If you've been watching this Trail Blazers team carefully and you understand a little bit about the way the roster was constructed this summer, then you probably knew it right away - they were in big trouble the moment Meyers Leonard went down. When Leonard left the Blazers' Nov. 11 game against the Spurs, suffering a separated shoulder when he got precariously tangled up with San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, you knew it was bad. Leonard was going to be out for a while - 4-6 weeks was the initial prognosis - and without him, the Blazers were in a tough spot.
This is an unorthodox thing to say, but I'd argue it's true - Meyers Leonard is the most indispensable member of the Trail Blazers at this juncture. He's not the team's best player - that would obviously be Damian Lillard - but he's the one you can least afford to replace. If Lillard goes down for a few weeks, you simply hand more of his responsibilities over to C.J. McCollum, who plays a similar game. You lose McCollum, you likewise rely more on Lillard. Without Mason Plumlee, there are several other big men who can fill his shoes temporarily, and without Al-Farouq Aminu, there are other wings, too.
But no one on this roster does quite what Leonard does. Hell, almost no one in the world really does quite what Leonard does - he's a young, energetic 7-footer that can defend the paint and shoot 3-pointers. That's just about as rare a breed as they come in the NBA, and in Portland, he fills a unique role. He's the only guy on the roster who gives the Blazers both size and shooting. Terry Stotts has a lot of talented players at his disposal who bring one of those attributes or the other, but getting both in one package adds a lot of versatility to your lineup, and Stotts has always made the most of that. Without Leonard around, it was clear that things for the Blazers were about to get a lot tougher.
Having said all of that, I now realize that all along there was a silver lining. It's been three weeks now since Leonard's injury, and he's already rehabbed and returned to the Blazers in record time. Looking back on those three weeks, we can now happily say we've learned a few lessons about this Blazers team that will be beneficial later. The results during Leonard's absence were not good - the big man missed seven games in November, and the team went 2-5 - but at least the experience was educational.
Without further ado, the four most interesting lessons learned from Meyers Leonard's absence and his subsequent return:
Lesson #1: Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis work together pretty well after all.
If you've been reading my stuff for the last few months, you've probably already heard me make this point, so I won't belabor it too much - I've never been a fan of using Plumlee and Davis on the floor together. I like each guy a lot individually, but the combination seemed problematic - the issue is that Plumlee last year took 97.7 percent of his shot attempts within 10 feet of the rim, and Davis similarly took 96.1 percent. Having one of those guys is OK, but when you put two of them together, it tends to clog up the paint and make life more difficult for slashing guards (of which the Blazers have two very good ones).
After watching the seven games that Leonard missed, I'm now getting ready to admit defeat on this point. The truth: Plumlee and Davis fit together just fine. While neither player is very skilled at scoring away from the basket, that doesn't mean they can't make themselves useful in other ways. This is especially true of Plumlee, who's emerged in recent weeks as somewhat of a Marc Gasol-style high-post playmaker at the center spot. Here's an example:
The Blazers run a nifty little play here, putting the Clippers' J.J. Redick into a pick-and-roll as he's guarding McCollum. The Clips basically guard the pick-and-roll by sandwiching McCollum - Redick goes over the screen to chase him from behind, and Blake Griffin drops back to keep him from getting to the basket. But McCollum's smart, and he sees this coming and dishes to Plumlee at the elbow. Plumlee's not a good shooter from that range, but he's still dangerous. He's got a lot of options - he can plunk it into the post for a Davis post-up, he can kick out to the corner for Al-Farouq Aminu (who's being absolutely ignored by Jamal Crawford) or he can drive. He chooses to drive, and Griffin has trouble guarding it because he's still shuffling back into position after switching away from McCollum. Griffin gets crossed up, and he ends up fouling Plumlee. Boom. Two free throws.
Ed Davis doesn't really do anything on this play, but that doesn't mean he's useless. Having Davis under the basket accomplishes a couple of things - one, it provides an offensive rebounder in the event that McCollum or Aminu ends up missing a jumper here, and two, it spaces the floor by pulling DeAndre Jordan away, so he isn't available to help double McCollum. The notion that Plumlee and Davis kill the Blazers' spacing has been pretty well debunked at this point. Stotts has figured this one out perfectly - put one of these two guys at the elbow, one under the basket and you're good to go. This offense flows. It works.
