Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

On the surface, it would appear this offseason brought little to no help to the Trail Blazers amid the NBA’s whirlwind summer of blockbuster trades and free agent acquisitions.

Aside from a salary-cap motivated move of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn, and the drafting of 19-year-old center Zach Collins and Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, the Blazers are largely the same group that went 41-41 and finished eighth in the Western Conference.

The Las Vegas betting line on Trail Blazers wins for the 2017-2018 season is 42.5 games, which would place them eighth in the West:

1. Golden State (67.5)

2. Houston (55.5)

3. San Antonio (54.5)

4. Oklahoma City (51.5)

5. Minnesota (48.5)

6. Denver (45.5)

7. LA Clippers (44.5)

8. Portland (42.5)

Of course, Las Vegas has been wrong before about the Blazers (remember 2015-2016 when the Blazers won 44 games after Vegas set the line at 26.5?), and it’s easy to get swept up in the headlines from an offseason that saw Chris Paul move to Houston, Paul George to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and Paul Millsap to Denver.

But behind the sexy headlines and tumultuous turnover, the Blazers have been  doing what has become a hallmark of this franchise: relying on improvement from within.

With that in mind, CSN this week will unveil five reasons the Blazers this season could exceed 42 wins and be better than people think:

Today: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

Tuesday: A full season of a more fit Jusuf Nurkic

Monday: A healthy Ed Davis

 

**

One of the first things Meyers Leonard did this summer with Drew Hanlen, his new trainer, was watch the Trail Blazers’ final regular season game against New Orleans.

Leonard started that game and played 36 minutes, finishing 3-for-11 from the field and with seven points and nine rebounds.

“It was hard for me to sit there and watch it,’’ Leonard said.

He couldn’t score in the post against guards. He noticed he wasn’t attacking rebounds. And the form of his shot was disjointed and his attempts off the mark.

“It was eye opening,’’ the 7-foot-1 Leonard remembered. “I was making it so difficult on myself.’’

The regular-season finale was a microcosm of his frustrating fifth season in Portland, when he averaged 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and shot 38.5 percent from the field.

After the film session, Hanlen -- whose resume includes training NBA players Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Clarkson, Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard to name a few -- developed a plan.

“It was a plan to prepare him for this kind of ‘New Meyers,’’’ Hanlen said.

The major bullet points of the rebuild were to tighten Leonard’s shooting mechanics; get him to play lower and less upright; and to develop a plan on how to approach various scenarios, such as when defenders rush at him at the three-point line.

“But the first area we had to attack was the cloud that was holding him back – his confidence,’’ Hanlen said. “When he first arrived in the summer I asked him ‘From 1-to-100, how confident are you in your game?’

“He said, ‘If I’m being honest, probably around 30,’’’ Hanlen said.

Fast forward four months to today, less than a week away from the start of training camp.

Leonard says his confidence level is “in the 80s” and Hanlen says in all his years of working with NBA players, Leonard’s progress is remarkable.

“From a confidence level, it’s one of the biggest jumps I’ve seen a player make in a summer,’’ Hanlen said. “And from a skill level standpoint, Meyers elevated himself multiple levels.’’

Apparently, Leonard and Hanlen aren’t the only ones noticing.

Leonard this summer took part in the renowned NBA pickup games at UCLA two or three times a week, and Hanlen said several of his clients approached him about the 7-footer from Portland.

“I was getting compliments from NBA players like ‘Meyers is a beast … I don’t know why Portland is not using him,’’ Hanlen said. “Other players, they were bragging to me about him.’’

Leonard said those games included players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, and one week the entire Oklahoma City team played.

“I was out there as confident as I’ve ever been – hitting shots … down in the post … and having a plan of what I wanted to do,’’ he said. “I had a couple different people tell me they heard things, stuff like ‘If Meyers plays like this he will be just fine … it will be eye opening … ‘’

 

Leonard stopped short and retreated. He is wary of what he says these days, knowing all too well how much of a divisive force he is among the Blazers’ fan base, and how many “remakes” he has supposedly undergone during his five seasons in Portland.

Both he and Hanlen agree that the proof will be in his performance this season.

“I will say this: This is the most laser-focused I have been in my life. For sure,’’ Leonard said. “I no longer have thoughts in head of ‘Do I really belong?’  – I no longer have that and never will again. I’ve proven that to myself.’’

That confidence was born out of 6:15 a.m. wakeup calls for daily workouts with Hanlen in Los Angeles.

The biggest changes: Hanlen has changed Leonard’s shooting mechanics, most of which deals with balance. He found that Leonard would often lean back on his shots and/or have his feet to close together. So now, Leonard focuses on his shoulders being forward and establishing a wide base with his feet.

Also, he has trained Leonard to play lower, which allows him to move better, both offensively and defensively.

Finally, Hanlen developed what he calls a “plan” for Leonard in how to thrive within the Blazers’ system.

“He has to be able to play within that system, but before he would set a screen and then float around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said. “He didn’t have a purpose.’’

So they worked on a series of options –  pick-and-pop …  a dive to the basket where he worked on finishing with both hands … a short roll to the basket … a one-dribble and attack the basket.

“That way he can keep defenses off balance and open more space for Damian and CJ while becoming more of a threat himself, instead of just drifting around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said.

To accentuate Leonard’s new skills, Hanlen wanted Leonard to lose weight.

“Today in the NBA, thin is in,’’ Hanlen said. “You not only move better, you recover quicker.’’

Leonard played between 262 and 265 pounds last season and initially thought he wanted to bulk to 270 pounds this season. But with the urging of Hanlen to lose weight to become more mobile, Leonard says he is at 257.5 pounds as he enters training camp.

“I feel great,’’ Leonard said. “This is the healthiest I’ve been since I’ve been in Portland.’’

Now comes the hard part: proving it.

The Blazers’ have a stable of big men with Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and a burgeoning rookie in Caleb Swanigan. In order to break into the roation, Leonard will have to earn it and he knows it will take time.

 “It’s going to be a day-by-day thing,’’ Leonard said. “A lot of people know in the back of their mind that I can play. Did I show that last year? Occasionally, but not really. So gaining the players’ trust to throw me the ball, gaining Coach Stotts’ trust to put me in to help the team win … I’m going to have to keep chipping at that. And I’m sure there will be bumps in the road.

 

“In the meantime, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,’’ Leonard said. “It was a good summer. I’m in a really good place. And I just want to continue to do the right things.’’