In August and September of last year, as the dog days of summer were wearing on and Blazers fans everywhere were looking ahead nervously to the start of the first full season without LaMarcus and the gang, Neil Olshey and the rest of the Portland front office were working hard to sell a narrative about young, developing talent. A whole host of star players in their primes may have just skipped town in the span of a couple of weeks, but there were promising new kids ready to step up and replace them. Two in particular, we were told.
"CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard," Olshey would repeat to any media member who would give him the time of day. "CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard. CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard."
Those were the two names we heard repeatedly throughout the summer as the Blazers prepared to build a new nucleus of talent around Damian Lillard. We already knew Dame would be great, but he needed supporting stars by his side if he was going to be effective, and we were told time and again to expect that McCollum and Leonard would be those stars. It made a lot of sense - both had put up really nice per-minute rate stats the previous year while playing limited roles, and both had shown flashes in April that they could reach the next level. It seemed totally intuitive that yes, indeed, McCollum and Leonard would be the rising stars of the next generation. The new Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, if you will.
Looking back some 6-7 months later on that narrative and how it came to be, I think we can safely say it was unfair to Leonard. From day one of the post-Aldridge era, the Blazers' two young stars were lumped together as one dynamic duo of emerging awesomeness, and it became clear very early on that one was separating himself from the other. McCollum went off for 37 points on opening night, driving the Blazers to a blowout win; from there, he had a stellar November and didn't look back. Meanwhile, Leonard had a mediocre first two weeks, missed the next two with a shoulder injury and lost his starting role to 20-year-old Noah Vonleh. Leonard's season didn't start well, and it looked even worse in contrast with the torrid pace McCollum was setting.
That was then; this is now. In March 2016, we can all now see that it's time to unlump McCollum and Leonard. One is a legit second star on a playoff team, the other is a sixth man who's made more headlines with his streaky shooting and injuries than his actual performance. But it's not Meyers' fault that he's not CJ, and we should be fairer to him than to judge him by an impossible standard. Despite his underperformance relative to our crazy expectations, here's the truth about Meyers Leonard: He's still been a damn good player for the Blazers the last two years, and he could certainly have value to this franchise down the road.
Leonard will not play again in 2015-16. The Blazers announced yesterday that he will need surgery to repair his twice-separated left shoulder, and he will be shut down for the remainder of the season. There's still no prognosis for his return; that will come after his April 8 operation.
Leonard's play will be missed for the remainder of this season. He may have been demoted to a bench role this year, but when he was right, he could do a lot for this team on both ends.
This is exactly the kind of play the Blazers feasted on when they had Leonard healthy and contributing for 20 minutes a night. The combination of the Blazers' guards, who are all skilled dribble penetrators, with Leonard was nigh impossible for opposing defenses to stop. All three perimeter guys who are getting big minutes for Portland these days - Lillard, McCollum and Gerald Henderson - are really good at attacking little gaps in the defense and sneaking into the paint. When they do, they tend to have a strong gravitational pull on defenders, and a little bit of that pull was all Leonard needed to fire off a deadly jumpshot.
Watch Orlando's Ersan Ilyasova here, in this matchup with the Blazers from a couple of weeks back. Ostensibly, Ersan's job is to guard Meyers on the perimeter, but he spends the entire possession torn between sticking to his man and offering weakside help against the Blazers' attacking guards. First you see McCollum dribble toward the right corner, and Ilyasova cheats a couple steps away from Leonard to prevent a backdoor drive; then when McCollum finds a cutting Henderson going to the rim, Ilyasova really packs it in to protect the rim. He's a full 15 feet away from Leonard when Henderson gets to the basket. The moment Hendo completes the pass to Leonard at the top of the key, it's game over. Ersan has no chance.
