To say Meyers Leonard is a polarizing figure among Trail Blazers fan is like stating that water is wet.
"He's too soft! He needs a post game and a nasty streak. It's been four years and we still don't know what he can do!"
"He's a unicorn sent to us by the Basketball Gods! He's 7-feet tall with a pure stroke and he can guard the best bigs in the league! He's only 24 years old, he's just scratching the surface."
Neither is totally wrong, nor totally right. About the only thing that's consistent here is that Leonard is indeed 24 years old and he has been in the league for four years. Beyond that, it's a matter of perspective. So, let's take that and see if we can dissect what Meyers means to this team going forward.
Leonard is a Shooter
Before we dive in let's cover a very basic point right off the bat. Meyers Leonard can shoot the rock. Period. End of story. While we don't need to anoint him as the 50/40/90 7-footer, he's proven over the course of 2000-plus NBA minutes that he can shoot effectively from the rim to beyond the 3-point line. You can ask him to develop a post game. You can ask him to not pump fake. But saying he needs to stay inside and play like a traditional center just shouldn't be a thing. This isn't some grand announcement. In fact, as you're reading this you're probably thinking, "yeah, no kidding" but you'd be surprised how often I hear that Leonard needs to stop shooting.
With that in mind, Meyers can take all the catch and shoot opportunities he would like.
(Note: all data collected and displayed here is from November 28, 2015 - March 14, 2016. This is the time period where Meyers was deemed "healthy" and gives a large enough sample size from which we can make somewhat conclusive deductions and inferences.)
According to Synergy Sports data, Leonard took more shots in the catch and shoot per minute on the floor than all but four qualified players. That group included Klay Thompson, JJ Redick, Dirk Nowtizki, and Mirza Teletovic. Leonard shot better from the field in the catch & shoot than all but Redick in that group, arguably the purest shooter not named Stephen Curry in the league.
So Leonard takes and makes shots in the catch and shoot. The good thing here is that Leonard knows that's what he's good at and that's where he gets the vast majority of his looks. Player tracking data has him taking over 67 percent of his shots in the catch and shoot. Where he gets the next biggest chunk of his shots is inside 10 feet.
This is clearly a point of contention for a lot of Blazers fans. There is a loud contingent that really wants Leonard to develop a post game. Adding a move and a counter move that he can go do when teams try to switch smaller players onto him absolutely makes sense. Asking him to be as effective or efficient as the premier bigs in the league does not.
Inside 10 feet Leonard shot over 54 percent. Again, Leonard has shown the ability or capacity to take and make shots. Leonard, in a very small sample, showed he could knock down the hook shot- connecting on 13 of 19 last season. While that points to some elegant touch, his ability to finish around the rim, particularly on layups, is a staggeringly low 41.7 percent. For someone who has shown so much touch with the ball that jumps off the page and screams problems.
Much has been made about Leonard looking lost at times defensively. On the offensive end that doesn't pop up all that often, but it does seem to rear its ugly head when Leonard finds himself at or near the rim. Which is something that's really strange considering he was a traditional big in college.
Leonard's runner, floater, turnaround, and fade away all show as bright lights of hope simply because he was so effective with those shots. Again, it's only hope due to the small sample size, but hope nonetheless.
The Leonard Effect
Going into next year, Leonard has the security of a brand new 4-year, $41-million deal. What he doesn't have is all the pomp and circumstance coming off a surprising run in the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies that saw him pegged as one of the "Big 3" going forward.
With that, Leonard isn't given the benefit of the doubt or the guarantee of minutes that he started with last season. Maybe that helps him. Maybe not. The weight - the burden - of that may have been too much for him coming into the season without a new contract and the list of injuries he kept hidden away.
The Leonard effect, though - if you can believe or trust the data from last season - shows that the Blazers were a better team with him on the floor:
The raw on/off numbers for Leonard show that Portland as a team shoots better, rebounds better, generates more assists, turns the ball over less, and has a better offensive rating with the big man on the floor. There are some negatives here as well - Portland blocks fewer shots and generates fewer turnovers, while allowing opponents to secure more defensive rebounds.
The basics here: Leonard increases the offense, doesn't crash the offensive boards all that well and the extra plays - steals, blocks, etc. aren't as common an occurrence with him on the floor.
To take a deeper dive, let's visit some 5-man line up data. This has to be taken with a grain of salt because there are so many variables at play. Opponent, points up vs. points down and time and situation are just a few factors to take into consideration. However, when there's a preponderance of data you have to at least analyze it and see what it has to offer:
The two huge takeaways for me were how well the team shot when a combination of Al-Farouq Aminu, Leonard, and CJ McCollum were on the floor together and the counter point: How poorly the team shot comparatively when Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis were on the floor together.
There are a few things here concerning that last group. It wasn't until late in the season, particularly after Leonard went down, that we saw Harkless step up and take the starting job by the horns. Once Harkless had steady minutes, like Leonard, he played much better and much more consistently.
What we see here is that overall, having Leonard on the court does buoy the Blazers' offense. In total the team shot 45.5 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from distance with Leonard on the floor. Both are above the team averages for the season. Digging even deeper, the Blazers on the season took .593 three pointers per minute (roughly), and with Leonard on the floor the Blazers upped that to .65 three pointers per minute. Basically, the Blazers take and make more 3-pointers when Leonard plays.
This in a nutshell is the Leonard Effect.
It's not just that Leonard himself can knock down the three ball. It's the space he generates for his teammates. The mere threat of him out there causes the defense to shift in ways they almost never have to.
There aren't many bigs that are comfortable defending above that 3-point line. Some have speculated that opposing teams should and will counter this by switching a smaller player onto Leonard. Okay, that's fine. Who's now covering the other four guys on the court? Where's the mismatch? That's how the NBA Finals went down. Both teams ran pick-and-rolls until they got the switch they wanted. If teams do that with Leonard preemptively on that end, it makes rotations that much harder, and that much more staggered. Which is why you probably haven't seen teams employ that strategy yet.
Meyers Leonard This Year and Beyond
Heading into the 2016-17 season what should fans expect of Leonard? Outside the acquisitions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, that's arguably one of the biggest question marks facing the Blazers. What does a reasonable season for Leonard look like? Last year he put together eight points and five rebounds on 45 percent shooting from the floor at 38 percent from distance. His Per-36 numbers were 13 points and eight rebounds. If Leonard can put together 10+ points and 6+ rebounds per game while maintaining his shooting prowess, that sounds like a solid growth year.
Defensively, if Leonard can cut down on some of the rudimentary mistakes while maintaining his ability to stymie the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and defend the rim without fouling, again that's a solid amount of growth.
For Leonard, I would argue that this year is huge for him in Portland. The Blazers looked primed for a consolidation trade in the near future. If he shows he can be a contributor on both ends of the floor, stay healthy, and continue adding to his game, then his time in Portland could continue for the foreseeable future.
If not, he may be shipped out in a deal where the receiving team sees him as still a potential-laden big that they're willing to take a chance on. There's certainly options in between success and trade bait, it just feels like those are the most logical points of conclusion based on a number of factors.
What does a successful season for Meyers Leonard look like for you? Where do you see him making the biggest leap or the longest fall? Let us know below in the comments!