These two top competitors for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference will therefore exchange centers in a move that signals their interest in pursuing that seed. At 24-30, Denver is currently a game ahead of Portland for that slot. Neither team has any reasonable chance at moving above the No. 8 seed.
The Nuggets are aiming to make the playoffs now in acquiring Plumlee and dealing that first-round pick. That Grizzlies’ first-round pick, acquired from Cleveland in a 2015 trade for Timofey Mozgov, is only top-five protected, so it will convey this year. The Nuggets still possess their own 2017 first-round pick.
Portland, meanwhile, now has three first-round picks — theirs, Memphis’, and Cleveland’s — in the 2017 draft, along with Nurkic, a third-year center who has lost playing time with Nikola Jokic’s emergence.
But why would two teams within a game in the standings make a deal with each other?
Why Denver makes this deal
The Nuggets want that No. 8 seed and are willing to upgrade their rotation now to get it done. Plumlee is durable, having started every game since the beginning of last season. He’s averaging 11 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes per game this year and is one of the league’s best passing big men. He could even play with Jokic in bigger lineups.
For now, he’s an upgrade on Nurkic, who has seen his standing within the organization fall with Jokic’s rise. The Nuggets attempted to play Nurkic and Jokic together to start the season, but that didn’t work. They then tried starting Nurkic over Jokic for a stretch, but that didn’t work, either. Nurkic has been a reserve ever since. He’s averaging eight points and six rebounds in 18 minutes per game.
The first-round pick may seem like a heavy price to pay to make this swap, but it will likely be a late first-rounder with Memphis headed for the playoffs, and Denver still has its own pick. Plus, they’ll receive what could be a nice second-round pick in 2018.
Why Portland makes this deal
Blame the predicament Portland put itself in last summer. The Blazers doled out massive long-term deals to C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard. That means they couldn’t afford to re-sign Plumlee, a restricted free agent after this season, without going deep into the luxury tax. Plumlee is a decent player, but it would have been hard for the Blazers to justify paying him and incurring those financial penalties.
Instead, they’ll take Nurkic, a sturdy low-post presence who might improve with a better opportunity to play. Most importantly, Nurkic has another year left on his rookie salary of $2.9 million, which is significantly less than Plumlee would command.
Portland also receives a third first-round pick in a loaded draft. Their own selection could be a lottery pick, and they’ll also have two late first-rounders from Memphis and Cleveland. General manager Neil Olshey has always valued the draft, having discovered McCollum, Crabbe, Leonard, Eric Bledsoe, and Will Barton with picks below No. 10 during his career.