A few months ago, the specter of a perimeter jumpshot from Meyers Leonard didn't mean much to opposing defenses. Leonard was battling shoulder issues and perhaps trouble with his confidence as well - his shot wasn't falling. But post-New Year's, he turned it up, as his 2016 splits made clear. Leonard from distance shot 41.4 percent in January, 45.2 percent in February and an absolutely bonkers 46.2 percent in March. He was his old self again.
That shooting is an asset to anyone, but it's especially valuable to the Blazers when you consider the alternatives on their depth chart. They don't really have another Meyers Leonard. Without him, they pretty much have to go with another power forward who can't shoot - they either go bigger with a conventional post player like Ed Davis or Noah Vonleh, or they go smaller with Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless. Both are solid perimeter guys, but neither is a marksman. Leonard is really the only guy who gives the Blazers the dangerous inside-out game they need to create wide-open 3s. That's incredibly valuable.
Of course, the Blazers would also occasionally encounter an opposing defense that knew about the threat of a Meyers 3-point shot and did something to prevent it. Luckily, they had an answer for that too.
Watch how the Wizards respond to this pick-and-roll between Lillard and Leonard. The Wiz have John Wall on the former and Markieff Morris on the latter; when the screen comes, both are ready for it. There's no switching necessary, as Wall slips under the screening Leonard quickly and stays with his man, enabling Morris to stay with Leonard rather than fall back and help against a drive to the basket. In other words, Morris gets to stay right on the 3-point line and watch it like a hawk. He's not letting Leonard have a single square inch of open space there.
Leonard senses this, though. Rather than stand there helplessly, he takes action by setting a second screen, and this time instead of popping out to the 3-point line like he usually does, Leonard rolls a few steps closer to the basket. Morris is too far out to get back to him, and Jared Dudley, helping off of Henderson in the corner, is too close to the basket - neither Washington defender is able to close out on him above the elbow. Leonard pops one off from 16 feet, and down it goes.
This willingness to fire from midrange is a relatively new development in Leonard's game. Last year, according to basketball-reference shooting data, he took only 10.2 percent of his shots from between 16 feet and the 3-point line; this year, he took 14.9 percent. Those long 2s are often dismissed by the cynics as bad shots, but that wasn't the case when Leonard took them - he shot 52.3 percent from that range this season, which is disgustingly good.
A diversified shooting portfolio is important for Leonard. The Blazers already have a ton of guys who can score at the rim, and they attempt plenty of 3s among Aminu, Allen Crabbe and the two lead guards. But a potent midrange shooter is one thing the Blazers can still use, and a healthy Leonard showed a willingness this season to be that guy. Having that type of weapon around makes your offense less predictable - teams can't shut you down simply by protecting the rim and the arc. When they try to play you that way, they end up getting stuck in no man's land like Markieff Morris above, surrendering open shots.
All of this is to say that on the offensive end of the floor, Leonard's presence made the Blazers better. But what about the defensive side of things, you ask?
Leonard was much improved on that end as well. He's in a difficult position defensively, as he's asked to guard a wide variety of power forwards from night to night - the league is currently at an inflection point where half the league plays multiple traditional big men (like, say, Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins and Kosta Koufos) and the other half uses versatile, floor-spacing smaller guys at the four (like Washington with Morris and Dudley). Leonard is asked to spend a little bit of time guarding both archetypes of power forwards, a demanding job to say the least. He was pretty respectable this season, all things considered.
The play above is a great example of an opponent looking to pick on Leonard defensively. Watch as the entire Oklahoma City offense gets out of the way, standing in the corner to give Kevin Durant a perfectly isolated 1-on-1 attempt against Leonard. Hilariously, Steven Adams comes running up to the elbow to set a screen, then stops when he recognizes the Durant/Leonard mismatch and scurries away. It's on. Durant ISO time.
And then a crazy thing happens - Meyers holds his own! His footwork is beautiful. He stays nice and balanced, doesn't bite too hard on the jab-steps, doesn't chase too hard after the step-backs. He stays in lockstep with Durant every step of the way, using his length to deter any possible jumper and then, once KD starts to attack the paint, does a really nice job of funneling him right into a waiting Mason Plumlee at the rim. Originally isolated, Durant is now surrounded. He's forced to dump it off to Adams in the low post, and Adams ends up getting rejected.
