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Will The Trail Blazers Find A Role For Meyers Leonard Next Season?

The Portland Trail Blazers committed a lot of money this week to bringing back young big man Meyers Leonard in restricted free agency. But what will they actually do with him on the court?

Terry Stotts has a challenge in front of him.
Terry Stotts has a challenge in front of him.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, it was absolutely the right move for the Trail Blazers to re-sign Meyers Leonard to a four-year contract worth $41 million. Leonard is a 24-year-old who's 7-foot-1 and has shot 38.5 percent from deep in his career; players like that don't exactly fall into your lap every day. The Blazers got a chance to sign Leonard at a bargain price, and salary cap space was a nonfactor because the team held his Bird rights. The only thing at stake was Paul Allen's cash. According to the most recent Forbes estimate, Paul Allen has a net worth of $17.9 billion, meaning he can probably take the hit. So yes - on paper, it was correct to re-sign Meyers. This was a no-brainer decision.

That's how this deal broke down on paper. The Blazers had a chance to get a promising player at a good price, so they took it. Pretty simple. The harder question, however, is what this decision means for the basketball team that Terry Stotts will put on the floor come October. Fitting Meyers Leonard onto a payroll, especially amid a monstrous league-wide salary cap spike, is easy. Fitting him into a Portland rotation that's already jam-packed with minutes-hungry young big men is another challenge altogether.

Meyers Leonard is a unique player. He's got the size and the instincts to be a very good defender against even the best of the game's traditional big men, but offensively, he is anything but traditional. Leonard fired 228 of his 435 shot attempts from 3-point range last season; that rate of 52.4 percent ranked No. 21 in the NBA among players with 400 shots or more, per basketball-reference data. Leonard had a higher ratio of threes to twos last year than some of the game's preeminent wing shooting stars - Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick and Nicolas Batum, to name three. And did I mention he's 7-foot-1?

With a player like that, you can't just plug and play and expect everything to go off without a hitch. Optimizing a unique talent like Leonard requires careful planning to make sure all the other pieces fit around him. And yet this summer, the Blazers went about their business with a funky order of operations. It sure didn't seem like constructing the right roster around Leonard was a priority; instead, Neil Olshey went out and signed Evan Turner on July 1, Festus Ezeli on the 7th, Allen Crabbe on the 10th and then Leonard later the same day as Crabbe.

Now, ultimately the order doesn't matter - once you've got your guys, you've got 'em. A few months from now, no one will remember or care who signed what contract on what day. But the fact that Olshey made Leonard look like an afterthought has to raise questions for those among us who are Leonard optimists. (I count myself in this camp. Approximately half of with you are with me on this, judging by the feedback I've gotten in tweets and comments sections. The other half are getting ready to form an angry mob and torch my house.)

You have to wonder - how are the Blazers going to find minutes for Leonard? Consider the following...

  • It's been reported that Turner has already been promised a starting job at small forward next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. This, presumably, would force incumbent three Al-Farouq Aminu to the four.
  • Ezeli joins Mason Plumlee as the two guys on the roster who play center full-time. It's likely that both will see around 24 minutes a night, which means the pivot is pretty much booked solid. That moves Ed Davis to the four-spot as well.
  • Presumably, the Blazers want to keep developing Noah Vonleh. He is also a power forward.
  • The Blazers might still retain Maurice Harkless if they can do so on the cheap. If they do, they're surely aware that Harkless did his best work last season at ... yes, you guessed it, the power forward spot.

That leaves the Blazers with essentially two fives and four fours already in place (depending on Harkless). So, then, what about Leonard?

It's worth noting at this point that according to the numbers, the Blazers' best play is not to cram Leonard into the ridiculous logjam they've already got at the power forward spot - it's to make him a center. Seth Partnow's position stats at Nylon Calculus use SportVU tracking data to interpret players' roles and classify them by position for each minute they're on the floor; you can use these numbers to find where a guy fits best. For Meyers, there's no doubt it's as a center:

Obviously, there's going to be noise when you're looking at data sets like this. A lot of fluky things can happen in 194.6 minutes, and there's no guarantee that the Blazers would outscore opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions if they kept using Meyers at center over a larger sample. (Spoiler alert: They probably wouldn't. A net rating of 18 is better than the Cavs and Warriors last season combined.) But I do think there's some truth to the general concept expressed here. The Blazers are likely a better team when they use Meyers Leonard at the five-spot. This is a totally reasonable conclusion. In the modern NBA, you need to get some form of shooting and/or playmaking from all five positions if you want to build an elite team. Remember: The last four teams to win NBA championships did so with "centers" Tristan Thompson, Draymond Green, Tim Duncan and Chris Bosh. Festus Ezeli doesn't exactly fit in that group. Meyers, well, he at least has one plus skill with that silky-smooth jumper.

The Blazers are a different team when they use Meyers Leonard at the five. In my opinion, they're a better team. Their spacing, movement and shot creation reach an entirely new level when they use Leonard in place of a stiffer, less offensively skilled big.