According to NBA.com's advanced stats, the two bigs have only played 43 minutes together this season, but they're 43 very, very good ones. The team is averaging 104.7 points per 100 possessions when Plumlee and Davis play together, and they're allowing only 81.9. That's right - play these two guys, and you're averaging a 23-point blowout. Small sample obviously, but it's very encouraging nonetheless.
Lesson #2: This Blazers team is capable of going small when necessary.
When you don't have Meyers Leonard, you basically have to either go big or go small. There's no in between. Leonard is really the only "power forward" on the Blazers' roster, assuming you go by the modern definition of the term, which assumes you need a little bit of a floor-spacing jump shot to play the 4. Without him around, Stotts either had to play two centers (the two guys above, or one next to Chris Kaman) or an extra wing guy. (There's also Noah Vonleh, but we'll get to that later, hold on.)
So. The wing guys.
Stotts has shown a willingness late in games these last couple weeks to finish with a lineup that uses an extra wing. He's gone with Lillard, McCollum, Plumlee and two small forwards - usually Aminu and Moe Harkless, but Allen Crabbe is an option too. The assumption is that when you go small, you have extra quickness and shooting, but you're sacrificing muscle that you might need on the defensive end.
This makes sense in theory, but in practice the Blazers have actually been just fine going small. The key to this dynamic is Harkless, who's a much more interesting player than many in Portland (including myself) gave him credit for initially. He combines an agile, sneaky brand of offense with really strong defensive chops, even against bigger players. For an example of the former, look at this:
Showing an example of a guy beating Kobe Bryant is basically cheating because Kobe's a shell of himself at this point, but it's still illustrative. You watch Harkless on this play, and he's just so sneaky! While McCollum and Davis run a side pick-and-roll, Harkless creeps around Davis to get to the basket undetected. Kobe loses him completely. Jordan Clarkson briefly entertains the idea of guarding Harkless, but he loses him too. By the time Davis finds Harkless cutting to the rim for a dunk, it's too late for anyone to do anything (other than for Brandon Bass to get put on a poster).
Defensively, the Blazers are doing great when Harkless plays instead of Leonard. Harkless doesn't have the height that Leonard does obviously, but he boasts a 7-foot wingspan, which enables him to play solid defense against opposing power forwards. The end result? Just like the "two centers" lineup, the "two small forwards" lineup is doing perfectly fine despite the odd-looking fit. The three-man combination of Harkless, Aminu and Plumlee is averaging 107.4 points per 100 possessions and only 87.6 against. Amazingly, another blowout win.
Lesson #3: Noah Vonleh's working hard, but he's still got a long way to go.
The Blazers did a lot of things right during Leonard's absence, but this is one of their misses. They've given 10-15 minutes a night to Vonleh, and even started him a handful of times, and it just isn't working. Vonleh is still so, so young, so giving up on him isn't the answer, but man. Right now he is horrendous. He's shooting 35.7 percent from the field. His PER is 3.8. That's hard to do.
The trouble is the kid just doesn't seem to have found a role offensively. What type of power forward is he - is he the guy that sets up shop under the basket, like Davis, or is he the big man that pops out for jumpers, a la Leonard? He's tried a little bit of everything, and he hasn't found a job that suits him yet. Per Synergy Sports: Vonleh has had 14 attempts this season as a pick-and-roll man, and he's averaged 0.71 points. He's had 23 spot-up jumpers, and he's averaged 0.61. He's had 8 post-ups and converted just a single solitary one of them - yes, that is 0.25 points per shot.
The Blazers have got to take baby steps with Vonleh. They've got to work with him on the fundamentals, find one skill that he's actually good at and maximize that strength. They can worry about building on that later. Right now, he's all over the place, and the results are just gross.
Here's a typical Vonleh possession:
The Blazers open against Chicago with a pick-and-roll between Lillard and Plumlee, but Lillard's got no shot here because the Bulls' Nikola Mirotic drops back to keep him from penetrating the lane. Lillard naturally kicks the ball to Mirotic's open man, Vonleh. What follows is a dumpster fire.