Playing defense at the power forward spot is tricky these days, and this play is a great illustration of why. It requires a combination of skills - guarding quick guys in space, and also holding your own when bigger guys try to beat you at the rim. Meyers isn't perfect at either of those things (few in the NBA are, though names like Draymond Green and Serge Ibaka come to mind as decent contenders). But he is improving quickly, and that's encouraging to see.
Despite not being the most muscular guy around, Meyers has been a fairly solid rim protector for the Blazers every year. This year, according to SportVU data, Leonard held opposing shooters to a 52.5 percent shooting clip around the rim, a respectable figure that put him on par with Andre Drummond (52.8 percent), Joakim Noah (52.4 percent) and Omer Asik (51.5 percent). The fact that he couples his solid work at the rim with a good knack for defending in space makes him really valuable to the Blazers.
The other thing about Leonard defensively is that everything he does, he does with one eye on the glass. He's got a really good sense of positioning that enables him to guard his man and also angle for rebounds at the same time. He's always ready to box out at a millisecond's notice.
This play is an excellent illustration of the full range of Leonard's defensive chops. For the first five seconds of this clip, he does a great job against the Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis, holding his own as the Zinger tries to take him into the post. Even against the impossibly long Latvian big man, Leonard is capable of denying him an easy post-up. Eventually Porzingis passes out of it, at which point Leonard shifts gears. He goes from being an on-ball defender to providing help off the ball, as the Knicks swing it around the horn to Lance Thomas. As Thomas drives against Ed Davis, Leonard does an excellent job positioning himself, staying within a step or two of Porzingis while also setting up shop under the rim to grab the rebound if Thomas misses. Sure enough, he does, and Leonard is there to snag the ball right off the glass.
It's really important that the Blazers have a defender like Leonard, who's able to focus both on guarding opposing power forwards (a loaded position in today's NBA) and trolling the glass at all times. He clearly makes them a better team with both skills - according to basketball-reference on/off data, Blazers' opponents shot a 50.1 percent eFG% this season when Leonard was on the floor, versus 50.4 percent when he's off. They were also significantly worse at offensive rebounding, getting 21.8 percent of boards against the Blazers with Leonard and 24.1 without. For most big men, it's hard to keep shooting percentages down without giving up some of your rebounding edge; Leonard manages to excel in both areas at once.
These little edges matter a lot to the Blazers. For a team that's just barely in the playoffs right now, scrapping for the seventh or maybe even the sixth seed in the West, every little bit of help is important. Leonard has shown before that he can step it up in the spring - he had a brilliant performance in the playoffs last year against Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies. It's a shame that this year, there will be no April magic.
Besides the constant coupling with McCollum in every media mention last summer, the other reason Leonard had to live up to an impossible standard this season was the pace he had previously set for himself. Remember, Leonard was a 50-40-90 shooter last year (actually, 51-42-93 if you want to be more exact with it), and the more optimistic citizens of Blazer nation were hoping he could repeat that performance this season. He didn't, but perhaps it was wrong of us even to consider that possibility. Such is life - none of us are as good as our very best moments. But hey - we're not as bad as our worst, either. Meyers Leonard may never again be the world-beater he was in the spring of 2015, but he might not be the disappointment of the fall of '15, either. His destiny probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I, for one, am hoping Leonard can do said middling in Portland next season. He's headed for restricted free agency this summer, and that means he's venturing out into a crazy summer with a heightened salary cap and a lot of cash getting thrown around. Any one of a dozen desperate suitors could throw $10 million or $12 million a year his way, and he might take it, forcing the Blazers to match. For the Blazers' sake, I'm hoping they do. Even if he's no CJ McCollum, nor is he a perennial 50-40-90 shooter, he's still a useful piece of the Blazers' team-building plan from here on.