Oct 20, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Sacramento Kings power forward Jason Thompson (34) drives to the basket over Portland Trail Blazers power forward Joel Freeland (19) in the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

What Message did Stotts Send by Promoting Joel Freeland?

Coach Terry Stotts revealed Friday that Joel Freeland, and not Meyers Leonard, would be the Blazsers’ first center off the bench.

While there’s been some discussion about whether this would bolster or smother young Meyers’ confidence, it was the right call. Here are four reasons why naming the British Bulldog as the Blazers’ backup big bully is brilliant (and by the way, that wasn’t intentional until I got to the “backup.”

It sets a good precedent for the rest of the team. 

What would it say to the rest of the team if Joel were to have withdrawn from international play for the summer to train in Portland, worked his tail off during training camp, performed better than expected in preseason, garnered the praise of the team’s best player, and outperformed Meyers Leonard in the areas that the Blazers need from their center (namely competent defense), and STILL be relegated to the end of the bench? It would say that you can underperform and still get minutes. Where’s the incentive to work harder? Where’s the pressure to give it your all when you know there aren’t any consequences for taking a few plays off here and there?

If for no other reason, the Joel Freeland promotion was smart because it tells the team, “look, you have to earn your minutes unless your name is LaMarcus, Damian, or Nicolas.” Heck, even Wes Matthews will feel the bite into his minutes from Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, and C.J. McCollum (once his foot heals).

It shows the lottery picks that developmental minutes aren’t a given: they have to be earned.

This goes just as much for Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum as it does for Meyers (Lillard is exempt since he’s already a star and will more than earn his time). Far too often the balance between developing young talent and playing your best players is askew. In fact, it’s often the younger players who get the shaft in favor of players that are more trusted and more reliable in their coaches’ eyes, even if the younger players have a much higher ceiling. But this is different. This isn’t a case of letting Jermaine O’Neal rot on the bench only to have him turn into a multiple-year All-Star elsewhere. This is a player fighting for minutes and getting flat-out beat. That’s the kind of competition that should stoke the fire in Meyers, if there’s any furnace to be lit. And I hope there is.

It shows Meyers his emphasis needs to be on his defense, not his long-range shooting.

In July, Meyers said he was working on his three-point shooting. Awesome… but you’re seven feet tall, and the Blazers need someone to stand in the lane, hold their arms up, not bite on every pump fake, and deter opponents from scoring around the rim. Freeland doesn’t have the physical gifts that Leonard does, and he knows it. Freeland also understood what was expected of him and what the team needed from his position, so he worked hard on it and earned his minutes. This should be a wake-up call for Meyers to understand that, no, he doesn’t need to be a dominant defender, but he does have to be acceptable or better to see meaningful court time. For someone with a body like his, that really shouldn’t be a problem.

It shows the Blazers are interested in winning games.

The Blazers could have taken the year off to develop young talent. They also could have all but waved LaMarcus goodbye. Instead, they chose a pragmatic approach to rebuilding that emphasized value over big names, cohesion over stockpiling talent (no matter what Neil Olshey says), and putting together a team that can both win and grow. The risk is that the Blazers get caught in the gutter between the lottery and the playoffs (their lottery pick is only top-12 protected… anything lower and it’s kissed goodbye). But that’s a risk worth taking if it means showing your best player that you’re interested in winning during his open window and not just Lillard’s.

This could all change. The season has just started. But no matter if Freeland performs poorly: the lesson has been taught and, if it sinks in, it will be for the better.

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Tags: Joel Freeland Meyers Leonard Portland Trail Blazers Terry Stotts

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