Let me make one thing clear from the start: Joel Freeland has not “won” the backup center role from Meyers Leonard. Not really. This team is young and unstable enough that all but a few jobs are up for grabs. Is Barton going nuts? Move over, Dorell. Is McCollum proving he belongs? Make some room, Mo. But Terry Stotts knew what he was doing when he only gave Leonard three minutes. For now, Freeland is in the rotation, and Leonard is not.
So what does this mean?
First, it’s an indication that the Blazers are still desperate for a little defense. Freeland shot 34% to Leonard’s 58% in the preseason. Meyers can hit the three (sort of), has great hands for catching lobs, and can fly in transition. Freeland has a pretty herky-jerky offensive game, and the jumper comes and goes (and goes, and goes…). But they chose Freeland, which is an acknowledgement that Robin Lopez’s presence is not a defensive panacea. The fact that Freeland is really more of a power forward and he still won the backup center job is a pretty damning indictment of Leonard’s defense.
Second, this move reflects well on Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts. They have proven that they are willing to cut their costs and move on. Of course, this doesn’t reflect a total loss of faith in Leonard, but it’s clear that Olshey is willing to tacitly acknowledge that moves his regime have made are not working. If Leonard stumbles even more, Olshey and Stotts probably won’t mind cutting their losses. You’d think that general managers, paid lots of money to pay lots of money for players, would be beyond the sunk cost fallacy, but that’s not always the case.
Last and most importantly, it’s a reflection on the team’s goals and how what they’re willing to do in pursuit of those goals.
Make no mistake, the Blazers were hoping this competition would go the other way. No one doubts that Meyers Leonard has a higher ceiling than Freeland. He’s longer, springier, and much, much younger. Freeland is less athletic and has less room to grow. He’s trying to become Nick Collison. That’s a perfectly worthy aim. Collison’s a handy player, and that’s a good role for Freeland; big, strong, and not nearly the athlete Leonard is, to fill. But there’s a reason every Blazers fan was hoping Leonard would force the issue and eventually take the starting job from Lopez. If one of them might one day be a game-changing center, it’s him.
So this preseason gave us an interesting natural experiment. Freeland was playing well, and Meyers was playing badly. But the gap wasn’t wide enough and the role isn’t big enough that keeping Leonard as the backup would be indefensible. If they were still in development mode, they would have played a bad Leonard over an okay Freeland. If the Blazers wanted to keep bringing along Leonard, they could have kept feeding him minutes and ignoring the irritated bloggers pining for Freeland.
But Freeland got the job because he played well. As simple as that might seem, it’s actually pretty significant. Stotts and management are saying to their players “Hey, we’re contenders now. Develop on your own time. Youth movement’s over. Good-at basketball movement starts now.”
So the Blazers think they’re contenders. They’ve always thought that. But it might not be true all season. The Blazers might disappoint and revert to development mode. And if they do, an early indicator might be more minutes for Leonard.
Like I’ve said, this isn’t totally black and white. The team’s higher-ups are surely still rooting for Meyers. And in all likelihood we’ll see a setup more like last year, when they played Leonard behind Hickson if the they were willing to sacrifice defense and rebounding for some offense, and Jared Jeffries if it went the other way. (McCollum-Williams might be a similar pair, depending on what role CJ is able to fill.) And the on-court impact of a team’s backup center choice isn’t anything massive. But this is a clear declaration that the Blazers are growing more and more willing to leave struggling, high-upside players behind if need be.
(I’ve been talking about this in pretty dispassionate terms, and my analysis is Leonard-centric to the point that this post was called “Leonard’s Demotion” rather than “Freeland’s Promotion”. In truth, I’m incredibly impressed that Freeland managed to pull this off. A couple months ago I doubted he was long for the league. I hope the faster, crisper nature of the regular season doesn’t turn him back into the sloppy foul machine from last year. Anyway, it’s impressive. Bollocks to the haters, chap.)