Surveying the Blazers’ Center Situation

Apr. 16, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Robin Lopez (15) puts up a shot against the Portland Trail Blazers forward J.J. Hickson (21) during the second half at the US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 125-107. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports.

With the signing of Robin Lopez, conventional thought seems to dictate that he, not Meyers Leonard, will be the Blazers’ starting center. This is, on the whole, sound logic – General Manager Neil Olshey acquired him for a reason, and to start the season, his veteran experience will be a huge boon for the team.

David and I had an interesting discussion the other day, though, regarding playing time. My hypothesis is essentially that regardless of who is the “starter,” Leonard’s and Lopez’s minutes will be very close. Let’s face it, Lopez is not the most durable of players, and his much touted track record of playing in every game last season was in large part due to the fact that he played a ‘sneakily-lower-than-you-thought’ 26 minutes per game.

The issue is further compounded by the context surrounding Leonard – a lottery pick going into his second year. I have written about it before, but by selecting Leonard in the lottery, the Blazers indicated that he was a valuable asset for them. To maximize his potential, he needs playing time, which starts to get muddled when you factor Lopez into the picture. Big men especially are known for requiring time to develop their skillsets.

At its simplest, there are 48 minutes available per game for Blazers centers. If the two of them were to split playing time evenly, that would obviously be 24 per each player, not counting other fluke happenings (such as blowouts or injuries). I still give the edge to Lopez, though, to come out on top in terms of minutes. The question is then, how exactly will head coach Terry Stotts allocate minutes between the two of them, and will the split change during the season?

I think it would be foolish for the Blazers to try and play Lopez more minutes per game than he did last season with New Orleans. The Hornets obviously found a successful recipe to keep him on the court, and I do not think it is in the Blazers’ best interests to alter this. Before we get too trigger happy criticizing the Blazers trainers, keep in mind that longtime athletic trainer Jay Jensen is no longer with the team, and instead, Dr. Christopher Stackpoole has been brought on board.

As an aside, I think this is a hugely underreported part of the Blazers’ offseason. A good trainer can have a massive impact on a team, and after a painfully long stretch of player health issues, I am excited to see the new direction that Stackpoole takes.

Back to the center quandary, I think Lopez’s 26 minutes per game last year are an excellent baseline from which to start. Assume the same for this year, which I think is fair. This would in theory leave 22 minutes for Leonard, which is how I formally predict playing time at the beginning of the season to break down, at a roughly 26/22 minutes per game split in Lopez’s favor.

As for my second question above, if minute allocation will stay the same, I honestly hope that Leonard starts to snag more and more of the minutes as the season goes on. This is certainly dependent on his (hoped for) development, but if that goes along as planned, and he displays the talent the Blazers selected him for, he should be given every opportunity for growth.

The necessity of this becomes apparent when stepping back and looking at Lopez. Yes, we needed size, and yes he fit the bill, but he is by no means a long-term or permanent solution. That position should hopefully be filled by Leonard. The more I look at Lopez, the less enamored I become with him. Everything about him screams “backup,” in the sense that I think his skills are best suited for a backup’s role. Don’t get me wrong – I am happy we have Lopez at our disposal on the roster, but we can and should not expect him to be more than he is.

I worry that the excitement about his acquisition will raise expectations too much for him. He is a serviceable big man: nothing more, nothing less. The real story is Leonard and his development. Bear in mind, though, this is speculation, so there is still a chance that Lopez will not even be the starter when the season opens. The odds certainly seem to be in his favor, however, leaving Leonard as the backup for the time being.

It was David who raised the idea of Leonard potentially receiving the starting position towards the end of the season, and I couldn’t agree more. Again, if the development is there, I would be made ecstatic by this move. As a starter, he would get more reps against the NBA’s best, which is truly the best method to grow and improve. My only concern is making sure he is ready. As I said, Lopez is a serviceable center, and if called upon to start the whole season because Leonard is not at the right level, he certainly could. This is the flexibility afforded by having him on the roster.

All in all, I consider the position to be very fluid, and I am eager to see how Stotts handles it. It is a balancing game – giving Leonard enough minutes to grow and to assess his development, while at the same time, not asking him to do more than he can handle. Lopez can adequately hold down the fort for as long as necessary, but when the time comes, I hope that Stotts will not hesitate to give Leonard his opportunity to shine.

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Topics: Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers, Robin Lopez

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  • Jeffrey Hall

    Leonard has to mature emotionally before he’ll be able to handle the responsibility of starting in the NBA. The game itself is difficult enough to get a handle on on both ends of the court. But if you’re held behind intellectually or emotionally it makes progression that much harder.