October 4, 2018, 6:27 pm
Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.
Player: Meyers Leonard
2018-19 salary: $10,337,079
Age, experience: 25, seventh year
Measureables: 7-foot-1, 255 pounds (7-foot-3 wingspan)
Strengths: 3-point shooting, strength, size
Weaknesses: rebounding, defensive versatility, awareness, ball skills
Swing factor: spot-up 3-point shooting
Likely role: starting forward, stopper of opposing guards
If there‘s one player to gain anything positive from the Portland Trail Blazers being swept out of the playoffs last spring against the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s probably Meyers Leonard. Not because the veteran big man, who fell out of Terry Stotts’ rotation during the regular season, did anything especially notable in his brief time on the floor, either. As Damian Lillard was swallowed by New Orleans’ aggressive ball-screen defense and help defenders cheated away from their individual assignments to muck up that action, clogging the paint to prevent dribble penetration and pocket passes to Jusuf Nurkic or Ed Davis, it became more apparent than ever the Blazers needed a big man who could stretch the floor. Leonard certainly fits that bill, and after Neil Olshey spent the offseason stressing time and again Portland’s plan to re-shape its offensive attack in 2018-19, it seems he’ll be given a chance to live up to it.
Leonard appeared in just 33 games last season, supplanted by Nurkic after the 2016-17 trade deadline and later beaten out by rookie Zach Collins as Davis’ partner in bench-heavy units. He was always over-stretched as a part-time starter, too one-dimensional offensively to be a focal point and too mediocre defensively to be a back-line anchor. Leonard is probably past the point of making the progress necessary to resurface as a player capable of starting in a pinch, but that hardly means he can’t be of some marginal use to the Blazers, or any team that wants to juice its offense when going to the bench.
He shot an uninspiring 36.5 percent on catch-and-shoot triples two seasons ago, and went 11-of-25 last year – not close to a big enough sample size to glean meaningful conclusions about any potential improvement. There’s clear utility in Leonard’s presence anyway, though, because defenses routinely treat him like a better shooter than he’s proven to be thus far. Acting the part of a marksman, letting fly from deep with confidence most every time an opportunity presents itself, is often nearly as good as actually being one. If Leonard shoots somewhere near 40 percent from three at a high rate of attempts, it will be hard for Stotts to leave him on the bench again for another full season.
Of course, individual performance isn’t the only factor that decides playing time. In Collins, the Blazers have the rough outline of a big man that’s both everything Leonard is and everything he isn’t. The 20 year old is an emerging 3-point shooter, capable switch defender and precocious rim-protector, with the dogged demeanor necessary to play bigger than his slim frame suggests. He gives Portland options on defense Leonard simply doesn’t, and adds an additional element of dynamism on the other end due to his comfort putting the ball on the deck. Should Collins shoot in games like he does in practice, the Blazers would be best served doling out frontcourt minutes among Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Collins alone, with Moe Harkless getting spot minutes at power forward.
More realistically, Stotts’ nine or 10-man rotation will include four true big men, meaning Leonard will be fighting with Caleb Swanigan for the final spot in that quartet. Most likely to decide that battle: How Portland values Leonard’s stretch versus Swanigan’s rebounding. For two straight seasons, the Blazers’ offensive rebounding rate has cratered with Leonard on the floor, an especially discouraging stat considering he played center for a vast majority of his minutes in 2017-18. That’s a necessary byproduct of putting a stretch five without ball skills or a post game on the floor, but only to an extent. Leonard’s game is too predictable; he needs to mix in hard dives and short rolls with pops to the arc after setting screens on the ball. Swanigan has that ability in theory, and if he fulfills it, a semi-threatening three ball would be the only thing keeping him from easily beating out Leonard.
At approximately $11 million over the next two seasons, Leonard’s contract might be Portland’s most debilitating given his price tag and chances of making a tangible impact. Does that mean he doesn’t deserve a place in the league? No. A player with Leonard’s sheer size and shooting ability will always have a roster spot if healthy. Affording Leonard a role much bigger than that, however, is a situation most teams, the Blazers included, would ideally avoid.