In contrast to last season's playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers have been mostly healthy for their first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. The lone exception: Meyers Leonard, who missed the conclusion of the regular season and will miss the entirety of the playoffs as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
The problem for the Blazers is that Leonard may have been disproportionately useful against the Clippers. As ESPN's Zach Lowe explains, the loss of a single player can be catastrophic for a team like the Blazers in the playoffs:
The ultimate greater-than-the-sum-of-its parts team fell apart when a couple of those parts -- and not even the main ones -- fell away.
Depth is funny like that. Being deep doesn't mean you can sustain injuries better than shallow, top-heavy teams. It might mean the opposite: if every player lifts up every other player, or fills some gap no one else can fill, the loss of one or two guys can have an outsized impact.
With that in mind, consider that Portland has struggled mightily from the 3-point line in both games against the Clippers. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless have all shot below 30 percent from deep. Regular season sharpshooter Allen Crabbe has barely even attempted a triple, missing his only two attempts thus far.
On the surface it's easy to question whether or not Leonard would make a big difference for Portland's 3-point shooting. His season average of 37.7 percent is right in line with the team's average, and the rest of the team has shot poorly despite similar regular season shooting percentages.
Leonard, however, improved his 3-point shooting incrementally by month for the entire season. In February and March, Leonard was 24 for 54 (44 percent) over 19 games and was the most accurate shooter on the team for that timespan. Couple that with Leonard's 77 percent accuracy from deep in last year's playoffs, and it's not hard to imagine that he could have been the exception to the poor-shooting rule for the Blazers in this series. In Lowe's words, he could "fill some gap no one else can fill" for the Blazers right now.
Specifically, having even a single player who can reliably knock down open 3-pointers would have made a huge difference for the Blazers. That's essentially why everyone continues to bemoan Al-Farouq Aminu's inability to hit a three without a defender within 10 feet - it opens up the lane for Lillard and McCollum to ditch their defenders on drives to the basket, or for Moe Harkless to cut into an open center of the court.
In addition to helping with the spacing, Leonard also has the passing skill of Mason Plumlee. If the Clippers did cover Leonard on the perimeter to curtail outside shooting, Leonard has the ability to make them pay in other ways. That combination of Plumlee's playmaking with Aminu's (theoretical) ability to hit open threes would likely have been a major boon for the Portland offense that has struggled to find anyone who can produce against the aggressive, paint-packing Clipper defense.
On the other side of the ball, Blazers coach Terry Stotts has expected very little of his centers. Plumlee and Davis, so far, have been tasked primarily with staying attached to Jordan at all times to prevent alley-oops and offensive rebounds. Leonard, an excellent defensive rebounder, is big enough to do both of those things. He is lacking as a rim protector, but Plumlee hasn't exactly excelled in that area either. As long as Leonard kept his head in the game, he would have been a wash at the defensive end.
Of course, many fans doubt Leonard's ability to keep his head in the game. He does often seem to get frustrated, and the Clippers have done a great job at frustrating the Blazers all season. Would Leonard have been able to persevere against a veteran team like the Clippers? There's no way to know for sure, but the bottom line is that he almost certainly would not have been worse than what we've seen so far.
Tell us what you think in the comments below! Would Meyers Leonard have made a difference?