Why Lopez and Leonard Will Thrive Together


Oct. 12, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard (11) reacts on the court during the game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Trail Blazers 104-93. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

If I’m putting nice, round numbers on it, I see the minute allocation between Robin Lopez and Meyers Leonard shaking out to 28 and 20 to kickoff the season, with Lopez starting. Although that slant favors Leonard more than your garden variety starter/bench split, it would still mean the most minutes per game Robin Lopez has ever played.

Prior to playing for New Orleans (where Lopez averaged only 26 minutes per game), he had never been a clear-cut starter. With Phoenix, he started 31/51 games in the 2010 season, and 56/67 games in the 2011 season, never averaging more than 19.3 minutes a game. More often than not, he was on the floor for sub-15 minutes.

Leonard, on the other hand, hit 17.5 minutes per game during his rookie year (compared to Lopez’ 10.2). The brilliant thing about the Lopez/Leonard combo is that the Blazers can give both players more NBA minutes than either has played before. This allows them to pace Lopez when necessary and keep him happy, without sacrificing developmental minutes for Meyers Leonard.

In other words, each player is in position to be more effective than at any other point in their career (albeit short, thus far, in Leonard’s case).

I am still very much on board with letting Meyers take over the starting role at some point during the season, but that is dependent on how well he develops in the meantime. If/when he does get there, the minute split is likely to be close to an even 24-24; still more than Lopez is accustomed to.

This dynamic is sneakily advantageous for Leonard. While there was heavy speculation during the summer that Portland should pursue a top-tier center for Leonard to learn from, acquiring Lopez who, let’s be honest, is in the bottom 10 among the league’s starting centers, allows for more quality court time than Leonard would otherwise have.

On the flipside, had the Blazers pursued a mere backup center and pushed Leonard into the starting slot, I’m not realistically convinced that he could handle that yet. For a 7-footer, Leonard was quite the hack artist last season, averaging 5 fouls per 36 minutes of atrocious defense. He now has the opportunity to grow and flourish without the glare of a starter’s spotlight.

It’s time for a not so distant history lesson (more probably an unpleasant reminder for some). Remember back in the late ‘90s when the Blazers had a well-oiled frontcourt consisting of Brian Grant, Rasheed Wallace, and Arvydas Sabonis? Those were good times. Remember the young man drafted 17th in ’96 that the Blazers benched during that stretch?

Jermaine O’neal rode the Portland pine for four seasons before being traded to the Pacers. The 6’11” forward/center averaged just 11 minutes per game “learning” behind the best in the business before the Blazers discarded him in a deal for Dale Davis. O’neal exploded as a starter and earned six consecutive all-star appearances over the next seven seasons.

I see similar potential in Meyers Leonard, so thank goodness he will get to play a reasonable amount. The last thing the Blazers need is to squander another young big man (after all, they are the league’s most coveted commodity). So, at the risk of sounding like some sort of online brown-noser, I’ve not only warmed to this setup, I think it’s subtly genius.

Robin Lopez fills a need; not spectacularly, but adequately. He stands to receive more playing time than ever before, while not overdoing it like LaMarcus Aldridge had to at power forward last year. Simultaneously, Meyers Leonard will have the ideal opportunity to improve without being asked to do too much or, conversely, be pushed aside. Both players are now in position to perform at their peak.

That’s just good team building.

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