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Does Meyers Leonard have a future with the Trail Blazers?

Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard has disappointed many fans in Rip City this year, but is he being graded fairly?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We need to talk about Meyers Leonard.

The Blazers currently injured power forward/center has become a lightning rod for criticism this season. Certain factions of the team's fandom and media have attacked Leonard, arguing that his on-court mistakes easily outweigh any benefits he brings to the Blazers. That viewpoint, however, ignores the positive aspects of Leonard's performance this season.

Leonard's calling card coming into the season was shooting. He was expected to be a rare floor-spacing "stretch 5" who pulled defending big men out of the paint. After a rough start to the season, Leonard delivered on that. He improved his 3-point shooting on a monthly basis and has peaked in March at 46.2 percent from beyond the arc and with a TS% of .543.

As Brian Freeman noted on Blazer's Edge earlier this week, big men who can shoot from the outside have become important to a team's success. Virtually every franchise has a power forward or center who can reliably nail a midrange jumper or 3-pointer and spread the floor for its guards. Portland has been no different - other Blazers, most notably C.J. McCollum, have seen bumps in efficiency when teamed up with Leonard.

The team also becomes more efficient when Leonard is in the game. Since Jan. 1 the Blazers have an offensive rating of 115.1 and eFG% of 52.7 with Leonard on the court. Those numbers drop to 109.4 and 50.9 when Meyers heads to the bench.

After being absent for only four games, the negative effects of losing Leonard's shooting have already been seen. In the first game against Dallas, the Mavericks were able to pack the paint and ignore several of the Blazers' perimeter players (most notably Al-Farouq Aminu). Without Leonard, Portland coach Terry Stotts will always have two players on the court who can't reliably score outside of eight feet. In certain matchups, that is going to lead to major spacing problems and can inhibit drives from McCollum and Damian Lillard. The Blazers found a way around that Wednesday night with some stellar off-ball movement, transition baskets, and opportunistic scoring from Ed Davis, but on Sunday night against the Mavericks and last week against the Spurs the lack of floor-spacing shooters was problematic.

Leonard's passing skills help the Blazers offense as well. The team runs several plays which put the ball in the center's hands on the perimeter. When Mason Plumlee is in that position the offense generally relies on defenders overplaying the perimeter shot opportunity, creating backdoor cuts around sagging big men and scrambling wing defenders. With Leonard, however, the opposition must protect against both the backdoor cut and the threat of Leonard's shooting, opening up the middle of the floor for cutters.

On the other side of the ball, Leonard relies primarily on his big body to have a positive impact. He is a strong defensive rebounder; prior to his injury, he led the Blazers with a defensive rebounding percentage of 26.7 since the All-Star break, edging out both Plumlee and Davis who are at under 25 percent. Because of his role on offense, he is often out of position for offensive rebounds, finishing behind every forward and center on the team, so his overall numbers are deflated.

Stotts has regularly employed Leonard as an answer for bigger centers. He is the only Blazer with the size and physicality to play long stretches against centers like Greg Monroe or Marc Gasol. Over the last two games Leonard's presence also could have helped negate Saleh Mejri on the offensive glass.

With the positives mentioned, it's important to acknowledge that Leonard is a limited player. He struggles to score inside the 3-point arc. Specifically he has no go-to move in the post so he often overthinks and hesitates, which can be death in the NBA. He has tried to pump-fake and put the ball on the floor from the perimeter, which has been ineffective. Leonard often looks labored with his decision making. Sometimes he hesitates to shoot when open, and when he does shoot his release is painfully slow. As a result, he rarely deceives defending players and is atrocious at drawing fouls.

On defense, Leonard has shown flashes of ability to bang bodies with bigger players, as described above, but he struggles to protect the rim and doesn't have the mobility to reliably matchup with quicker stretch-4s on the perimeter.

The mental game also seems to get to Leonard at times. He will allow mistakes to snowball, turning one poor possession into several. Earlier in the season against Memphis, for example, Leonard played an exceptionally physical game on defense, mixing it up with several Grizzlies. Eventually he seemed to become distracted with the physicality and ended up ineffective on offense until Stotts permanently removed him from the game.

Ultimately, these positives and negatives paint the picture of a limited but effective role player. As we've seen this season, Leonard can be indispensible in certain matchups (e.g. Indiana) but against other matchups can struggle to even get onto the court (e.g. Golden State). Get him open shots on the perimeter and he'll knock them down at a high percentage. Send him to the defensive glass and there's a good chance the Blazers will walk away with the possession. But don't ask for much more than that or you're liable to be disappointed.

Leonard is not the only Blazer who can be described as a limited but conditionally effective role player. So far this season, Ed Davis has been graded on how well he rebounds, hustles and scores inside. Plumlee has been lauded for his passing, rebounding, and athleticism. Both players have fairly significant limitations, notably no offensive game outside of five feet, but have mostly avoided criticism. Given that context, it's necessary to ask why Leonard hasn't been similarly accepted as a limited, but useful player.

Perhaps unfairly, many of the critiques of Leonard's game are based on his failure to meet pre-season expectations. After famously turning down a big-time contract and choosing to "bet on himself," the hope was that Leonard would turn into a viable starting power forward/center.

As the season has progressed, it's become apparent that he will not be the long-term starter at either position. The failure to meet expectations, coupled with Leonard's hubris, have led to disappointment and criticism. Many observers of the team act like he's already been paid $15 million/year and are judging him accordingly. By contrast, expectations for Davis and Plumlee were limited coming into the season; neither was expected to turn into a foundational starter and neither was expected to earn a massive contract. Thus their positive performances have been met with adulation.

The criticisms of Leonard are also tied to the unexpected success of the team, as a whole. Now that the Blazers are likely going to make the playoffs it becomes easier to nitpick the clear deficiencies in the roster. The most glaring hole has been starting power forward - the position Leonard was expected to fill when the season started. This creates a scapegoat effect, which works against Leonard. Attitudes have shifted from, "Let's hope our players develop this season" to, "Ugh. If Meyers could actually be the starting PF we would be the 5-seed and have a chance in round one! Whadda Bum!"

But this attitude misses the bigger point that this is still a developmental season and that the roster is not complete.

With Meyers, that mindset obscures the modified question at hand, which has become: Can he be useful as a reserve even if he's not the long-term frontcourt starter?

Ultimately, the team will have to ask if there is room on the roster for Leonard to be something between a foundational cornerstone and a bust. He has several bankable NBA skills which have already had positive effects on the team's performance. He could end up as a solid specialty player who can spread the floor as a big, not unlike how Ed Davis has become a solid specialty rebounding machine. On the other hand, Leonard has several major limitations which may limit his on-court utility.

This summer, the Blazers management will have to weigh these strengths and weaknesses and decide whether there is room on the roster for Leonard, and whether or not his performance justifies the asking price in negotiations.

What do you think, Blazer's Edge readers? Is it possible to re-calibrate expectations for Meyers Leonard and accept him as a role player? Let us know in the comments section below.