The offseason is over (thank goodness!), but there is still one decision left hanging over the head of GM Neil Olshey. What to do with the options for CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard?
The general consensus seems to be that keeping CJ is a no brainer and that Meyers will get his option picked up at the expense of TRob - the difference in their contracts being the deciding factor. I agree that the decision to pick up CJ's option is obvious, but the perspective on the bigs is quite a development. Just a few months ago many fans (including myself) had written off Leonard and were practically giddy about the potential of Robinson building off his energetic performance in the playoffs.
These ups and downs are typical of most prospects. When players get drafted, they usually have a few strengths that a GM is confident will translate to the NBA. This is what gets them picked in the first place. Most also have some weaknesses that teams hope the player can improve on. What I mean by these absurdly obvious statements is that every player has a specific skill or skills that gets them on the court in the first place. From there, it is up to the player to fix their weaknesses in order to earn regular minutes. Some players fail to translate their core strengths at the NBA level (see: Adam Morrison), while many more prove unable to shore up their weaknesses in order to get established.
Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson fall strongly into the second group, as both have demonstrated the strengths that made them lottery picks in the first place, but continue to make far too many mistakes. Last year, Meyers' mistakes were much more glaring and frequent, but he may have caught up to Robinson over the summer.
Leonard quietly improved his rebounding last year, grabbing a higher percentage of rebounds than LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez and ranking second on the team behind Robinson. Now, the Blazers as a whole were still a worse rebounding team with Meyers on the floor, but it's unfair to describe him as a total liability on the glass. Where he really remained far behind Robinson was on the defensive end. Both players made plenty of mistakes, but Leonard's were often inexcusable and occasionally laughable.
This preseason, he appears to have closed the gap. Leonard has finally figured out the Blazers conservative scheme (for the most part) and has brought his fouling down to a reasonable (although still problematic) rate. He still has too many mental lapses, but these have been less frequent and are slowly becoming the exception rather than the rule. Both players still have a long way to go, and I would still probably take Robinson if all I needed was a stop, but it is now incorrect to describe Robinson as a significantly better defensive player.
Still, it's difficult to compare the two because Robinson's mistakes have always had a different character and cause. Instead of the game moving too fast for Thomas, Thomas moves too fast for the game. Robinson was often overly aggressive on closeouts and jumpy when covering players on the perimeter. This made it easy for players to fake Robinson out of position, putting the Blazers' defense in a compromised position. We haven't seen enough of Robinson in the preseason to know if he too has improved, but his lack of playing time doesn't give us much reason to hope.
With Meyers shrinking the gap on the defensive end, his offensive superiority has shined through. Thomas struggled on offense in both big ways and small last year. His shaky jumper and hopeless spins towards the rim stand out but, maybe more importantly, the ball sticks when he's on the floor. Robinson could improve a lot by mimicking his long-haired and enigmatic teammate who manages to keep the offense moving despite similar offensive limitations.
If you've ever watched Robin Lopez on the perimeter you may have noticed how rarely he faces up. He knows that he doesn't have the ability to dribble so, unless he's looking for the quick entry pass to Aldridge, Robin elects to either swing the ball immediately or dibble sideways towards the nearest player for a dribble hand-off. This gets the ball back in the hands of a more dangerous offensive player and keeps the defense from resetting.
When Thomas catches the ball on the perimeter, he often faces up with a dribble or a few jab steps before passing the ball. This interrupts the flow of the offense and allows the defense to reset. The percentage of Blazer buckets that were assisted fell five percent when Robinson was on the court - the worst mark of anyone on the team (according to Basketball-Reference.com). With Meyers, the team's assist rate stayed about the same (although most of his minutes were with other garbage time players so the assist numbers may not mean much). Meyers has often displayed a decent passing ability for a big man and along with his outside shooting, he may already be an average offensive player, something Robinson can't yet claim to be.
By shrinking the gap on defense and maintaining his offensive advantage, Meyers seems to have overtaken Robinson as the better overall player. Given that Leonard's mix of strengths and weaknesses are also a better fit for the Blazers' power forward position, it's no wonder he's moved ahead of Robinson in the depth chart as well.
However, in a somewhat counter intuitive way, it is exactly this idea of fit that provides the strongest rationale for keeping Robinson. Namely, by doubling down on a particular style of play you exacerbate both the strengths and the weaknesses of that style.
One of the major weaknesses the Blazers have is defending three point shooting big men and it was particularly apparent during the last preseason game against the Clippers. The Blazers typical pick and roll coverage is called "Blue", where the big drops and the guard forces the ball away from the middle. The color changed when defending pick and rolls with Spencer Hawes as coach Terry Stotts would yell "Black" from the bench, indicating the Blazers should switch. This leads to mismatches but keeps a player attached to the big man at all times preventing the 3-pointer.
In this clip, you can hear Stotts (or one of the assistants) yelling "Black" followed by Leonard lunging towards the shooter, realizing he's missed his assignment.
Given how long it's taken Meyers to learn the mental side of the Blazers' main pick and roll coverage, it's not surprising he struggles when asked to do something different in a game. However, even when he executes the scheme correctly it's tough for him to prevent a good look.
As you can see, Meyers is still not a good defender, especially when asked to execute variations on the Blazers core principles. But his grasp of those core principles has gotten better and he's no longer a walking defensive breakdown.
