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Can Meyers Leonard Sustain Last Year's Excellence In A Bigger Role?

Meyers Leonard was a stud for the Trail Blazers last season. Of course, it's easy to be a stud when you're only playing 15 minutes off the bench. Can he keep it up?

Meyers was a monster last year.
Meyers was a monster last year.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that I love about basketball - always have, always will - is that every player's contribution is context-dependent. No one player exists in a vacuum. Everyone's role is altered by the players around them. No one is defined strictly as "a 20-point scorer" or "a 3 and D wing player" - one of those might be their most natural position, but their precise role on a team depends on the players around them and how they interact. In this way, basketball is a lot like life. No one is simply a great parent or spouse, or a bad employee - their "quality" depends on how they meet the specific needs of those close to them. As the old adage goes, no man is an island.

I bring this up because next season, as we transition from the old LaMarcus Aldridge-led era of Trail Blazers basketball into a new epoch, a handful of Portland's young players are about to see their roles change. Their DNA hasn't been altered, they're still the same guys they always were, but they'll have to adjust to an entirely new set of circumstances that govern how (and how much) they play.

First and foremost among these players is Meyers Leonard. There were high hopes for Leonard when he came out of Illinois as the No. 11 overall pick in the draft in 2012, but there was a fairly low ceiling on what the Blazers expected of him. This was true for two reasons - one, he was a raw 20-year-old kid who needed to add some muscle and adjust to the highly physical level of play in the NBA, and two, he was backing up Aldridge. Fast forward to 2015, and neither is the case anymore. Leonard is 23, he's got over 2,000 NBA minutes under his belt, and he's a relatively beefy 245 pounds. Also, minor detail - Aldridge is gone.

It will be incredibly interesting to see how Leonard performs with the benefit of extra minutes. We should establish this up front - in a small sample of playing time last season, the youngster was absolutely incredible. He didn't pile up huge counting stats (again, because Aldridge), but if you look at his rates of efficiency in the few minutes he played, they were pretty staggering. I mentioned these numbers in another article last month, but they're so impressive they bear repeating:

  • In 847 total minutes last season, Leonard shot 51.0 percent from the field, 42.0 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the line. This put him on par with some of the "50-40-90" seasons posted by a few of the game's all-time great shooters - Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Larry Bird. Meyers is in elite company.
  • Defensively, Leonard was one of the best low-post defenders in the league. 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).

These numbers are fantastic. And as the Blazers venture into this rebuilding process that lies ahead, they're crossing their fingers that Leonard's efficiency continues into next year and beyond. But, like I was saying, stats in basketball don't necessarily translate. The game is unique in this way. If a baseball player hits .300 for one team and then gets traded, there's no reason to expect he can't hit .300 again. Hitting a baseball is a one-on-one activity - hitter versus pitcher, and context isn't all that important. On a basketball court, context is everything.

I suspect that, at least in part, Leonard came by his staggering numbers last season because opposing teams weren't exactly hell-bent on stopping him. Last year's Blazers were obviously known for the exemplary play of their starting five, Aldridge especially, and it's unlikely that teams spent a lot of time game-planning for his backup. Especially in the regular season, there's not enough time in the day to do your homework on every single bench guy getting 15 minutes a night. The backup big men start to blur together. You never put too much time into stopping the Mike Muscalas and Anthony Tollivers and Meyers Leonards of the world.

That won't be true anymore this coming season. Now, when teams come to Portland, they'll be ready for Leonard. When that happens, he may find it more difficult to repeat the stellar performance he put forth last season.

I mean, seriously, look at this:

This play, from the Blazers' first-round playoff series against the Grizzlies this spring, is an example of the kind of golden opportunities that Leonard got when playing in relative obscurity. Marc Gasol is supposed to be guarding Leonard on this possession. Watch what Marc does here - he starts out standing just above the free throw line, keeping one eye on Leonard but positioning himself several feet away. The primary action here is a pick-and-pop between Damian Lillard and Robin Lopez, and both Grizzlies guarding the two players, Courtney Lee and Zach Randolph, collapse on the driving Lillard. Gasol begins to sneak closer to the basket too, either to help defend the rim or to box out Lopez if Lillard misses and there's a rebound to be had.

Think about it. The whole time, Meyers Leonard is wide open, and Memphis would rather send a third defender to Lillard than have even one guy guard against a wide-open 3-pointer from a guy who shoots 42 percent.

