Portland Trail Blazers

In Meyers Leonard, Blazers fans were made to reflect on themselves outside of basketball

Portland Trail Blazers

Truth be told, I’ve had some iteration of this column written for some time. 

Its details have changed, naturally, as Meyers Leonard’s story has taken shape: first as an unremarkable rookie, then as a sweet-shooting stretch five. Eventually, Leonard became a vessel for catching of all Rip City’s vitriol, most of it undeserved. It’s led us to the 2018-19 version of Leonard — his best iteration yet — and a sort of unsteady rewriting of how harshly he was viewed by much of the Portland Trail Blazers fanbase. It’s difficult to explain what to make of that.

Leonard is with the Miami Heat now, his expiring contract a cog in the machine that wheeled Jimmy Butler in from the Philadelphia 76ers to South Beach. His legacy with the Heat, and any team that comes after, will never be held in as much contempt as it was here in Oregon. Leonard is 27 now, and as close to his final form as an NBA player as ever. For that reason, he’ll never be as unabashedly loved as he was here, either.

His final season with the Blazers was, for many, a chance to reconcile with the former No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Leonard was a source of disappointment for much of his time in Blazer Land, but this year his offensive prowess allowed Portland fans to find purchase in their hearts for a man they’d cast out so long ago. It helped that the team’s Western Conference Finals run put Leonard back into fan’s good graces. He deserved it, too.

 


Leonard ranked in the 99th percentile for spot-up shooters this past season, with his work as a cutter and pick-and-roll man equally as impressive, according to Synergy. Leonard had something more to give, his decisions quicker on each side of the ball. His advanced statistics in the playoffs were some of the best for a team whose front line needed his floor-spacing talents. Finally, the way in which the Blazers needed Meyers Leonard was the way in which Meyers Leonard could provide for the Blazers.

In the playoffs, Leonard did what he needed to do: rotate the ball, absorb fouls, contest at the rim, and shoot from deep. In his final game of the year — the final game he’d ever play for Portland — Leonard scored 30 points, going 5-of-8 from 3-point range while grabbing 12 rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes against the Golden State Warriors. It was Leonard putting all his skills into action at once, and the hot-and-cold love affair for Meyers was back on the stove.

The only problem was that it wasn’t clear if Blazers fans deserved to be let back into Leonard’s heart. 

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In Portland, fans are true to their extremes. The word fanatic means something on the banks of the Willamette. It’s what happens when an indoor city like Portland is mixed with an NBA team as the only game in town: “Blazermania” was the original iteration of this, and the modern version takes the form of Favorite Son and Scapegoat. 

Each season, Portland fans pick one player to love and one to rail against, both unconditionally. In the past decade alone, Favorite Sons have been: Jake Layman, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton, Luke Babbitt, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Shabazz Napier, Tim Frazier, Noah Vonleh, and Pat Connaughton. Scapegoats included but were not limited to Leonard, Vonleh, Crabbe, Joel Freeland, Mo Williams, JJ Hickson, and Evan Turner.

Players have flipped between this informal designation, usually from year-to-year but sometimes during the course of a season. Leonard is the lone player of this ilk that has cumulatively made each list more than any other. It’s this relationship that, since his rookie season in 2012-13, has been difficult to explain to those who have not experienced Leonard’s career.

His first season in Portland, Leonard was plunked at the center position out of necessity. He was the Blazers’ sixth man, playing the most minutes outside of any starter thanks to JJ Hickson’s inability to do anything other than rebound and score for himself. Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts wanted to see what they had in the athletic, high-flying Leonard. They soon found out what was always likely: he was a project.


Meanwhile, Damian Lillard took off like a rocket. The 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year was an immediate star, the franchise cornerstone that was destined to take the reigns from Aldridge sooner rather than later. Lillard’s rise made Leonard — taken just five spots later in that draft — look like a weaker choice by comparison. Aldridge was a star, Lillard was too. Portlanders didn’t want to wait for the Illinois product to develop, a process for that for NBA big men usually takes through their first contract to complete. Thus was born the impatience for Leonard, and pressure started to mount.

The arrival of Robin Lopez in the summer of 2013 and the unexpected rise of Freeland from the dregs of frontcourt development purgatory pushed Leonard to the bench. His minutes were cut in half his sophomore year, and Leonard scored fewer than 100 points. The saber-rattling about trading Leonard began among fans, and drafts were written, ready to be inked over later, labeling him a bust.

Rip City searched for grace after Leonard’s second season in 2013-14, but found nothing of the sort despite his minutes and impact waning. He stormed back offensively, and his 40/50/90 season in 2014-15 should have shifted for the masses who Leonard was, and where he was useful. But it didn’t. 

Because Leonard crested the 7-footer mark (with shoes only: his actual height is a quarter inch short of that vaunted threshold), he was held to a different standard. The refrain on the streets and blog posts of Portland was If he’s that tall he must block shots and score with his back to the basket. This was a holdover from a different era, the same kind of conventional thinking that had led to the drafting of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant five years earlier. At least partly, this wasn’t completely laughable.

The year before Leonard was drafted, NBA teams combined to attempt 36,395 shots from beyond the 3-point line. By the time Leonard notched his best shooting season ever — just three years later — that number had gone up by more than 50 percent. Now, as Leonard makes his way to Florida, it’s more than doubled.

