February 3, 2019, 6:30 pm
The most surprising aspect of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season to date has been the significance of Meyers Leonard. Almost completely forgotten following a 2017-18 campaign in which he notched more DNP-CDs than court appearances, he’s nevertheless emerged as a cog of Terry Stotts’ rotation, sometimes even playing ahead of promising sophomore big man Zach Collins. Leonard’s been almost shockingly effective relative to expectations, too, draining 46.7 percent of his three-point attempts while emerging as a dangerous aerial threat in both the halfcourt and transition. The seventh-year vet has 38 dunks through 48 games, putting him on pace to easily eclipse his career-high mark set as a rookie.
But it’s indicative of Portland’s inherent ceiling that Leonard is in position to be getting consistent minutes at all. Neil Olshey talked all summer about the need for his team play a more modern style this season on both sides of the ball. The biggest reason why the coaching staff has been unable to implement those desired changes on a broad scale is because the Blazers still rotate three seven-footers, each of whom is best utilized playing center.
Rodney Hood‘s acquisition could be what forces Stotts to right that wrong. He’s much better with the ball in his hands than Portland’s incumbent wings, comfortable running second-side pick-and-rolls and creating his own offense late in the shot clock. Hood is a more threatening long-range shooter than either Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless, even if his numbers this season – including 33.3 percent on catch-and-shoot triples, a career low – tell a different story. He rarely gets to the line, frequently avoiding contact in the paint, but has the length and touch to finish around the rim when the defense is scrambling.
Hood is just a far more complete player offensively than Aminu, Harkless, or Jake Layman. His lack of a singular elite skill matters less to the Blazers than it does his previous teams, who often asked Hood to masquerade as a primary playmaker. He’s far better suited to a complementary role, one that magnifies the strengths of a jack of all trades.
It’s unclear for now where Stotts plans on slotting him into the rotation, but it goes without saying Portland didn’t make this trade to give Hood the departed Nik Stauskas‘ spot on the bench. Aminu’s defensive versatility and overall energy is indispensable to this team, and the pressure Layman puts on the rim as a cutter, straight-line driver, and transition finisher – even when his jumper isn’t falling – has proven the same. The most common immediate assumption among team followers is that Harkless, who’s yet to regain last season’s form while continuing to deal with nagging knee pain, will be the odd man out as 2018-19 continues. Ongoing struggles from three-point range, albeit on a small sample size, decrease his value exponentially, especially with Evan Turner capable of checking star opposing forwards when Aminu is on the bench.
But what if the Blazers went a different direction entirely, in hopes of living up to offseason promises of increased pace and space, plus an additional dose of switching defensively? Portland hasn’t had a surplus of viable wings on the roster in a long time. It would be a crime to not take advantage, particularly because Leonard, admirable as he’s played this season, isn’t exactly an essential component of the Blazers’ present and future. Lineups featuring he and Collins have barely broken even this season, and Stotts has all but completely abandoned units that slot him next to Jusuf Nurkic up front. Leonard’s size is more optical than functional, too. His utter lack of rim-protecting ability instincts means he’s normally chasing power forwards, leaving Collins as the last line defense, and it’s not like he’s beasting on the block offensively.
Dangers of Hood taking Leonard’s place in the rotation rather than Harkless’ are two-fold: the frustrating penchant of Nurkic and Collins to get into foul trouble, and a question of whether or not the latter rebounds well enough to play center close to full-time. The first issue would be summarily addressed by dusting off Leonard for spot minutes should their propensity for fouling befall Nurkic or Collins. Simple. The next one is more complicated. The Blazers’ defensive rebounding rate with Collins manning the middle is 70.1 percent, per NBA.com/stats, worse than the Sacramento Kings’ 27th-ranked mark. Might tradeoffs of increased tempo, an additional ball handler, and the option to switch across multiple positions be worthwhile, though? The supposedly imminent stylistic tweaks Olshey, and to a lesser extent Stotts, championed throughout the offseason certainly suggests they think so.
This would be a somewhat radical development, to be clear. Giving Hood a lion’s share or all of Harkless’ minutes would be the most seamless way to integrate him without rocking a steady boat. The Blazers are 32-20, fourth in a stacked Western Conference, after all, playing their best basketball of the season just before Stotts’ teams normally reach their peak. Maybe we still haven’t seen Portland at its best.
But even should that prove the case, would it meaningfully increase the Blazers’ chances of winning a playoff series? Overcoming realities of this roster’s limits means confronting them head on, and shuffling in Hood for Harkless while maintaining the status quo doesn’t qualify. The chief means behind Portland’s recent improvement offensively has been a greater emphasis on ball movement and pace in the halfcourt. Why not lean even further into that strategy by moving Leonard one spot down the bench and embracing small-ball full-go?
It would amount to a major change for the Blazers, one that indeed carries some measure of risk. But considering the realities of its current place in the conference pecking order, Portland doesn’t have much to lose, either.