Just watch this possession, from a midseason game against the Jazz last year. Watch what happens when the Blazers run a pick-and-roll between McCollum and the most underrated player in the NBA, Center Meyers Leonard. It's a simple action, but it immediately puts the Utah defense in an impossible position - Leonard's man, Jeff Withey, and McCollum's, Rodney Hood, are forced either to collapse onto CJ and control his penetration or deny Meyers the open jumper. They opt to trap CJ and deny him the passing lane to pop it back out, but no matter. Because the Blazers have three other perimeter threats dotting the 3-point arc - Crabbe, Harkless and Tim Frazier - they're able to quickly move the ball around with a ping-ping-ping series of passes. The result is a Meyers 3-point attempt that's wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open. This play is beautiful, but you rarely saw it last season because Leonard spent so many minutes last season with a conventional big man like Ed Davis clogging the paint.

Now, for contrast's sake, let's watch the Blazers run their pick-and-roll offense with Meyers at the four and Davis at the five.

Again, it's a simple set with a primary ball-handler at the top and a screener attempting to create a seam in the defense, but instead of a free-flowing offense with five out, the Blazers have Davis in the middle and Leonard doing his power forward-y thing, setting up shop at the elbow. Watch what happens. After the pick-and-roll between Lillard and Crabbe, there's no room for him to drive because Leonard and his man, Atlanta's Paul Millsap, are in the way. So Crabbe makes the entry pass to Leonard instead, but look at the clogging in the middle! Just to get a simple shot off, Leonard has to contend with his own man (Millsap), McCollum's man (Kent Bazemore) and Davis' man (Tiago Splitter), who's simply milling around the rim and can easily drift over to help out. Meyers is basically triple-teamed.

It would be oversimplifying matters to say that this spacing was an issue every single play. But this problem was far more common last season than a lot of Blazer observers were willing to admit. There were way too many possessions where Meyers Leonard looked like this.

There were not nearly enough where he looked like this.

It's hard not to look at that contrast and understand the dilemma the Blazers are facing with Power Forward Meyers versus Center Meyers.

Now of course, that analysis is only considering one side of the ball. And customarily, the problems with using floor-stretchers with Meyers Leonard tend to crop up on the other end of the floor. The reason you don't see many Kevin Loves and Ryan Andersons getting heavy minutes at the center spot is that defensively, those guys are sieves.

The same can't be said of Leonard. Scroll up and look at those position stats again, and ask yourself - how can the Blazers have such a staggeringly good net rating with Leonard at center even though his offensive numbers are only a smidge better than at power forward? The answer is that Leonard, unlike a lot of the game's best shooting big men, can play center without giving away easy points defensively. Even against the truest of the true post threats, Leonard holds his own.

That's Meyers Leonard against DeMarcus Cousins. From beginning to end of this possession, Leonard's work is brilliant - he starts out defending in space against a Boogie drive, and he later proves equally effective at fronting Boogie in the post and, once he finally gets the ball, guarding the Kings' big man one-on-one around the rim. His suffocating D forces a miss out of one of the game's best post scorers.

This wasn't a fluke. Leonard has been a respectable rim-protecting center for the last couple of years; this past season, he held opposing shooters around the basket to 52.8 percent shooting, per SportVU, which is around league average. The list of guys who can do that and provide deadly shooting from 3 is mighty short. Leonard might be the only guy on it, actually.

So what do the Blazers do? They've got Leonard, who needs to get minutes somewhere. They've got Ezeli and Plumlee. They've got a whole host of other power forward types in the mix. One explanation is the Blazers are prime candidates to make a roster-consolidating trade, and that may well be the case. Ed Davis, for example, is a solid bench player on a very team-friendly contract. A player like that is movable.

The devil's-advocate-y counterpoint to that is you can never have too much depth. Rather than force a trade in a situation where they don't need one, the Blazers may opt to hold onto all their guys, play the season out and be thankful for fallback options if and when someone gets hurt. If Ezeli gets a high ankle sprain in January or what have you, Olshey will sure be happy he kept Davis.

You just never know what might happen. Injuries can strike. Issues of fit can arise - what if the Blazers simply decide that Ezeli doesn't have the right offensive skill set to merit his 24 minutes? A whole lot of weird curveballs might come the Blazers' way. The safe play is to hold onto Davis, Leonard and everyone else and go into this upcoming season with a little extra margin for error in the rotation.

I hope that somehow, in whatever capacity, that rotation includes a significant dose of Meyers Leonard. I like Leonard's game. In a vacuum, I also like Ezeli's, and Plumlee's, and Davis'. But none of these players exist in a vacuum; they exist in a jam-packed Blazer depth chart that's riddled with question marks. It will be an interesting October when the Blazers begin their preseason search for answers. One would expect Leonard to be one of those answers, but these days, it's tough to be sure.