No team lost more than the Portland Trailblazers this offseason.
LaMarcus Aldridge, the top free-agent on the market, vacated Portland for the San Antonio Spurs, leaving the franchise without its four-time All-Star and longtime cornerstone. The exodus didn’t stop there, either, as the Blazers also lost Robin Lopez and Wes Matthews to free agency, plus Nic Batum in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets. Altogether, Portland lost four out of five members of its starting lineup, a level of turnover that has the Blazers now looking toward a new era.
In a sense, that era as already started, as point guard Damian Lillard has already ascended as one of the league’s best scoring guard and will now look to assume the undisputed alpha dog role in Portland since Aldridge left town. The Blazers have already put their money where their mouth is in this situation, awarding Lillard a max contract extension earlier this offseason, making him their new franchise building block both in status and salary.
Lillard will look to prove himself as Aldridge’s successor in that regard, but the Blazers have another intriguing young player who they’re hoping will become a true big-man replacement for Aldridge: Meyers Leonard.
For most of last season, Leonard was relegated to the bench. He played only 15 minutes per game overall, and his contributions were as inconsistent as his playing time. While he did notch a positive plus-minus, Portland scored just 96.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, not a great mark for a big man whose biggest weapon is his all-around offensive game. He was a tantalizing prospect, but still just a prospect.
Late in the season and into the playoffs, though, something changed. While Leonard would finish the regular season as the league’s sole member of the 50-40-90 shooting percentages club, he found a way to put that efficiency to good use in the playoffs.
Against the big, traditional lineups of the Memphis Grizzlies, Leonard proved to be a valuable commodity: a big man with traditional size but an unconventional skill-set. He created serious mismatches with his red-hot outside shooting, making 10 three-pointers in just 5 games while shooting a ridiculous 76% from three. Obviously, that kind of shooting would bend a defense from any position, but from your center, it sends the defense scrambling.
The Blazers want to deploy that weapon more often this season, and based on what GM Neil Olshey told Zach Lowe on his podcast recently, Leonard projects to be a starter, which means he’ll have many opportunities, provided he can clean up several of the finer aspects of his game.
Portland will want Leonard to partly replace the scoring load that Aldridge left behind, something he seems capable of doing simply from his ability to shoot and finish. He’s actually got better range than Aldridge, and he’s less prone to settle for mid-range jumpshots as well, even though he can hit them. He’s more apt to mix in some rim-rolls or pop-out to launch his deadly three-point stroke.
As a screen-and-roll partner with Lillard, however, he’s got a lot to work on, from his screen-setting fundamentals to reading the defense and timing his move. This itself is an art form in the NBA, one that must be learned if Leonard hopes to utilize his great skills in meaningful ways next season.
Leonard’s bigger issues have come on defense, where he leaves much to be desired. He actually seemed to fare worse against the super-physical play of the Grizzlies in the playoffs, given that he’s more of a finesse guy––as you might have imagined based on his penchant for threes––which doesn’t work around teams like Memphis.
Based on Nylon Calculus’s rim protection stats, however, Leonard has the potential to develop into a rim-protecting center. Opponents shot just 42 percent at the rim versus Leonard, per Calculus and Sport VU, a number that ranks among the best in the league, around guys like Andrew Bogut or Roy Hibbert. Leonard’s problem was the rate at which he contested those shots, only 40 percent of opposing attempts, which is a rate more befitting a power forward than a center in the middle of the defense. Rudy Gobert, for instance, contested 57 percent of opposing field goal attempts last season.
Part of that starts with improving his defense in the pick-and-roll, where Leonard’s feet are a mess, and the rest of him is too slow to make up for it. Pick-and-roll happens to be the area of focus for his offense as well, making the right reads and getting the ball in a position to make a play. These are areas where young players often struggle, and the more playing time he receives, in theory, the more these areas should start to slow down and become easier for Leonard on the court.
The good for Leonard is that the potential is there. The numbers show it, the eye test shows it, and he’s a talented former lottery pick. There’s a lot here to be excited about.
Still, Leonard has a lot of work to do to turn himself into a legitimate frontcourt replacement for Aldridge, who was an underrated all-around talent during his time in Portland. The Blazers are hoping that Leonard, with all his talent, can help fans forget about this past year and focus on their intriguing future.