Vonleh has all sorts of possibilities. He can fire a 3 immediately (seriously - he was good at it in college!). He can fire a quick post entry pass to a diving Plumlee. He can kick out to a wing shooter - McCollum and Aminu are both available. Instead, Vonleh chooses to go Full Vonleh, doing that thing where he first bumps into Lillard and loses the ball, then follows that up by attempting to drive even though Mirotic and Pau Gasol are both there at the rim waiting for him. This worked for Vonleh at Indiana, where he could score on basically anyone he wanted, whenever he wanted. In the NBA, it's not only a miss but a guaranteed defensive rebound, as Gasol is in perfect position.
This is basically the same problem that Vonleh had last year with the Hornets, as I covered back in the summer when Vonleh first arrived via the Nicolas Batum trade. He doesn't yet have the ability to read an NBA defense and find ways to play in space. His M.O. is to attack the defense indiscriminately and go right for the rim, and that's not likely to work too often against professional rim protectors.
Like I said, Vonleh's still young. He won't be old enough to drink legally until next summer. It takes patience to get him ready for NBA competition. But since he's clearly not ready yet, it has to be asked - why does Stotts insist on throwing him into the fire?
Lesson #4: Meyers might actually be pretty good off the bench.
It's weird, because I've never really been a big fan of this idea in general. I figure - your best players are your best players, so why not maximize their impact by starting and finishing the game with them? The whole "bench scorer" thing just never really made any sense to me. If a guy's good enough to start, he should. So when Leonard returned last week and Stotts began using him off the bench, I was more than a little apprehensive.
But then, here's the thing about Meyers Leonard. He's a really difficult player to game-plan for. He's one of those rare big men who can score in the paint and also stretch the defense all the way out to the 3-point line - which means the other team has to guard him with a big man who's equally capable of defending both locales. The opposing big has to have both the toughness to bang inside and the speed to get out to the perimeter. He's also got to be smart enough to know when to do which. Very few teams have a guy who's perfect for that challenge - and if they do, they start him. Which means that when Leonard comes off the bench, late in the first quarter or early in the second perhaps, he's often matched up against a big man who's not a good match for his diverse skill set.
Apologies in advance for using Dallas' Dwight Powell as an example - I like Powell a lot. He's a solid young player. But this clip tells the story perfectly:
It ain't easy guarding Meyers Leonard. What's scary about the Blazers' offense is they can run Leonard through multiple pick-and-pop actions to get him the ball for an open jump shot. Even if you defend the first one perfectly, the second one's still coming for you. Here, the Blazers first try a dribble hand-off from Leonard to Crabbe, but Crabbe's man John Jenkins breaks it up by ripping under the screen and allowing Powell to stick with Leonard. But then comes the second action - a pick-and-pop between Leonard and Dame - and both Powell and the Mavs' Raymond Felton make the mistake of collapsing into the paint on Dame and leaving Leonard wide open. At that point, the 3-pointer is inevitable.
Powell was able to hang with Leonard for a bit, but the Blazers are capable of throwing a lot of different wrinkles at you in 24 seconds, and they eventually broke the Mavs' second unit down. This is going to happen a lot when you have Leonard playing against backups. He's a uniquely challenging player to guard, and not many reserve groups in the NBA are up for taking on unique challenges. It's not typically their role.
You're not getting less value out of Leonard when you bring him off the bench - so far this season, the Blazers have gotten 26.3 minutes per game out of Leonard when he starts and 24 when he doesn't. Virtually no difference. And he's considerably more productive in the backup games (11.3 points per game, 6.3 rebounds) than the starter ones (8.4, 4.4). Again, this could all just be a production of small sample theater, but it's something to watch, for sure.
The "sans Meyers" era is over now. The Blazers' big man made it back from his shoulder injury in record time, and for now, the team doesn't have to worry anymore about how to get by without him. The lessons will stick with them, though. Stotts is going to keep learning new things about this young team all season long, and sometimes adversity is the best teacher.