An odd thing happened at the conclusion of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 128-103 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of their first round playoff series Monday night. On Portland’s final possession of the game—and, as it turned out, the season—Meyers Leonard lined up at the three-point arc. As he drew back into his shooting motion, a scattered shower of boos filtered across the Moda Center floor from the rafters. Not everyone in the crowd expressed themselves so, but the chorus was clearly audible. There was no mistaking the target either. Portland fans were not booing their team or the outcome of the series; they were expressing their displeasure with Meyers.
Blazers fans are a loyal and forgiving bunch. It’s not unheard of for them to boo players, but it’s rare. Such outbursts are usually reserved for players who have fallen below even the lowest expectations, inevitably through some perceived flaw. Raymond Felton battled weight issues. Bonzi Wells claimed fans would fawn over him no matter what he said or did. Rasheed Wallace provoked supporters and the franchise itself in public interviews. In these cauldrons disapproval bubbled to the surface. Hearing catcalls descend upon a generally well-liked player such as Leonard without any track record of off-court causticity is unique.
Then again, Blazers fans haven’t seen too many players like Meyers Leonard. And few players have been subject to the kind of roller coaster than Leonard has ridden in his first five years in Portland.
Expectations for Leonard were high out of the gate. The Blazers drafted him 11th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, five slots after Portland’s first selection: Damian Lillard. Once upon a time Leonard’s evolution was expected to follow a similar path as Lillard’s, if not so quickly. Damian ended up Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, and has become the team’s leading scorer and the public face of the franchise. Leonard hasn’t.
Worse, Leonard has often been compared to a ghost pick: Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond. Selected 9th in 2012, Drummond has become a force of nature. The Blazers couldn’t draft him and by some accounts didn’t want him, but whenever that draft is brought up, the refrain rises, “We wish the Blazers could have gotten Lillard and Drummond instead.” The vast differences between the two—not just talent but style of play—make the comparison comical, but that will not still it.
Now 24, Leonard has logged 2 semi-impressive seasons out of 5 total. He averaged 5.5 points and 4 rebounds on 54.5% shooting in his rookie year. He also shot 43% from the three-point arc. This got tongues wagging. 7’1”, 245 pounds, and dead-eye shooting don’t usually accompany each other. After an injury-shortened sophomore season Leonard came back in Year 3 with 6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 51% shooting, and 42% from the arc. This would prove his high-water mark. As injuries continued to hamper his development his numbers would sink.
Blazers fans may have felt justified booing when looking at Leonard shooting 39% from the field, 35% from distance this year...the latter still a respectable mark but far below his presumed promise.
But Leonard’s 2016-17 season was a roller coaster in ways that went beyond stats. He signed a 4-year, $41 million contract last summer, the first big payday of his career. He also spent the off-season recovering from yet another shoulder injury. As play commenced he got off to a dodgy start. His playing time fluctuated; seeing consecutive nights of 22 minutes then 8 was not uncommon. This stabilized mid-year just in time for Jusuf Nurkic to come on board. Nurkic’s arrival brought Noah Vonleh into the starting power forward role and pushed Al-Farouq Aminu into reserve minutes formerly belonging to Meyers. Leonard’s minutes would rebound as the season closed and Nurkic went down with a fractured leg but his shot attempts never materialized and his role remained uncertain. His contributions to the Warriors series were short and not distinctive...fitting, if not foreordained.
During exit interviews on Tuesday, Portland’s lead executive Neil Olshey offered this assessment of Leonard’s season:
"It's a day to day process to keep his spirits up." -Olshey on Meyers Leonard. pic.twitter.com/c4Gc7VkTo4— CSN Northwest (@CSNNW) April 25, 2017
Olshey would also name the young player whose development he was most excited about. (Hint: It wasn’t Meyers.)
Neil Olshey says Noah Vonleh's development excited him the most of any player this season.— Mike Richman (@mikegrich) April 25, 2017
Leonard received a compliment from teammate CJ McCollum, but it carried a mixed message:
McCollum on Leonard: He's 1 of the most genuinely nice guys I've come into contact with... When he dedicates himself, the results will come— CSN Northwest (@CSNNW) April 25, 2017
As detailed in our rundown of team-wide interviews yesterday, Leonard assessed his year this way:
Coming off the shoulder, it was a long process for me. Like, Ed (Davis) for example just had his and I’m so happy for him. His range of motion and everything and his strength is awesome, but I had a lot more going on, so the rehab was really extensive and not being able to train at a high level last summer, I think, set me back when it comes to, like, my legs and strength and core strength and all that. Then coming into the year, I basically went from not practicing to a couple practices to playing, and all of a sudden my back kind of gave in and that continued a little bit throughout the year, and I just felt like I never quite got to where I was feeling good.
Normally a player battling injuries will get a pass for his performance; showing up on the court and giving it a good go is enough. But Blazers fans are having difficulty figuring out whether a “go” amounting to 5 points, 3 rebounds, and career-low shooting really is good. Plus injuries have plagued Leonard each of the last four years. Will he ever be free of them?
Whatever the cause, entering the early years of your prime going backwards instead of forwards is seldom appreciated. At some point empathy mingled with hope begins to fade. The NBA offers no adequate substitutes for success.
But are Leonard’s struggles a contributing factor to Portland’s instability or a result of it? Comparing his progress to Lillard’s and McCollum’s would be ludicrous, but they came out of college ready-made while he was a project in development. They were also given prominent positions and allowed to work their way through growing pains. Leonard has played center and power forward, has shifted from an interior to exterior emphasis, and the frontcourt lineup has been a carousel around him. He’s been stuck in no-man’s-land: not good enough to carve out minutes in a meritocracy, not good enough to develop without them, but never displaced into irrelevance by a clearly better player.
In the end, the boos of the Portland fans were not evidence of displeasure with Leonard personally, nor a comparative commentary on his statistical production. They represented the voice of frustration: frustration that Meyers hasn’t grown more, frustration that the team hasn’t progressed to the point to make the issue moot.
Leonard’s future with the Blazers is up in the air. Portland needs to cut salary. With the arrival of Nurkic, Leonard’s size—if not his potential—becomes less relevant. On the other hand he remains a seven-footer with range. And even in the new NBA, trading a $10 million a year center who averages 5 and 3 while shooting 39% may not be easy. There’s always the possibility that Leonard will spend a year or two free from injuries and new layers to his game will appear. He’s only 24; at least a decade remains in his career if he can stick. But sticking anything, including the recent dismount from the season, has been an issue thus far.
What do you say? Why did Blazers fans boo Leonard at the close of the series. How crucial is he to Portland’s future? Do you see potential in him still or are you ready to sell him to any bidder? Weigh in below.