Mason Plumlee bullish on what Clippers can achieve in 2023-24

As Mason Plumlee arrived at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center on Friday afternoon and made his way toward the contingent of Clippers executives and coaches seated courtside to watch a Summer League game featuring the Clippers, coach Tyronn Lue was among those to bellow “Welcome back!” to the 6-foot-11 center.

Only days earlier, Plumee’s one-year, $5-million free-agent contract to return to the team that had acquired him from Charlotte at February’s trade deadline had become official. Plumlee returns to a team at a tipping point, still harboring championship ambitions but playing in a Western Conference where they are no longer in the discussion as favorites.

With one eye on winning this season, and a split focus on making a splash entering their new Inglewood arena in 2024, the Clippers will open training camp in October under scrutiny.

After joining the team in February, Plumlee, 33, averaged 7.5 points and shot nearly 73% with 6.9 turnovers in nearly 20 minutes per game. The Clippers spent the first half of last season without a true backup center and didn’t want to repeat that strategy. Signing Plumlee avoided that — welcome back, indeed, for the Clippers.

Plumlee spoke with the Los Angeles Times and other media Friday about his free agency, how the Clippers can be more competitive during the regular season and the team’s roster moves. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For those who have never been through free agency as a player, can you explain what it is like when the time hits and teams can officially begin talking with you?

It’s a lot all at once because, like you said, there’s no communication and then all of a sudden you can talk to people. Just take calls and try to figure out, for me personally the goal was to find the best basketball situation and I feel like I did that and I’m happy to be back.

So in your case this was happening over the phone, not in-person?

Yeah. Some guys you visit in person, other guys you just call them. [Smiles] Low maintenance.

Your agent said you wanted to be on a winner but it sounded like you had other opportunities, so why come back to this team?

Just believing in the roster and having a little bit of playoff experience playing for Ty and the staff. To me, we were playing really well those first couple games even without Paul [George] yet into that and I just have a personal belief in this group and it’s something I wanted to be a part of.

You came to the team at midseason and played 28 games, including playoffs. What do you think an actual training camp to get fully integrated into the group can do you for all?

That stuff always helps. In-season trades aren’t easy. I think for me I had been through one before and so I had the experience and had a better approach this time but to me Bones [Hyland] played well for us but give him a training camp as a younger player; obviously Eric [Gordon] and Russ [Westbrook] played well, but they’re more veteran players so to me having a training camp, having the buildup of the season, can only help.

What did you find that worked playing with the second unit, playing at times as a ball-handler and facilitator?

Just kind of understanding who you’re playing through. Norm [Powell] was awesome for us when those guys went down, he had some really big games and just understand who’s making plays and help them out.

A couple of seasons ago, several Clippers players got together in the offseason and held a retreat. Is there any talk of teammates getting together this offseason this month or next month?

I think stuff like that happens. I know guys were here earlier in the week working out. Some guys will get together in L.A. and other cities, so we’re all in touch and that stuff just happens organically.

This will be your 11th season, you’ve seen a lot, but this season will bring something new in the in-season tournament. How much do you know about the NBA’s new in-season tournament and what do you think it will be like?

To be honest, I remember I was in some of the union meetings when it was proposed pre-COVID, but I really haven’t kept up with it. I think it’s really cool. I know a lot of the inspiration came from some of the European leagues and some other sports, so I think it’s great. I understand we’re playing here in Vegas, right? I think the fan turnout, we know it will be really good and it’ll be something to play for.

The semifinals and final will be played in Las Vegas, while pool-play games will be incorporated into the regular-season schedule.

It puts more emphasis — sometimes 82 games straight of regular-season games to add something to it is good.

As of right now, you guys are essentially bringing back the same roster as last year. Injuries kind of derailed you more than anything. How comfortable are you that you guys can get where you want to as long as you’re healthy?

I mean, we have the talent to do whatever we want to do. Like you said, healthy, play well and give yourselves a chance. That was why I wanted to be back here.

The Clippers added forward K.J. Martin, what do you see from his game?

I know he’s super athletic and I understand he’s shooting the ball well, too, so for me to have him at his position will be a lift.

The team also brought back Russell Westbrook. I’m curious what you think of that.

From the point guard position, you talk about being able to build from training camp, like that stuff at that position will be helpful, too, so he played really well for us and glad he’s back.

Lawrence Frank (Clippers president of basketball operations) said at season’s end he wants the team to take the regular season more seriously. You were only around for a third of last season, so maybe it’s a little unfair to ask you this, but what does that mean to you to take the regular season more seriously?

One of the things that stood out that he said at the end-of-year-meeting, I don’t want to get it wrong, but I don’t think a team has ever won it that’s not a top-three seed, right, so I think throughout the regular season you’re sending messages to teams, other contenders if they’re in the East or teams you may match up with in the playoffs in the West. So, yeah, there’s great importance on the regular season for seeding, but also kind of letting the league know what your mission is this year.

You played with Denver from 2017 to 2020. Was there anything you saw from their championship run this season that you can take away as far as “this is how we need to approach it?”

To me their run like other championship runs as a fan they were solid on so many small things defensively, on offense they knew where they were going with the ball as a team, guys really knew their roles and they played a hell of a playoffs. It was impressive.