The real problem is that, for all of our rotation big men, switching might be a better option than trying to defend the three with our typical scheme.
Chris Kaman just doesn't have the speed to drop back, corral the ball handler and then take away the three while preventing the drive.
That's where Robinson comes in. TRob has elite speed for a man his size and, with a lot of seasoning and improved footwork, could be one of the best in the league at defending pick and pop shooters. Zach Lowe touched on this in his discussion of Robinson, but I think he understated how critical it is. Switching the screen wasn't disastrous against the Jordan Farmar/Spencer Hawes pairing, but it will be against the Spurs, Mavericks, Suns, and Cavs. And even teams like the Clips, Rockets, Bulls, Pelicans and Heat could find some traction in a seven-game series when every advantage gets magnified. Good luck making a deep run in the playoffs without running into at least a few of those teams.
Part of the rationale for emphasizing fit and a consistent style of play came from the Spurs' success last year. Their bench played a remarkably similar style to the starters, utilizing similar skill sets and emphasizing the same principles. The Spurs offensive barrage has received a lot of attention this offseason and the continuity of their offensive approach was a big part of that. However, lost in that conversation has been the versatility of their defense, particularly that of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
The moment I knew we couldn't beat the Spurs in last year's playoff series was when I saw Tiago Splitter push Aldridge off the block on one play and then blow up a Lillard/Aldridge high pick and roll on the next. This combination of elite defense on the block and the ability to hedge screens is incredibly rare, and it took away the Blazers' toughest riddle to solve - how do you defend Aldridge on the block and prevent Lillard from getting clean looks out of the pick and roll with the same guy?
Equally as important, the quick feet of Boris Diaw lets the Spurs defend teams that "go small" without going small themselves. This allowed the Spurs to effectively defend the Heat's small ball lineups in each of the last two Finals. Diaw's ability to defend players on the perimeter helped them keep their rebounding advantage without conceding easy looks.
These two examples are remarkable because the Heat and Blazers were both elite offensive teams last year but in very different ways. The Spurs were able to run through them both, in part, because of the versatile skill sets of their players. As a result, the Spurs can be confident against any match up in the playoffs, a prerequisite for title runs and something the Blazers still struggle with.
Adding this kind of versatility was too tall a task for the Blazers to consider this summer and it was smart to focus on refining their primary defensive scheme. However, as the Blazers look towards the future and continue climbing the mountain to a championship, this versatility will become more and more critical. Finding a Splitter could be difficult, but Thomas Robinson has all the tools necessary to play a similar defensive role as Diaw. As such, Robinson has significant long-term value for the franchise and could be a key to their continued improvement. The only reason to risk that is if it gives you meaningful flexibility in the present.
The key word in that statement is meaningful. Lowe is correct to point out that declining Robinson's option would make it easier for the Blazers to create max room. But max contract negotiations are of a particular breed that make speed less important. Everyone has the same amount to offer, so it's not so important who gets there first. As a result, max players tend to take their time and teams have the ability to adjust their cap before making a formal offer.
If Olshey got a guy to agree to a max deal but needed to move Robinson or Leonard (or both) before he could officially make the offer, I guarantee you the next call he makes is to Sam Hinkie, GM of the 76ers, and that it would go something like this:
Olshey: "Hey Sam. I gotta move Thomas Robinson and we're looking for a second..."
Olshey: "You didn't let me finish. We're looking for a second rounder and cash consi..."
Olshey: "But I didn't even say how much."
Hinkie: "Doesn't matter. I'll have my assistant GM call you to work out the details. I gotta go finish up this deal to trade Michael Carter-Williams for twelve second round picks"
Yes, Robinson may cost a little more than Leonard. And yes, Robinson may not be worth his salary at the moment. But the Philadelphia 76ers are so far under the salary floor that the salaries attached to promising young players don't matter. Anything they don't spend they'll have to give to their players anyway at the end of the year. In that kind of context, there's no way Olshey won't be able to move Leonard or Robinson in the event we can attract a max guy to Rip City.
The main situation where speed does come into play is when going after the guys one step below max players. In that situation, you might be able to sign a guy before the other teams that miss out on their top choices come calling. However, it's probably not worth it to renounce both Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez for that type of player so it's going to be difficult to clear enough cap room in the first place. Assuming no extra money comes into the cap from the TV deal, you would need to renounce Lopez, Robinson, plus Leonard or Kaman to clear ~12M in cap room.
I just don't see a scenario where the Blazers don't have time to trade Robinson and cutting him alone allows them to sign an upgrade over Matthews or Lopez. If they try to sign Robinson to a lesser amount, then they still lose all the benefits of speed since his cap hold is equal to his option anyway (can anyone confirm this? I'm not 100% sure). Olshey would need to finalize Robinson's reduced contract before clearing any of the cap room he hoped to create by declining Robinson's option in the first place.
There's something to be said for paying a player what he's worth and having flexibility for the unexpected, but the foreseeable rewards don't outweigh the risks in this case. Meyers Leonard may have passed Thomas Robinson on the depth chart, but it would be wrong to think that makes TRob's option prohibitively expensive. Robinson has a bright future and could play a crucial role in helping the Blazers get from good to great.
I for one think he can still become that versatile player the Blazers need and it would be a mistake to risk letting him go.