To me, this is tactically wrong. If every play ended in a Meyers Leonard 3-point attempt, the Blazers would average 126 points per 100 possessions. This would make them the best team in NBA history. If every play featured Lillard driving to the rim and failing to score triple-teamed? Yeesh. Let's not go there.

Plays like this happened, though, because no one last year seemed to respect Meyers Leonard. He was just another dude playing 15 minutes. Few teams, if any, were altering their game plans to have a defender close out on Leonard beyond the arc.

It would make a difference if they did. More from SportVU on this - Leonard's 3-point attempts can be categorized by his distance from the closest defender. The NBA breaks them down into "very tight," "tight," "open" and "wide open," defined as 0-2 feet, 2-4 feet, 4-6 feet and 6-plus feet respectively. Leonard's 3-point percentages: 0 percent, 16.7, 41.4 and 44.7. Unsurprisingly, he's a far better shooter when left open. Last year, that happened often - that "wide open" label was applied to 42.4 percent of Leonard's attempts in 2014-15. Compare that figure to some of the best stretch big men in the league, and the difference is dramatic - 24.0 percent for Kevin Love, 18.7 percent for Chris Bosh and 18.3 percent for our old friend LaMarcus.

This is likely to change next year. That's not to say that Leonard can't still be productive, but make no mistake. It will be more difficult.

This is true on defense too. Watch this:

James Harden is quite possibly the best offensive player in the NBA today. This is true in part because he's so creative about the way he plays in open space - give him a few feet of room to operate, and he'll make brilliant decisions. He knows when to drive, when to trust his jumper and when to make a play for a teammate. Furthermore, the Rockets are incredibly good at helping create that space for Harden. For example, on this play you've got Leonard lurking in the paint, guarding Terrence Jones, and Jones is near the low block as Jason Terry inbounds the basketball. Jones begins to mosey out to the 3-point line, hoping to pull Leonard out of the paint and give Harden some room; instead, Leonard does a beautiful job of hedging his bets and guarding both guys at once, staying within a stone's throw of Jones while also lingering a step or two away from a potential Harden drive to the rim.

Harden, giving Leonard no respect (sense the theme here?), drives anyway. Leonard responds by taking two incredibly lengthy steps to his left, positioning himself under the basket and brutally rejecting Harden's attempt at a driving layup. Boom.

Plays like this happened a lot last season because players weren't the slightest bit afraid to drive against Leonard. From SportVU again: Leonard faced 3.5 rim shot attempts per game last season despite playing only 15.4 minutes. That's 8.2 attempts per 36 minutes. Compare that to a more established rim-protecting guy, and you'll see the difference. Anthony Davis led the league in blocks last year, and his opponents only shot at the rim 7.1 times per 36 minutes. The difference is that shooters fear Anthony Davis. They couldn't care less - yet, anyway - against Meyers Leonard.

None of the above is to say that Leonard can't be great again next season. But I certainly think it'll be a challenge for him to sustain his productivity. It's a lot easier to be great for 15 minutes a night than for 30 or 35. Next year, opponents will be ready for Leonard - the day before a game against the Blazers, it won't be Aldridge and Robin Lopez that opposing teams watch on film. It'll be him. They'll know to expect the 3s, the paint defense and everything else.

It's a rare player that can excel at both skills that are currently at a premium among NBA big men - 3-point shooting and rim protection. Most guys stick in the league because they're good at one or the other. You can excel in the paint or from long distance, but you don't usually see the same guy do both. In a way, you could argue that what Meyers Leonard did last year was too good to be true. It's probably not the end of the world if Leonard regresses a bit in one of the two categories, so long as he still excels in the other. That would still qualify him as a very useful NBA player.

As the Blazers work to redefine their identity this season, they'll need to figure out how Leonard fits. Is he a center who bangs down low with Dwight and DeAndre, or a stretchy shooter at the power forward spot like a Love or a Bosh? This question won't be answered by looking at Leonard and only Leonard. As is always the case in basketball, it depends on the players around him. What if Mason Plumlee assumes the rim-protecting role? What if Gerald Henderson and C.J. McCollum provide all the shooting the Blazers need? Context always matters, and the context surrounding the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers is still unclear. Meyers Leonard looks ready for whatever role comes his way - but it'll be a while until we figure out what assignment fits him best.