clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Portland Trail Blazers Center Meyers Leonard Makes a Bid for Advancement

New, comments

With Chris Kaman ailing, could Meyers Leonard crawl higher into Portland's center rotation? This and more in the Blazer's Edge Mailbag!

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mail call!

As you've mentioned many times, primarily in more recent reviews of Blazer games, the Chris Kaman of days past is but a distant memory. Opposing teams have scouted his offensive tendencies thoroughly, and I feel every time he gets the ball the flow of the game just STOPS. Most of the time his roll to the basket results in a turnover, or a scramble play. I like his demeanor, and he definitely puts everything he has in the games, but he mainly just appears....slow.

Meyers Leonard on the other hand, has seemingly been growing in confidence with each passing game. He seems more comfortable playing within the offense, and has done a much better job of staying vertical when defending...and the guy can shoot the ball, and RUN. What are your thoughts on bringing Leonard off the bench before Kaman to keep momentum up? Do you think that would be beneficial or disrupt the flow? Meyers is more of a stretch 4 than a center really, so in that regard I could see how bringing Kaman off the bench first makes a bit more sense. Anywho, just curious where your thoughts reside.

Keep up the stellar work!

Best,
Zac

Let's talk about Kaman first.

November: 49.3% shooting, 11 points, 7 rebounds in 19 mpg

December: 48.3% shooting, 9 points, 5 rebounds in 19 mpg

January: 46.6% shooting, 8 points, 8 rebounds in 24 mpg

February so far: 36.4% shooting, 3 points, 4 rebounds in 17 mpg

I expect his February totals to normalize, but the trend's been reading "downwards" as he slogs through the season and it's not turned around yet. The difference-maker off the bench in October-November appears less often now, replaced by a guy who's decent, but muted, most nights.

Back issues will do this to you. Anyone who's experienced back instability will tell you that if the spine's not right, nothing works right. Slow and tentative goes with the territory. You have to give Kaman a break there.

Then again, we knew injuries were part of the package before the Blazers signed Kaman.  When he was edging into 6th Man of the Year territory early in the year, one of the most-heard comments around the league was, "Chris looks lighter and more spry than we've seen him in recent memory." It appears half a season of wear and tear was enough to put a stop to that. He's in his 30's. He's topped 70 games only 3 times in his career. The guy we're seeing now is closer to normal Chris Kaman than the guy we saw earlier.

The Blazers can still rely on Kaman for most of what they need: a sub who won't blow it. He's a fine, 20 mpg reserve center. If they need more punch--somebody to help them win games on a nightly basis instead of not losing them--they'll need to rewind the clock to October, give Kaman enough days off that he can pretend the season is starting anew, or find someone else.

Could that someone else be Meyers Leonard? He's put in a sterling couple of weeks. The Blazers have to be happy with what they're getting out of him. But the Blazers also like their system. They don't play one way with the starters in then adjust for the second unit. In fact the "second unit" usually consists of 2-3 starters. Continuity is important.

Leonard's speed and range are assets at center. Seeing him drain a three or run the break is a thing of beauty. But 82% of his shots are jumpers. 66% of those attempts come from 10 feet and beyond. His effective field goal percentage on face-up shots is 67%. On close-in (non-jumper) shots it plummets to 25%.

By comparison Kaman takes 62% of his attempts from 10 feet and in, Robin Lopez 84%. Kaman and Lopez both sport an effective field goal percentage of 54% on close shots.

One of these things is not like the other. No matter what you call Leonard's position in traditional terms, in Portland's system he plays the power forward role on offense more than the center role. He shoots half as effectively with his back to the basket as Portland's standard centers, grabs half the offensive rebounds, and his best weapon is the three-pointer, not the post hook.

Leonard's defense looks dramatically better this year than in years past...which is to say you don't notice him screwing up every second play nowadays. He deserves massive credit for that. His court awareness has soared. But he's not going to hold the middle like Lopez or demonstrate veteran savvy like Kaman. (Granted, Kaman's wisdom takes breaks sometimes, but still...) Leonard will make good plays but he's not a guy you can rely on as a defensive backstop, at least not yet. Games will become more critical as the season reaches its conclusion and jostling for seeding reaches its peak. At the end of the day, you trust Kaman and Lopez at the rim more than you trust Leonard.

Don't forget Joel Freeland either. He may not be the offensive power that Leonard is but he's more suited to defending the lane and rebounding deep than Meyers.

