Blazers should let Meyers Leonard go to a new team
It's time. Past time, really.
To free Meyers Leonard.
The Trail Blazers need to trade the reserve forward/center this summer, and not because of poor production or deportment.
Playing in only 33 regular-season games and averaging only 7.7 minutes per contest, Leonard averaged 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds this season. He shot .590 from the field, .423 from 3-point range and .821 from the free throw line. Leonard, 26, led Portland in points per shot (1.44) and was third in player efficiency rating (17.8), trailing only Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic.
The 7-1 Leonard wasn't a member of coach Terry Stotts' regular rotation, but it was less the result of performance this season than failures in the past.
Leonard came to the Blazers with great promise as the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft, chosen five spots behind Lillard. After two seasons at Illinois, Leonard, then 20, had good hands and athleticism and a nice shooting touch that would extend to the 3-point line during his third campaign in Portland.
That year, Leonard joined the 50/40/90 club, shooting .510 from the field, .420 from 3-point range and .938 from the foul line. He didn't have enough attempts to qualify, or he'd have joined an exclusive group of 13 in NBA history who have achieved it, great shooters such as Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Stephen Curry and Dirk Nowitzki.
Leonard had his best season during his fourth year in the league (2015-16), starting 10 games and, as a regular member of the rotation, averaging 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.9 minutes. He backtracked the next season, losing his spot in the rotation while shooting .386 from the field. Leonard wanted badly to do well, for both his teammates and his fans, and fell victim to the pressure he put on himself. Then the fans turned on him, making him their whipping boy.
There weren't many opportunities this past season, but you never saw an ounce of quit in Leonard, who worked his tail off in practice and was a good teammate during games, rooting on the Blazers from the bench. Some players would have sulked. Not Leonard, who wanted desperately to play but never copped an attitude about it. And he played pretty well during his occasional opportunities.
The problem this season was the emergence of rookie Zach Collins, who joined the rotation in December and continued to improve through the season. With Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Collins and Ed Davis covering the minutes at the 4 and 5 spots, there simply was no time for Leonard.
"In terms of production and playing, I wish I could have had more opportunity," Leonard said after his exit interview with Stotts and general manager Neil Olshey. "However, I recognize and own that two seasons ago, I dug myself a bit of a hole.
"I felt really good about the work I put in and my level of focus last summer. With limited minutes, I was able to be fairly successful this season. Every statistical category except blocks was up (from the previous season). I came in with the idea of working as hard as I could and (be recognized for) my willingness to be a good person, good teammate and a pro. That was my approach every single day."
Leonard is going into this offseason with the same good attitude.
"I want to prove to people I'm a good player and I can be a factor for this team," he said. "I'm at a point where I feel really good about who I am as a player and where I can continue to push myself to be.
"I'll do the exact same thing as I did last summer. My hope is there will be open minds to who I am as a player after the work I put in this summer, with the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation."
Unless Portland lets Ed Davis go into free agency — I don't think that will happen — there will be no room again next season for Leonard. I think Stotts likes him very much as a person, but has lost confidence in him as a player.
So the Blazers should allow Leonard — always the good soldier — to go to a new team, with an opportunity to grow as a player and get minutes as he enters the peak physical years of his career.
With two years left on his contract, Leonard will make $10.6 million next season and $11.3 million in 2019-20. The Blazers will find takers at that price and, with that length of contract, and should get something of value in return.
Leonard and wife, Elle, have been proud to be a part of Portland's community over the years. Meyers has a number of charitable endeavors, participating in a kids' game ticket program and, motivated by his brother's military service, has been a contributor to several endeavors supporting veterans and military personnel. He's a personable young man whom I'd be proud to call my son.
But it's time to go.
Unless something changes in terms of personnel, he's not going to get an opportunity in Portland. And I'm not sure he can fully relax and become the player he can be unless it's with a fresh start in a new situation and a different franchise.
I'll miss him, and maybe you will, too.
But it's time to free Meyers Leonard.