At times during the 2012-13 season, the Blazers have flirted with being a very bad team. From wire-to-wire, however, Portland has fallen right into that "too bad to make the playoffs but too good to clean up in the draft" category. And, in some ways, that's worse. A bad team can flounder for generations in mediocrity, getting close but not all the way to pay-dirt in the wins column without racking up the number of losses needed to grab the all important top pick in the draft. A very bad team, on the other team, can be a breeding ground for All-Star players of the future.
If the Blazers were truly, miserably bad, rookie center Meyers Leonard could be one of those future All Stars. As they are, nobody player's prospects for long-term success have fallen further than his.
Taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft from the University of Illinois, Leonard was simply too good for the Blazers to pass on. He is the perfect type of project a work-in-process team wants. He's big and young with a ton of potential, and a team that was going to be taking a lot of losses while he learns the professional game can't do much better than losing with a future star at the center position.
Unfortunately for the rookie 7-footer, Portland hasn't exactly been the hopelessly down-and-out type of team where he could thrive. The Blazers this season have outplayed expectations, thus leading to more meaningful games and limiting the minutes available for Leonard, a guy who really needs to learn on the job.
Leonard may have found a loophole, though, and it's proved to be a pretty simple one and had nothing to do with Portland throwing in the towel for the season: play better. In the Blazers' blowout win Monday night over the Charlotte Bobcats—a perennially horrible team, currently holding the worst record in the NBA—Leonard looked downright impressive. His 15 points were a career high. It was his third straight game with at least 10 points, and his second straight game with at least 20 minutes played.
"I think everybody can see he's playing with confidence, playing with energy, and kind of figuring things out," Blazer head coach Terry Stotts said of Leonard following Monday's game. "He's playing well and deserves to stay out there. It's not necessarily, 'Hey, let's get Meyers 20 minutes tonight,' it's just that he's playing well and he deserves to on the floor."
If Leonard continues to excel and continues to prove he can be a valuable contributor, Portland is likely to find itself competing with the Western Conference elite, sidestepping the fate of a franchise like Charlotte, a perpetual lottery team stuck cultivating young talent while never escaping the NBA basement. But with the team just outside the playoff hunt, the short-term solution at center for the Blazers could be finding a player in free agency who'd like a bit of Paul Allen's money, and the Meyers Leonard method of rookie improvement—play better and get more minutes— might never catch on.
It's important for the Blazers to know where they stand in the NBA's hierarchy of success—if only so they can identify when, where and how they broke with the protocol for improving.