive assignments against MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
“We have him guard whoever we feel is giving us the most trouble because he has the size, the physicality and the mindset to go out there and attack that challenge,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
Malone meant no disrespect to recent Sixth Man of the Year winners Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Jamal Crawford when he floated Plumlee’s name as a candidate earlier this week; he’s also not naïve to think that someone with his stats will win the award.
“That award always goes to the highest scorer off the bench, and it really should be more about the impact,” Malone said. “Forgetting about all the awards and all that other BS, Mason’s been great for us, and that’s all that really matters. He’s been a huge impact off the bench for us, and I want to try to get him more minutes, but it’s so hard when you’ve got Paul (Millsap) and Nikola, who are also playing well.”
Malone respects Plumlee’s selfless attitude, while Plumlee is eager to be a part of something bigger.
“It makes me feel appreciated in my role,” Plumlee said of his coach’s endorsement.
The Nuggets, riding a four-game winning streak heading into Friday night’s game at Portland, are one of the deepest and most potent teams in the NBA. Their starters have a good mix of veteran savvy in addition to burgeoning star power, but it’s their never-ending pool of talented reserves that has often been the difference this season.
Malone said Plumlee’s attitude has made his job significantly easier.
“People forget, Mason was a starter on a playoff team (in Portland), and here he is playing maybe 18 minutes a night but there’s never any complaining, there’s never any pouting,” Malone said. “Mason goes, ‘You know what, we have a chance to be a special team. I’m gonna do my part.’ I think it’s a great example for our young players, and it’s also kind of an embodiment of the culture we’re trying to create.”
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