The 2016-17 season for the Portland Trail Blazers was like hopping aboard the California Screamin’ ride at Disneyland’s California Adventure park; the lows were low, the highs were high, and the team bounced between the two without a moment’s warning. Meyers Leonard’s season however, was more like going down the slide at your local park.
After Leonard re-signed with the Blazers for $41 million and four years this past summer, the Blazers and their fans were hoping to see a positive return on the organization’s money and their time. Leonard responded with career lows in field goal percentage, PER, Win Shares/48, vorp, true rebounding percentage, defensive box plus/minus, total rebounds per 36 minutes. Put simply—other than his sophomore year when he only played 40 games—this was the worst season of his career.
Fans watched Meyers as a rookie, and saw both glimpses of potential and glimpses of a player who had a long way to go before he could become a contributor. This year fans watched Meyers, four years later, have an even worse season.
Leonard has a very rare skillset in the NBA. He is all you would want in an NBA center from the neck down: he’s a legit 7-footer, has a very strong frame, decent athleticism and runs very well for his size. But what makes him so unique is his career 37.1 percent 3-point shooting, the main reason why the Blazers paid all that money to bring him back.
Meyers was never able to use either his size or shooting to make much of an impact on the game. A player with a body as big as Meyers should be able to do ’big man things’ like draw fouls, collect offensive rebounds, and block shots. Instead, out of every player 7” or taller who played more than 600 minutes, Meyers ranked dead last in free throw attempts. Out of every player 7”or taller who played over 700 minutes, Leonard was second to last in both offensive rebounds and blocked shots.
His tendency to stay on the perimeter had a big effect on why his free throw attempts and offensive rebounds were so low, but if Leonard isn’t blocking shots, drawing fouls, or rebounding, his size becomes strictly for post defense, and nothing more. Just defending opposing big men on defense and then hanging around the 3-point line on offense would be a lot more understandable if not for shooting an unspectacular 34.7 percent from behind the arc this season.
One of the benefits of a big man who can shoot is an advantage shooting over nearby defenders. But only 11 of Leonard’s 213 3-point attempts this season were taken with a defender within 4 feet. Over half of his threes for the season were shot with the closest defender being 6 feet or more away from him (per NBA.com), telling us that Meyers only shoots if he is wide open. If a defender knows he only needs to be within 4-6 feet of Leonard to keep him from shooting, that makes Leonard easier to defend and less effective at spreading the floor.
If a big man is going to stay outside the 3-point line he needs to be a legitimate threat to hurt the defense. There were 550 times this season an NBA player made five threes in a game. Even guys yet to make an impact on the league like Johnathon Gibson, Alex Poythress, Rashad Vaughn, and Portland’s own Jake Laymen were able to have at least one game of five made 3-pointers. Meyers was never able to make five 3-pointers in a game once this season and he only had three games of four made 3-pointers; this hardly instills any threat to the defense of Meyers hurting them from the outside.
Leonard never had any stretch of the season where he was able to show a consistent positive impact on games. He only once was able to score in double digits in back-to-back games, he finished the season with just two games of double-digit rebounds, and he never once eclipsed the 20-point mark.
Overall, Meyers did not have a good season, and his play did not merit the contract he received (see “Comments Section” for more details). But Meyers is far from the only NBA player not playing up to their contract, and you don’t have to look further than the Blazers’ roster to find other examples.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Leonards season was the way the Blazer fans took to him. The fanbase has a reputation of being very supportive and encouraging of all of their players—Raymond Felton and few others being obvious exceptions. Normally, as long as a player plays hard and has a good attitude—like Meyers—fans love their Blazer players.
But they did not take to Leonard. Meyers has been the butt of many Blazer jokes, he was booed numerous times—including on his final shot of the season. Aside from being overpaid and not playing well, Meyers has not done anything to provoke such resentment. But for whatever reason, at least a segment of fans detest that Meyers had the audacity to sign the contract offered to him.
The man who gave him that offer, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, tried to be as positive as he could about Meyers during exit interviews, but seemed to instill even less confidence for fans in Meyers. This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of a player who is primed to succeed:
Back and hip injuries nagged Meyers for part of the season and that may have had a big impact on his play. Regardless, the situation has become unfortunate for Meyers and for the Blazers. Hopefully, he can come back and contribute to the team next year, but given the city’s current attitude toward Leonard—and Olshey describing Leonard’s confidence as “literally a day-to-day process to keep his spirits up when things are not going the right way”—it’s hard to predict what the future holds.