Yesterday afternoon the Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic and their 2017 first round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee and a 2018-second round pick, a move that hurts their long-term interest in favor of short-term mediocrity. The Nuggets last made the playoffs in 2013, when they lost in the first round against the then-burgeoning Golden State Warriors. Since then, the national spotlight has looked at the team and shrugged its shoulders as the Nuggets languished not just in record but in attendance, where they’ve finished 19th, 27th, and 30th in the past three years—an embarrassment which the Kroenke family evidently wants to fix before getting to the team’s long-term success.
At 24-30, the Nuggets sit at eighth in the Western Conference and Mason Plumlee will undoubtedly help them stay there. A significantly better passer and overall better player than Nurkic, whose -10.3 net rating was disastrous for a player averaging 18 minutes per game, Plumlee can slide right into bench units. Denver hopes his passing will spark the offense when Nikola Jokic sits—the Nuggets are top-10 in assist percentage this year, but when Nurkic played without Jokic that changed dramatically. Their most-played lineup this season with Nurkic and without Jokic has a lowly 35.8 assist percentage, which would rank dead last in the league by a longshot. If you only look at lineups without Jokic, the shift is less drastic, but the on/off numbers still show a difference of nearly 10 percent. Denver, rightfully, is optimistic that will change with Plumlee, whose 21.4 assist percentage blows away Nurkic’s 11.0 percent. With Plumlee on the court, Portland assists 58.4 percent of their baskets—better than with any other individual. Switch him out with Nurkic and Denver can breathe easy with Jokic off the court, knowing the ball will keep whizzing around the interior without the flashy Serbian out there. Mike Malone can even feel comfortable putting the two together—in 108 minutes, this year; Jokic and Nurkic have a -15.6 net rating. Spacing will still be an issue with Jokic and Plumlee—though Jokic is at a cool 36.3 percent from 3 and getting better by the month—but Plumlee is more developed than Nurkic. Even at age 26, he’s an old man in some of Denver’s lineups. In the short-term, this helps Denver makes the playoffs—especially given that a competitor is on the other end of the deal.
But in the long-term? Both players are on rookie deals, but Plumlee is a restricted free agent after this season. After recent cap spikes, he could easily command $18 million a year, in the same range as Greg Monroe, Joakim Noah and Ian Mahinmi. Nurkic is 22, has an extra year on his deal and won’t command as much in the open market without a big improvement over the next year. Moreover, Denver also gave a first rounder from Memphis. Even if they make the playoffs as the #8 seed, that pick is probably around #20 in a stacked draft. Harry Giles, Ike Anigbogu and OG Anuoby on rookie deals are all worth more than Mason Plumlee is in the long term. Portland gets that—they now have three picks in this draft: their own, Memphis’ and Cleveland’s, a good way to start making up for the slew of horrific deals they signed this offseason. If they make the playoffs, Denver will get two games of ticket revenue and some national exposure, but it won’t move them any closer to winning a championship. The Nuggets have the pieces to be a title contender in a few years—Jokic is every bit as good as Kristaps Porzingis but fails to get the same attention because he plays for Denver, Jamal Murray has flashed this year despite tailing off recently and there’s still hope for Mudiay. However, their core is still raw—there’s a lot of building left to do and a lot of questions to be answered—namely those surrounding Mudiay. I’m not against trading Nurkic—there probably wasn’t room for him long-term anyway—but a first rounder is a lot to pay when you consider the cap space Denver will have to devote to Plumlee. Even if they manage to offload Kenneth Faried’s 4-year, $50 million deal, which sporadically pops up in trade rumors every few months, there’s no point in handicapping themselves in free agency for players who, ultimately, won’t be a deciding factor in whether or not they eventually compete for a title. Yet, the Nuggets continue to chase short-term mediocrity at the expense of long-term gain. We saw it this summer when they tried to sign Dwyane Wade and we’re seeing it again now.
All stats are from NBA.com or basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted
 Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nurkic