clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson Fight For the Future of the Portland Trail Blazers' Frontcourt

"In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity" - Sun Tzu in The Art of War. The chaotic injuries of the past week have given new opportunities to the Blazers' young bigs. How have they improved and who has the brighter future with PDX?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

On October 27th, the Blazers announced they would pick up Meyers Leonard's team option and decline Thomas Robinson's. Two players who were previously thought of as peers more than rivals are now pitted against one another as onlookers evaluate that decision. The recent rash of injuries has thrust both players onto the court more than anyone would have expected, including the players themselves.

After that quick about face, Meyers played the rest of the fourth, probably the most meaningful minutes he's played all year. And man did he make the most out of his opportunity, making three big free throws and playing a key role in the comeback win.

Opportunity for them is also opportunity for us as we get a nice, long look at each player's development. Who's ahead on the learning curve and who's got the brighter future with the organization? If Shaqtin' a Fool is any reference, the two are still neck and neck.

Being a big man is tough. Like really tough. Not in just silly, palm to the face ways but also in the small minutia of responsibility they have on the court. Just listen to Tyson Chandler talk about what goes through his head on defense every single possession in this interview with Rob Mahoney.

"I'm watching other players," Chandler said. "I'm watching the guards. I'm watching every position. I'm watching sets. In the NBA, every set is the same. Every team runs the same thing. I'm watching the mistakes that others make and understanding how to fill holes. So if I see guards on the floppy action constantly getting beat one way, I go, ‘OK, this is how I can give him half a second to recover.' For most cases out there, especially now in the league, I'm not really guarding my man. I'm guarding the other four men on the court."

I'm struggling to keep track of all the tabs open on my computer screen let alone five elite athletes all running at full speed. So it's not surprising this has taken Meyers a long while to understand but he's certainly come a long way.

Meyers recognizes that Wesley Matthews is behind the play and he leaves his man to help. These small recognitions are huge for a defense, taking away an opponent's best look during a possession.

At this point, Leonard is still somewhat robotic in a "I see this type of cut which means I'm supposed to do this" kind of way. The best defenders are more nuanced breaking the scheme when appropriate and artfully responding to atypical situations. It's anybody's guess if Leonard will ever get there but he's so big that simply being in the right place most of the time will make him an average defender.

This is especially true given his move to power forward. Having one seven footer with wide shoulders near the hoop is pretty standard and more or less required for a solid defense. Having a second one clogs the paint regardless of that player's jumping ability or timing on block shots (we might call this the Brook Lopez Principle). Plus, it typically gives Leonard a size advantage when defending post-ups, something he's desperately needed. Against guys his own size, Meyers gives up good post position, can be bullied straight to the rim, and is jumpy on fakes. Basically, all the things you don't want to be when defending the post.

None of that matters when he's got an extra five inches and twenty pounds on a guy trying to flip up a hook shot. If you've ever played pick up against an awkward, uncoordinated dude who's like 6'9", you know what I'm talking about. The guy's literally picked up a basketball twice in his life and it's still annoyingly hard to score. So not fair.

Thomas Robinson doesn't have it quite so easy. Generously listed at 6'9", he's doomed if a guy gets near the rim. As a result, he has to be great at all the things Meyers can live without. Robinson fights really hard to prevent deep post position and refuses to give up ground once they do get the ball. In years past, he's undercut all of this hard work by jumping at fakes and swiping at the ball for cheap fouls. He's toned things down just enough and is using his hands more selectively. This year, he's dropped his fouling rate on post-ups from a ghastly 19% last year to only 5% this year, according to Synergy Sports. As a result, he's only giving up 0.61 points per possession in the post, good for 31st in the league. If you thought it was weird that Robinson was guarding DeMarcus Cousins down the stretch against Sacramento rather than Kaman or Leonard, you're right. It is weird. But it's also smart.

One thing Robinson can definitely improve is his balance. He has a frenetic appearance on the court because he's constantly throwing his entire body around. This can leave him vulnerable to spin moves and drop steps from crafty bigs who know how to play off a guy's momentum (think Boris Diaw in the playoffs last year). It's also a problem along the perimeter, especially when trying to cover rangy power forwards.

*Apologies for the video quality

Robinson has elite speed that should allow him to close out on that shot but Evan Turner catches him reaching. The split second it takes him to gather his weight cancels out his athleticism and Boston gets a clean look.

Leonard struggles to defend these plays as well but for entirely different reasons. He's just not mobile enough to ever contest those shots. Although, I suppose I should stop making declarative statements like that considering how many times I've been wrong about Leonard. He's already looking much more agile defending ball handlers. Watch Leonard corral John Wall on the perimeter during their last game.

Anyone who says they saw that coming two years ago is either a liar or works for the Trail Blazers.

These defensive improvements have made both guys playable. Last year, when either Robinson or Leonard was on the floor, the team gave up 112 points every 100 possessions, worse than the laughingstock Lakers this year (ahh that feels good to say). This year, the team is actually better defensively when either guy plays. Yes, you read that right. The defense improves with Leonard or Robinson patrolling the paint.

