With a long and eventful offseason in the rearview mirror, preseason in full swing and the regular season for the Portland Trail Blazers just two weeks from kicking off, there's no shortage of coverage of the team for fans to dig into before the games start counting. And considering the nature of Portland's roster -- four of its five starters from last season are now wearing new uniforms while 11 new faces are among the preseason lineup -- it should be no surprise that a large chunk of the coverage is breaking down potential individual contributions.
Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard is set to step into an increased role, and after playing 2408 total minutes throughout his first three seasons with the team, he's expected to cruise right past his career average of 14.7 minutes per game and right into clocking 30+ minutes a night for this rebuilding franchise. Excitement abounds around the 23-year-old, 7-foot-1 prospect, as fans no doubt got a taste of how his unique skillset and athletic ability in the frontcourt can change the face of the Blazers' attack on both ends of the court last spring.
Mika Honkasalo of Vantage Sports recently penned an article about Leonard's potential impact on coach Stotts' offense and his progress as a defender, heralding his chances to be a "basketball unicorn" -- in this instance, a big man who can stretch out opposing defenses with his reliable outside shot and also protect the rim down low effectively on the defensive end.
While the complimentary tone of the article no doubt has many Blazers fans even more excited to see Leonard on the court this season, one particular passage may stand out.
"There has been talk about starting Mason Plumlee at center and Leonard at power forward," Honkasalo wrote. "While it’s possible that right now this is the better option for the Blazers defensively, due to Leonard not being able to stay out of foul trouble and his unproven rim protection, I personally think it would be a horrible decision to make. What makes Leonard and potentially the lineup around him special is his shooting at a position where there are no shooters. Every time you move a big up a position, it dilutes his effectiveness. Your team becomes slower, and there’s less space on the court, and there’s no need to do those things just to play Plumlee. Eventually, Leonard is going to get slower and move to the five defensively anyways, so you might as well start today."
Yes, Plumlee is likely a better match to defend centers than power forwards when on the court with Leonard. And certainly, Leonard has the tools and ability to affect opposing teams' chances down low when he's watching the rim.
"Defensively, Leonard was one of the best low-post defenders in the league," Blazer's Edge staff writer Evans Clinchy wrote back in early-August. "The NBA's SportVU data revealed that on rim protection attempts - defined as any shot with the shooter within 5 feet of the rim and 5 feet of Leonard - Leonard held opposing players to just 42.3 percent shooting. The league average is around 50/50. Leonard's opponent shooting percentage was lower than Roy Hibbert (42.6 percent), Dwight Howard (45.7), Andre Drummond (48.0) and DeAndre Jordan (48.5)."
With an admittedly small sample size of 847 minutes for Leonard last year to base these stats on, the numbers are still relatively clear: The fourth-year big man has grown leaps and bounds as a rim protector and is ready to be relied upon by Stotts to watch the basket.
That said, to pigeonhole Leonard into that rim protecting role specifically on defense would mean leaving some of his token versatility and athleticism on the table.
NBA.com SportVU stats now track how well an opposing player shot against a specific defender from all areas of the court, contrasted with how well they normally shoot. Last season, Leonard held opponents to 28.4 percent shooting from the 3-point line -- 3.5 percentage points lower than their average. On shots further out than 15 feet, opponents made 34.3 percent of their attempts, a 2.3 percentage point decrease from their average. In the 2015 playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies' frontcourt rotation of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufas, Leonard maintained those solid defensive numbers around the perimeter.
So should Leonard be used exclusively as a rim protector, hanging back and defending the basket? The numbers point to his effectiveness there at altering opponents' shots -- even though he doesn't garner a ton of blocks, Leonard no doubt affects shots with his size and length -- and he has the largest frame on the team outside of Chris Kaman.
But limiting the former Illini to low-post defense specifically means that his time on the court with certain teammates against certain teams would be limited, and as such, Stotts would have to perform a balancing act tweaking his lineups to accommodate who could play with Leonard in the frontcourt.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans, should Leonard be tasked with defending the immobile Omer Asik while either Plumlee or Ed Davis chases Anthony Davis or Ryan Anderson around the court? Is Noah Vonleh ready to do so? What if the Blazers are playing the Rockets -- should Leonard stick to Dwight Howard while Plumlee, Davis or Vonleh try to keep Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas under wraps? The San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Grizzlies and a number of other teams also have dynamic frontcourts; Sticking Leonard on the big man exclusively means that Plumlee and Davis would be pulled away from where they're most effective -- in the paint.
Though Leonard has the size, strength and speed to be an effective low-post defender, it's his versatility that really could allow him to shine this season. And while he should spend plenty of time as a rim protector, he also might be Portland's best option to bottle up opposing stretch fours -- just take a look at Davis' and Plumlee's stats defending the perimeter.
Cross-matching is nothing new for Stotts. Remember how Nicolas Batum played small forward on one end of the floor and occasionally defended opposing point guards? Wesley Matthews did the same from the shooting guard position from time-to-time when the matchup necessitated it. Leonard can play the stretch position on the offensive end of the court and also hold down the low-post on defense, and vice-versa.
Honkasalo had every reason to conclude that Leonard could be a "basketball unicorn" this season as a two-way frontcourt player and multi-pronged weapon on both ends of the court. But it's the 7-footer's fluidity and ability to defend multiple areas of the court effectively that makes him such a unique talent.
Let's hope Stotts doesn't stable his unicorn down low. Leonard could be Portland's best bet at countering opposing stretch lineups, as we haven't seen much small-ball from the team as currently assembled heretofore. And in today's NBA where positions are de-emphasized and power forwards and centers are spreading the floor more and more often, Leonard could carve out a nice niche for himself as a legitimately capable defender of multiple positions -- lightyears ahead of where many saw him just a year or two ago.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter