In late September and early October, as the Trail Blazers were first getting together for training camp and it was time to look ahead to a new season, there was a lot of chatter about potential "logjam" issues on Terry Stotts' depth chart. Nowhere was this more true than with the Blazer bigs.
Portland had started Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh for much of the previous season. They'd brought Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard off the bench. They'd begun experimenting quite a bit with smallish lineups that used Al-Farouq Aminu and even Moe Harkless as, more or less, power forwards. In free agency, they'd added Festus Ezeli. Put it all together, and you were looking at six or seven guys who were all competing for minutes at the four and five spots. It seemed basically impossible to make the math work.
Fast forward to today, however, and we're starting to get a little clarity after 13 games of regular-season action. The rotation doesn't seem nearly as logjammy as it did just a few weeks ago. It turns out there was a fairly simple solution, and it consisted of just two parts. Part one was injuries - with Ezeli still yet to play a single minute due to a nagging knee issue, and Aminu taking it slow with a calf ailment sustained early last week, the ranks are already considerably thinned.
The other thing is this: For the most part this season, Stotts has staggered Vonleh and Leonard, chopping up their minutes in such a way that they're worth about one rotation big man combined.
All in all, Leonard has played 168 minutes and Vonleh 119, for a total of 287, or 22 per game. Basically, in terms of the size of their role, the two young forwards are equal to one Mason Plumlee put together. (Weirder hair, though.)
This might seem like a strange approach on Stotts' part. Why mix and match with the two guys - can't you just pick one? You've had Vonleh on your team for over a year now, and Leonard for over four - don't you have enough information by now to simply decide which guy is better and stick with your decision? Do we really have to go through the same indecisive song and dance that we did for most of last year?
Then again, maybe the Blazers' coach has an explanation. From Jason Quick, a couple weeks back:
Terry Stotts says he mostly uses defensive match ups when determining who plays between Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard.— Jason Quick (@jwquick) November 4, 2016
Stotts: went into GSW game knowing Vonleh would play and went into Phoenix knowing Leonard would play. Tonight in Dallas? 'We'll see'— Jason Quick (@jwquick) November 4, 2016
Dallas starts 7-footer Andrew Bogut, but Stotts says Mavs use small lineups often, so Vonleh and Leonard have to be ready tonight.— Jason Quick (@jwquick) November 4, 2016
Interesting! It turns out that, if you take Stotts at his word, he's actually got a reason for staggering Vonleh and Leonard in the funny-looking way that he does - it's a matchup thing. Presumably, what he means is that using Leonard and his 7-foot-1 frame is a better play against teams who use more traditional big men in the center spot, whereas Vonleh is more useful against teams who play smaller, quicker guys. This is fascinating because it shows a deep understanding of the way the modern NBA is evolving. A lot of teams these days are going small these days, but there are still a few holdouts - Sacramento and Denver, both recent Blazer opponents, are excellent examples - who continue to jam-pack their rotations with 7-footers. It makes sense to have a versatile corps of big men who can hang with both types of teams, big and small.
And there's certainly some merit to the idea that Leonard is a useful player against conventional big men who do conventional big-man things. He's got a pretty long track record of this. As a refresher course, here's an impressive play I referenced last spring when writing about Leonard's improvement as a post defender:
Leonard does everything beautifully here! He shuffles his feet nicely to stay in front of the Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis as the 'Zinger attempts to drive by him to the basket. When Porzingis tries to back him down, Leonard keeps a body on him; when he kicks it out of the post and the Knicks move the ball around, Leonard does an excellent job of cheating away from his man juuuuuust enough while positioning himself to crash the boards when Lance Thomas eventually misses a driving layup. On this possession, Leonard is the Blazers' best rim protector, help defender and rebounder, all in one.
All sounds great, right?
Except here's the one problem. What's the one thing you didn't see on this possession?
That's right - you didn't see a screen. Not a single one of them, anywhere on the floor. Not one. In fact, you saw basically no movement at all. Consistently throughout this play, the Knicks' offense consisted of one dude freelancing with the ball in his hands and four other dudes watching him. This is not normal.
Then again, a lot of things weren't normal last season under the brain trust of Phil Jackson and Kurt Rambis, who still seem to think that successful offense is all about pounding the ball into the post with stagnant, isolation-heavy play. In short, those guys think it is the year 1996. Spoiler alert: It is not.
If you put Meyers Leonard in a time machine and sent him back to the '90s, he might be one of the best defenders in the NBA. The problem is that defense in 2016 is usually a lot tougher than what you see above - it involves reading pick-and-rolls, communicating with teammates and sometimes switching onto smaller and quicker players. Almost always, it involves knowing how to guard guys who can do creative things in open space. Against the 2015-16 Knicks, big men didn't have to do this, but they were the exception and not the rule.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately because it's a major league-wide issue, not at all exclusive to Meyers Leonard. Around the league, there are big guys grappling with the reality that their work defensively is harder than it's ever been. For more insight on this, here's a snippet from what The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote last month about the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins:
"Like all big men, Cousins is at a disadvantage in the pick-and-roll because he can't switch screens and guard smaller players, so he has to concede something, whether it's dropping back and giving up an open midrange jumper, or hedging the screen and counting on his teammates behind him to rotate over. That's why the league has been moving toward smaller and more mobile defenders upfront - especially in the playoffs, in which Draymond Green, at 6-foot-7, and Tristan Thompson, at 6-foot-9, each logged prominent minutes at center in the NBA Finals. ... There's a battle between size and speed at the center position, and speed has been winning in the last few postseasons."
Right? This is really telling. The most successful teams we've seen in recent years have all adopted this strategy. The last five NBA Finals have been won by teams whose best centers were, in reverse chronological order: Thompson, Green, Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh and Chris Bosh again. All of those guys are under seven feet tall and came into the NBA originally as power forwards, not centers. The evolution of the game forced them to slide down a spot.
With Leonard, there's no way to slide him down. He's already a center and always has been one, more or less - but even against fellow fives, he often struggles to show the quickness on defense that the modern NBA demands.
This play, in which Leonard attempts to guard the aforementioned Mr. Cousins, is a great example of the defensive sluggishness that's plagued him this season. Watch what happens as Boogie and Ty Lawson put Leonard and Damian Lillard into a pick-and-pop toward the end of this possession - Lillard goes over the screen and starts chasing Lawson downhill, and Lawson slows down pretty quick when he sees Leonard lurking in front of him. He kicks the ball out to the popping Cousins. At this point, Lillard has fully recovered to pick up his man, and it's Leonard's job to switch back onto Cousins and chase him out to the perimeter. Cousins is better than a 30 percent shooter from deep, and he'd just fired six attempts in the Kings' previous game - it should have been on the scouting report that the big fella demands a closeout. But, lazily, Leonard wastes a second or two wandering out to the perimeter to meet Cousins, and the result is a straight-away 3-pointer right in his face.
If this shot were an isolated incident, it wouldn't be a big deal. Unfortunately, though, it's starting to look like something of a pattern. Here's another one:
This is basically the same play as before, with Evan Turner guarding Memphis' Chandler Parsons instead of Dame on Lawson. Turner goes over the Zach Randolph screen; he quickly catches up to Parsons and slows him down, at which point Parsons gives up on the action and kicks the ball out to Mike Conley to reboot the offense. When this happens, Leonard's job is to pick up his man again. Instead, he's managed to hopelessly lose Randolph, who's a good 10 feet away when Conley calls his number for the wide-open 3-pointer. Z-Bo isn't exactly a marksman, usually, but when left that open, just about any NBA player can splash one down.
The scary thing about these clips is that we're talking about Meyers Leonard and his shortcomings guarding DeMarcus Cousins and Zach Randolph. These dudes aren't even fast. Things only get more difficult for Leonard when he's given a tougher matchup - which is why Stotts has gone the extra mile to shield him from those.
On the Blazers, though, there aren't a lot of great alternatives when it comes to big man defense (at least not while Ezeli remains on the shelf). The Blazers are a weird contradiction - they're a very young team (according to basketball-reference data, their average age is 25.1, with only four teams in the NBA being younger), but they don't play like it. Leonard, on most possessions, moves like an old man despite being 24. Ed Davis, 27, is a good defender around the basket but similarly weak when he needs to jet out to the perimeter. Plumlee is one of their more mobile guys, but he's almost too mobile - his erratic jumpiness sometimes leaves him out of position.
It's possible that at the moment, the Blazers' best option for a big man who can defend in space is none other than Noah Vonleh.
Look what happens as the Suns twice try to run Vonleh through a side pick-and-roll between Devin Booker and Jared Dudley. On the first pick, CJ McCollum manages to slip right under it and stay with his man; Dudley, undeterred, comes right back and picks him again. This time, the Blazers shrug and say, "Fine, let's switch it." The Suns, giddy with anticipation, clear out and give Booker all the space in the world to go one-on-one against Vonleh, assuming he can beat him. Instead, Vonleh shuffles his feet perfectly, stays with Booker the whole way and eventually stuffs the hell out of him. This isn't some Zach Randolph-type guy we're talking about here, either - this is one of the best young guards in the NBA.
I don't view a play like this as an anomaly. According to NBA.com on/off data, Blazers opponents shoot 43.9 percent from the field with Vonleh off the floor and 44.5 percent with him off. It's amazing that Vonleh brings that clip down even a little bit, considering he's usually playing with a second unit that tends to leak like a sieve. (Vonleh's most frequent lineup combination this season is alongside Davis, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner and McCollum, which doesn't exactly scream "defensive juggernaut!")
The point is, I don't think it's crazy to say that Vonleh deserves more minutes right now because he's the best defensive option on the Blazers' bench, given the challenges presented in the modern NBA. You could argue just as easily that Leonard's the better offensive player, but right now that's a tough position to justify, given that he's started the season 8-for-31 (25.8 percent) from deep. Leonard's value offensively comes and goes; his value defensively, well, it seriously merits questioning. Keep in mind also that the Blazers as a team right now rank No. 14 in the NBA in offensive efficiency and No. 27 in defense. It's obvious which end of the floor needs more help.
It feels funny to express all this positivity about Noah Vonleh. There's been a lot of criticism leveled at Vonleh during his year and change in Portland, much of it justified. But it's possible that now, in his third NBA season, he's starting to blossom into a two-way player who fills an important role on the Blazer bench. Does that necessarily mean he's the next Draymond Green or Tristan Thompson? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly looks right now like he's the Blazers' best chance at finding that type of player. That alone is enough to merit a closer look from Stotts and the Blazers in the months ahead.
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