A change in how the NBA valued 3-pointers coincided with how Leonard shot the ball. We saw him fire from deep during Las Vegas Summer League a couple of years into his tenure. Between his second and third season, Leonard went from shooting single-digit threes to triple-digits.

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“Stop.. Hammer Time” 🔨⏰

 

A post shared by Meyers Leonard (@meyersleonard) on


Running alongside this, outpacing Portland’s young big man, was how social media was used in sports. We adopted Facebook and Twitter as a means to communicate about our favorite leagues. Early NBA Twitter was the Wild West, with anyone and everyone able to suddenly speak directly — and loudly — to their favorite stars instantaneously.

If you wanted to explain to outsiders the complexity of emotion surrounding seven years of Meyers Leonard in Portland, this would be it: height, 3-point shooting, and Twitter.

In this regard, Leonard was drafted not only too early for his own age, but for the era in which he began his career. GMs began reaching for shooting a few seasons after Leonard was drafted. Had he been born in 1995 instead of 1992, he might be seen as another P.J. Hairston, Juancho Hernangomez, Sam Dekker, Nik Stauskas, or Doug McDermott. As the 3-point revolution took over the NBA, it became more acceptable to swing-and-miss on shooting. But that wasn’t the case in 2012, and as a group fans have struggled to understand who he is, and what to expect of him.

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When draft mate Lillard continued to excel, the rancor surrounding Leonard grew to a cacophony. Each year, the expectations for Leonard appeared to turn more ludicrous, with the fanbase uninterested in taking into account context and prior performance as a projection of what was to come. No matter what, Portland couldn’t get it out of their heads. Block shots! Post up! Stop shooting! they clamored as one of the league’s best long-range gunners went underutilized in the Blazers offense. It was baffling.

Despite some hope after Leonard’s 2014-15 campaign, things wavered. That summer the team fired big man coach Kim Hughes, a Meyers confidant, who let it slip that LaMarcus Aldridge was leaving the team in free agency. Leonard’s defensive development stagnated the next year, and his season ended with a shoulder injury in late 2016.

An injury-confined season followed in 2016-17. His minutes remained steady but the bungee effect of Leonard’s inability to train after surgery delayed his progress. Surprisingly, it wasn’t his left shoulder that was holding him back.

  
In February of 2017, Leonard told me in an interview that his lower body wasn’t ready to perform. Because he couldn’t hold any weights or even run following surgery in spring of 2016, Leonard came into the next season physically unprepared to battle at the center position. That led to an acute, nagging discrepancy in capacity as he struggled to catch up against high-caliber big men.

“All of a sudden my back was starting to really bug me, and that was because I just hadn't taken any type of load whatsoever,” Leonard said in a February 2017 edition of the Locked on Blazers podcast. “It probably took me until mid-January to even really feel like I had my legs back under me.”

The next season an ankle sprain kept Leonard out here and there, and he fell out of Stotts’ rotation as Zach Collins came on strong. He performed in fits and starts, playing double-digit minutes three times in 2018. When last summer came, and with the team declining to re-sign Ed Davis, it appeared to be Leonard’s time to shine yet again. 

And we know how that turned out.

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There’s been an outpouring of support in the wake of Leonard’s trade to Miami. Twitter, perhaps for the first time ever, has been positive toward Leonard, wishing him well on his way. This endearment, while on the surface healing, has acted as a mirror reflecting back on two sides the analogous journey taken by Leonard and Blazers fans over these past seven years.

To the left is the journey from boy to man. It’s the timeline of Leonard going through the conventional maturation process of a Millennial in America while at the same time bearing the weight of an unnatural public life which capital itself could not ever be expected to wholly assuage. It’s every slight, every Bieber-ism, every joke about his wife’s shooting. It’s also every friend made, every smile from summer camp kids, and every trip to one of Oregon's greatest landmarks that colored Leonard's life.

On the right of this mirror is the growth of each fan, their own follies individually considered as they’ve matured in their own lifetimes: the mind’s camera flashing back, indiscriminately, to how they might have handled events differently over time by dint of experience, not just with Leonard but with anyone. 


There comes stages in life where it feels as though Yes, finally I am fully formed! My opinions and actions are resolute! only to look back and understand, undoubtedly, that was not the case. Given how fans feel today, with Leonard gone and his growth as a player and as a person considered, would each side have made the same decisions?

Portland fans received several chances to make right by Meyers Leonard. It’s felt as though his dearth of production, contrasted to expectations, were projected as a totem of fans’ own collective irritation with their lives; of infelicity due to failure, happenstance, or qualms that couldn’t be publicized save for as invective toward a 7-foot-1 center from a tiny hamlet in corn country.

That part might remain inexplicable. Or perhaps, this transference is exactly the explanation. From here, the only thing to do — as it is with any complex, adult relationship that didn’t end up quite the way either party had hoped — is to understand that moving forward is the only option, and to hope that time does indeed heal the wound.

For Leonard, he has more to learn and more to show. Blazers fans will give him a standing ovation when he returns to Moda Center next season. In the meantime, Leonard’s ethic and ethos, steeled by his time in this city, is exemplified by his final response about his shoulder injury in 2017, the very thing that marked the beginning of the end of his tenure in Portland.

“I’m working, I’m doing my best,” said Leonard. “I can say that — I know that — and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”