For these reasons I don't foresee Leonard usurping Kaman's spot this year. If he keeps playing this well Coach Stotts has to play him, but it'll be as the de facto second power forward and third center, mixing him in with other bigs instead of depending on him to hold down the five spot proper. You'll see Leonard-Aldridge, Leonard-Kaman, even Leonard-Freeland maybe. In all cases the second guy will carry the load that Meyers can't, leaving Leonard free to pick and pop high or head to the weak side for an outlet three instead of hanging by the rim like the centers do. That means you won't see Leonard instead of Kaman unless Kaman's injuries get so bad that he has to sit in order to recover.

Caveats:

1. The coaching staff could use the All-Star break to put some new wrinkles in the system.

2. Even if they don't, if Meyers keeps this up all year the coaches will spend the summer plotting what to do with him.

3. Against teams with more mobile, perimeter-oriented centers Meyers could be a godsend right now.

Dave-o,

Long time fan.  What do you think of the new NBA where centers like Meyers Leonard camp out at the three point line?  For an old-timer like me this can be hard to watch.  Hakeem and Ewing had range but they lived off post based shots.  Now all the 7footers want to be point guards.

Get Off My Lawn Dude

I am remarkably cool with Leonard shooting threes...although I hasten to point out that he doesn't usually "camp at the three-point arc". He's setting screens like big men of yore did. He's just popping out of them for the open jumper instead of rolling for the catch and dunk or a post pass. But hey, the three-point shot is worth more. Plus Meyers is good at it. I'm a fan of seeing players play to their strengths. I'm not a fan of seeing Leonard look like a drunken baby giraffe trying to execute a back-to-the-basket move from 8 feet out. The New NBA is different, but when everybody is clicking it's still pretty.

I am routinely astonished by how bad bigs have become at scoring down low, though. Like you I grew up in an era where the 7-footer catching it near the paint meant disaster for the defense. (That impression may be clouded by only recalling good centers in nationally-televised games. We should all remember that Chuck Nevitt existed.) Nowadays the disaster is usually whatever those 7-footers try to barf up as a finish. This is one of the reasons I respect Robin Lopez. His moves are compact, direct, and well-executed. I can't count the number of times I've said, "The Blazers are going to get scored on here. Oops! I forgot it's 2015. Nice rebound."

I don't think the increase in range-shooting bigs has to accompany a decline in good footwork and body work, but to my eyes it has. God bless the late Pete Newell. The world needs him again, badly.

Hey Dave,

I've noticed the Blazers have basically the same game plan going into each game and Stotts doesn't seem to make many adjustments during games either (i.e. in the Mavs game continuing to switch the pick and roll on defense which resulted in Nowitzki easily shooting over Blazer guards). Is this lack of pre-game and in-game adjustments costing the team wins? Am I completely over thinking this?

Thanks,
Joe

You're over thinking it a little, yeah. The Nowitzki Switchki scheme was obviously not working, but Dirk is a unique matchup and I'm not sure Portland has a ton of good options to stop him if he's got that turn-around going. I would have liked to seem them try something different but we're talking about one example in a sea of games and matchups.

Right now we're seeing fewer in-game adjustments--particularly halftime adjustments--than earlier in the year for a couple reasons. First, the team has settled into a groove. When your offensive plan for the third period is, "Get LaMarcus Aldridge the ball," you don't want to mess with that much. Second, Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland have been injured, Chris Kaman slowed. That reduces the monkeying Coach Stotts can indulge in. We've seen game-to-game adjustments, most notably with Meyers Leonard getting the ball at the arc on the regular. But with a short lineup once you're committed, you're committed. If Leonard isn't hitting those shots, changing up the plan and putting him in the post isn't going to help. You either have to live with it or put Aldridge back in. Mostly Stotts has been living with it.

Consider also that the Blazers own a 67% winning percentage as of this writing. Granted, that's lower than the 80% mark they sported earlier but winning 2 of 3 is still pretty good. For the most part the game plan is working. Health will make more of a difference than coaching wizardry at this point in the season.

This will change during the playoffs. Assuming the Blazers are at full strength they should be able to attack from multiple positions with multiple lineups. If one approach isn't working, you can't wait a week to try another. At that point the prowess of the coaching staff will be tested more fully.

Submit your own Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com. The All-Star break is coming up which should be a great time for me to catch up on them!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge