Portland Trail Blazers fans have been wondering what to do with Meyers Leonard since July of 2016, when Neil Olshey, flush with the raised cap that summer, handed him a 4-year, $41 million contract. Flash forward two years, and although Leonard remains on the Trail Blazers roster, his place is more uncertain than ever: they have a capable starting center in Jusuf Nurkic, a promising big man in Zach Collins who needs minutes, and another energetic youngster, Caleb Swanigan, who will do everything he can to force himself into the rotation as well. That leaves Leonard on the bench or on the trading block (Dave Deckard gave an incredible explanation yesterday as to why a waive or stretch is unlikely). But how attractive is he to other teams? Might some team still take a flier on him?
Meyers Leonard was drafted 10th back in 2012, a stacked draft class. In his six seasons in the NBA, he has never played over 22 minutes per game, nor has he appeared in more than 74 games in any season. His two best years were probably from 2014-2016, when his future looked relatively bright. Meyers was still on his rookie deal, was improving, and had time to grow along a young roster. Since then, he signed that big contract, failed to take a step forward, and is now sitting on the bench on a team that is trying to compete.
Still, for teams trying to look on the bright side of things, Meyers has several notable positives. First, he’s a true big man at 7’1”, and while small-ball is all the rage in the NBA nowadays, one has to only look at the top picks in the 2018 draft to see that plenty of GMs clearly think big men can be highly valuable in the coming years. There will always be some teams willing to take shots on big men. Second, Meyers can shoot. In 2014-2015 he pulled off the distinguished feat of a 50/40/90 season, and while it may have been in low minutes off the bench, and on a small number of free throw attempts, it is still a sign of his touch and shooting ability. In the years since, he’s taken more shots from outside, to mixed success. But big men who can shoot from deep are valuable in today’s NBA, and Leonard fills those boxes. Finally, Meyers’ very lack of minutes could encourage an NBA team that different development and increased playing time could lead to a breakthrough. It’s not likely, at age 26, and going into his seventh season. But it is possible.
The Advanced Stats
Interestingly, advanced stats aren’t unkind to Meyers. He certainly isn’t an analytics darling who has indications of unknown heights, but he’s mostly painted as a league average rotation player, not the disaster that the eye test or even regular stats might suggest. In his last four seasons (since his first “breakout season”), Leonard has not had an RPM better than -0.17 — but also hasn’t had one below -1.24 either. VORP, BPM, and Win Shares/48 all hold to the same basic pattern: outside of an apparently outlier bad season in 2016-2017, Leonard rates as mostly holding around a net neutral. That’s certainly not great for a player making almost $22 million over the next two seasons, yet it’s still a sign that perhaps he’s not the unplayable lost cause that some might think.
The negatives to Leonard are obvious. Outside of the 2015-2016 season, he’s never had a substantial role in a rotation, and he’s never really had the base production to suggest he’s capable of more. Considering his size, he’s a below-average rebounder and a shockingly bad rim protector, and while Leonard has some athleticism, he certainly isn’t able to switch out into guards on the perimeter either. He’s a defensive negative at the center position, which is never a good thing. Worse, outside of his shooting, there’s not much to suggest he does much positively on offense. His size does enable some easy finishes around the hoop, but he’s not strong or a physical presence in the post, which are reflected in poor offensive rebounding and free throw numbers. Really, a team would have to hope that he could increase his volume of three-point shooting without harming his efficiency, and that in a different defensive scheme with the right guys around him he could improve on that end. Again, there are reasons to think those improvements could happen, but they seem unlikely. Overall, he’s a net negative asset, possibly a significant one, but certainly nowhere close to unmovable.
The real issue for any potential Meyers Leonard trade is the lack of realistic candidates. Ideally, the Blazers would be looking for a bad team willing to take a shot on Leonard and eat his contract (in exchange for pulling in an asset of some kind), but there simply aren’t many teams trying to be bad in the NBA right now, and even the ones that are don’t have much cap space at this point. The best option would be the Sacramento Kings, who are bad and have enough room to take back Leonard’s contract without giving up anything in return. Unfortunately, three of their best prospects are big men, so they’d likely have little interest in Leonard as a gamble. His contract would move them above the cap floor, however, and if they got a couple future second round picks from the Blazers (or something along those lines), there’s really little reason for them not to do the trade.
Another candidate is the Phoenix Suns, who have their center of the future in DeAndre Ayton, but no backup beyond an ancient Tyson Chandler. A Leonard for Jared Dudley swap would work, as the Suns could legitimately use a guy who could play 15 minutes a game at center for a few seasons while Ayton develops. Dudley is a nice veteran presence but provides nothing else for the Suns on the court now or in the future, while there’s at least the chance Leonard could help them off the bench. Again, the Blazers would probably have to throw in an asset or two, but a deal could get done.
Meyers Leonard hasn’t been what the Blazers hoped he would be, and he’s vastly overpaid. Still, there are at least some indications that he could prove a rotation player in the NBA yet, and if a GM believes in him enough, the Blazers might be able to move off his salary without giving up too precious an asset. The options are limited, but there are potential deals out there, and a break-up makes sense for both parties are this point.