For Meyers, that has meant more consistent minutes and a chance to show off his sweet stroke. Leonard is bafflingly close to becoming the second seven footer in the history of the NBA to shoot 50% from the field, 40% from deep, and 90% from the line. This hot shooting has him ranked number one in the entire league in the pick and roll. Number one in the entire league! Meyers Leonard of all people! (Ok, I'll stop with the shocked exclamations now). According to Synergy Sports, he's scoring 1.72 points per possession when shooting out of pick and rolls. That number would make even Kyle Korver blush.

What's really impressive is that he's more than a spot up shooter. He's swinging the ball when guys rotate to take away his shot and pump faking when his man closes out too quickly. Once he's got his guy in the air, he can shoot a one dribble pull up and even has the ability to drive and kick.

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. If he keeps this up, we're going to have to start calling him The Big Dirk. Or Dirk Bieber. Or maybe The Big D Biebs.

Even with all that, the offense actually performs better with Robinson on the floor than with Meyers. There's tons of noise in on-off numbers so I suspect this will reverse at some point but it highlights the improvements Robinson has made as well.

Compared to all the made threes and gaudy shooting percentages, Robinson's improvements have been extremely subtle but they're no less important (Ok, maybe a little less important). Robinson has the Robin Lopez role in the offense. Set good screens, keep the ball moving, don't get in anyone's way, roll hard and crash the offensive glass. Last year he could only do the last two. Teammates would often have to point out where to go during the play and his jab stepping routines at the top of the key stalled the offense and never led anywhere good. This year, he seems to have a much better sense of the plays, is consistently reversing the ball when he catches it along the perimeter, and is doing a much better job of sticking his screens.

Big men have a bunch of options when they go to set a screen. They can slip it by cutting directly to the rim before making contact. They can pin the defender, not even bothering to roll and trapping the defender for as long as possible. They can screen and roll, screen and pop, or anything in between.

Now, the absolute best screeners in the league mix up all of these options but Robinson has always tended to slip screens hoping his speed will surprise the defense. That's ok but it only works if you catch the defense off guard and should really be more of a change-up than a fastball. The result is guards rarely get much separation going over a Robinson screen.

But that's starting to change. He may not be particularly wide but he's built like a truck and plenty of guys his size have found ways to be effective screeners.

Avery Bradley, one of the best point guard defenders in the league, falls way behind the play on Robinson's pick. Given Robinson's struggles shooting and finishing around the rim, it's better for the offense if he focuses on getting his teammates open.

That will start to change as his jumper improves and he learns to pass on the move. One of the toughest things for big men to learn in the NBA is how to roll to the basket, catch the ball, notice the defense has sagged into the paint, and swing the ball to an open shooter all in one motion. Robinson hasn't learned this quite yet but that shouldn't be surprising. He'll figure it out eventually and for now we'll just have to live with him trying to finish over bigger players in a crowded paint.

Both players have been pleasant surprises but in entirely different ways. In fact, it's hard to think of two players being more different at the power forward position. The problem, and the reason this question about their options is so interesting, is that neither is a perfect fit for the organization.

Last summer, the Blazers made a conscious decision to double down on their style of play. The starting unit had an incredible year dropping back on defense and sharing the ball as players swirled around their all star center. GM Neil Olshey brought in Chris Kaman to be the axis of the second unit and Steve Blake to keep the offense moving.

Meyers Leonard has all the potential to play the offensive axis role, picking and popping teams to death. But his struggles in the post, on both offense and defense, are serious problems. We saw how smothered the three point line was without a post threat against Boston. That game would have been completely different if Meyers could have scored inside against the smaller Sullinger.

On defense, a conservative scheme with limited helping doesn't work if someone can't defend his position. You can hide Meyers against bench caliber players half his size but he will absolutely get torched by starting quality bigs. In a playoff series, a team like Washington or Memphis would pound the ball into Nene or Z-Bo until the Blazers took out Leonard or totally warped their defensive scheme by sending double teams.

Thomas Robinson is similarly close but not quite a perfect fit, albeit in the other, more defensive role. Unfortunately, his passing struggles and complete inability to hit a fifteen footer make it hard to keep the offense humming when he's on the floor. It also means he can't consistently play with Robin Lopez and the Blazers would need their backup center to be the offensive hub of bench units. They have Kaman now but he's 32 and pick and pop centers are much harder to find than rangy power forwards.

Right now, both players are good enough to contribute as they've shown these past few games but their games require the whole team to adjust. If either of these guys are forced into the wrong matchup, the Blazers will have to start bringing help in the post and our will need to attack the rim more often to make up for the lack of post presence. This article started out as a discussion on how each player would do filling in for LaMarcus Aldridge and how the Blazers needed to change their style of play to take advantage of their unique skill sets. Aldridge's miraculous comeback makes this less relevant but it's still an interesting lens to consider their futures with the franchise.

As with anything in basketball, one thing affects everything else. Robinson and Leonard both bring unique skills along with some holes. These combinations change the way the team functions in good ways and bad. It will be interesting to see which skills the Blazers value, if these players can develop their own weaknesses, and how Olshey constructs the team to take advantage of their abilities.

*All stats are from unless otherwise stated