After a frustrating rookie season for Miles Plumlee, in which he appeared in only 15 games for the Indiana Pacers after being drafted with the 26th pick, he managed to find some reclamation after being jettisoned to the Phoenix Suns. Traded along with Gerald Green and a future first round pick in exchange for Luis Scola, Plumlee enjoyed a successful sophomore campaign that saw him start 80 games while averaging 11.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, shooting 51.7% from the floor in just over 24 minutes per game.
This season, however, Plumlee has seen a decrease in both minutes played and production this season. With rumors swirling that he is available for a first round pick, why has he fallen out of favor so quickly in Phoenix?[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”537″ title=”More Player Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Plumlee has seen a decline in his offensive production this season, as he has moved down the pecking order this year offensively. While never the focal point of the Suns offense last season, he did see his fair share of possessions, posting a 16.2% usage rate that has gone down to just 11.2% this year. His per-36 production levels are down across the board as well, as seen in the below chart from Basketball-Reference.
Season Age Tm G GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB BLK PF PTS 2013-14 25 PHO 80 79 1964 5.2 10.1 .517 5.2 10.1 .517 1.4 2.4 .561 3.6 7.8 11.5 1.6 3.4 11.8 2014-15 26 PHO 45 25 863 4.0 7.0 .565 4.0 7.0 .565 0.7 1.4 .500 3.5 6.3 9.8 1.8 3.5 8.6
One of the reasons for Plumlee’s struggles on the offensive end is his inability to find an area in which he can consistently contribute. It would take a major overhaul to his skill set to become a floor spacer; he took only 80 shots from mid-range and beyond last season, and has taken just 19 more so far this season. Concurrently, he hasn’t turned into an elite finisher around the basket. If he can’t stretch the floor and he can’t finish at the rim, he doesn’t provide much value in terms of production or spacing to an offense, which is why his offensive role has steadily diminished.
These shot charts show this decline around the rim this season within the restricted area. It’s possible those numbers increase as the season moves on, as there isn’t anything noticeable that he is doing differently this year that is decreasing his effectiveness in the restricted area. But for now, the numbers are down a significant amount (click to expand).
Furthermore, Plumlee’s NBA.com shotcharts (2013-14 on the left) shows his barely above league average finishing around a larger area near the rim, which is concerning for a big man. He especially struggles when challenged by a rim protector, as he isn’t strong enough to finish through contact or explosive enough to elevate over the defender for a clean look. The amount of green in his 2014/15 would seem promising were it not coming in so few attempts, which speak to how limied Plumlee’s range really is.
To get him involved offensively last season, Phoenix liked to get Plumlee the ball on the block in post-up situations, and he seemed to take defenders by surprise in the early part of the season with his competent post moves, as seen here against Enes Kanter and here against Tim Duncan. Plumllee likes to become a face-up post-up player, but while he has solid footwork, it isn’t good enough to get an easy shot or it takes a ton of work to get a good look at the rim. Once defenses caught on to this tendency, they were able to slow him down and force him into tough looks away from the rim. His post struggles have continued this year, and Phoenix has stopped using him this way on a regular basis. While he still exhibits some brief flashes of potential, the book seems to be out on his limitations in this area, which helps the defense force him into tough shots. Plumlee could become a player you could give a handful of post-ups to per game and get a few scoring opportunities, perhaps, but not someone who can be relied upon to get a basket when called upon.
Plumlee has the potential to be a useful pick and roll player, as he sets solid ball screens and rolls to the rim hard, which could open up opportunities. However, he doesn’t seem to fit with the guards of the Suns, which makes the action easy to defend. Defenses know that two of the Suns’ main attackers, Eric Bledsoe (30.9% from 3) and Goran Dragic (34.8% from 3) want to penetrate to the rim, while Plumlee is no threat to pick and pop. This allows them to play a soft, drop-back defense on these ball screens and clog the lane, as we see here by the Raptors. With different guards around him, the defensive focus would have to shift a little with the threat of a three point shot, which could open up more roll opportunities for Plumlee. But unless he becomes a threat to take the jumpshot himself – which, as seen above, is highly unlikely – he is not nearly as effective in a pick-and-roll set with the Suns guards as, say, the Morris twins are.
To some degree, however, Plumlee can work in an offense, and Phoenix loves running this play out of a Horns set to utilize his skill of screen setting. With his ability to take out the defender, it opens up easy lanes to the rim for him. The Suns let Plumlee move along the baseline to let him probe the floor while finding open spots for dump-offs or offensive rebounds. While this can work for short bursts, however, over a longer period of time the spacing becomes too congested, especially with the wrong personnel around Plumlee, as seen in the frame below.
This takes away driving lanes for Bledsoe, Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, hurting the effectiveness of the offense. The chart below summarizes the effectiveness of these three guards around the rim based on whether Plumlee is on/off the court.
Bledsoe: Plumlee on (57.4%), Plumlee off (61.6%)
Dragic: Plumlee on (36.5%), Plumlee off (46.7%)
Thomas: Plumlee on (26.1%), Plumlee off (29%)
Bledsoe and Dragic are both near the top in terms of drives per game, so it is critical that the paint is open for them to get to the rim. With Plumlee on the court, that area can get congested, which can lead to the decrease in effectiveness around the rim. This adds up to a 106.5 offensive rating when Plumlee is on the court and 107.6 when he is on the bench.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”suns” title=”More Phoenix Suns articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Defensively, Plumlee plays hard but is at an athletic disadvantage against most other centers he faces on a nightly basis. He isn’t a great rim protector, in part due to his average seven foot wingspan, as opponents are shooting 53.9% at the rim against him according to SportVU, one of the worst marks for big men. His lateral quickness is slow, which hurts him when trying to contain dribble penetration, even when sagging off ball screens. He is constantly putting forth effort on this end and makes proper rotations, which can help make up for some of his other deficiencies, yet he lacks any one physical advantage.
While Plumlee hasn’t played himself into a more major role this season, part of the reason he hasn’t gotten more of a chance is his inability to fit alongside Alex Len, who the Suns clearly see as a part of their future. The Plumlee/Len combo has only been on the floor for three total minutes, a sign that Hornacek agrees on their lack of fit, especially offensively. With Len out half the season last year due to injury, Plumlee was able to take advantage of the extra minutes, but hasn’t been as ingrained in the rotation with Len in the mix. Len has improved greatly and the Suns are giving him as many minutes as he can handle, hoping he can turn into a franchise cornerstone. Plumlee, then, is the odd man out.
All of this is not to say that Plumlee isn’t a NBA rotation player. Players of his size aren’t readily available, especially those who are willing and able to fill the role of rebounder, screener and hard worker. What Plumlee will need to show is that he has additional skills to become a more well-rounded player while finding a niche offensively. It’s possible Phoenix is not the right fit for him, and a new team could better utilize his skills. At 26, his ceiling is limited, but there have been enough signs to suggest a career as a bench big man in a NBA rotation is still ahead of him. It just might not be here.