Restricted free agency can be a bit tricky for both the players and teams involved. For the player, you sit through pitches laying out your value to another organization before entering into negotiations knowing full well that the whole exercise could end up being largely an act of futility. And for the team with the restricted free agent, they have to watch as one of their players is wooed by another organization whose contract offer they'll have to abide by if they want to retain the player. Things usually turn out fine in the end, but it can get a bit uncomfortable, especially if a player says he's excited to go to another team only to end up returning to his former team should they decide to match contract terms (as they almost always do).
But there's no rule stating restricted free agency has to play out that way. Teams don't typically mind restricted free agents getting offers from other teams, as it keeps them from being in the position of negotiating against themselves. But if there's a mutual desire to get a come to terms on a new contract without going through the dance of having a player get an offer sheet from another team first, teams are free to sign their own restricted free agents. Such was the case with the Trail Blazers and fourth-year power forward Meyers Leonard, who signed with Portland without ever getting an offer sheet.
"Obviously when it comes to free agency, you talk to other teams, you try to gain interest," said Leonard during a press conference at the Trail Blazers' practice facility in Tualatin. "But my main focus was to be back here in Portland. I spent all four years here, Neil (Olshey) has been the guy that’s backed me since the beginning. I truly believe watching him from the outside just as a player, he can understand talent, he can understand the future. I appreciate that he believes in me, I believe the coaching staff has a firm belief that I can really do a lot of good things, that I can continue to develop and become a much better player, which I know I will as well."
It's possible Leonard could have received a larger offer from another team had he expressed a sincere desire to leave Portland, just as it's possible the Trail Blazers could have tried to sign Leonard to a smaller contract with other teams neglecting to force their hand by not offering the 7-1 power forward an offer sheet. But even though the NBA, as the oft-repeated saying goes, is a business, it doesn't mean that decisions are always made with business solely in mind. There are relationships to consider, and if both parties wanted the partnership to continue, there's no reason for either side to engage in hardball tactics just to either save a few million (if you're the team) or make a couple million more (if you're the player). If the Trail Blazers are serious about signing players who want to be in Portland -- and all indications point to that -- they have to reciprocate that desire, which they did by signing Leonard to a four-year deal.
"Player retention is huge for us, it’s a big part of the organization having consistency and stability," said Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey. "Having Meyers, who was our first draft pick sign on long term is a great situation for us. We know he’s got a great future ahead, he’s going to continue to develop, he’s already contributed a lot to the organization. He’s a joy to have around here and for myself, Paul (Allen), Chris (McGowan), we’re all happy he’s going to be a part of the organization for the foreseeable future."
But while the team has shown they are invested in Leonard's future by signing him to a four-year deal, that doesn't mean he has been promised anything. Between the addition of free agent center Festus Ezeli, the likelihood that small forward Al-Farouq Aminu plays considerable minutes this season at the four and the continued development of 20 year-old power forward Noah Vonleh, the competition for playing time among Portland's bigs will be as fierce this season as it has been in years.
"It’s good to have a deep roster and I feel I bring something way different than the average player, the average big brings, obviously the main one being shooting, spacing the floor," said Leonard. "But I continue to develop on the defensive end with my rebounding, being more aggressive, understanding the game much better and just allowing the game to slow down. As you gain in game experience and you continue to develop chemistry within this group. This young group, obviously, we surprised a lot of people. You go from 26.5 games to getting to the playoffs, getting to the second round and as I sat there during the playoffs, it was hard for me. One, because when we were losing, I knew I could be helping. And when we won, I wanted to be a part of it. So there’s a hunger inside of me and I’m excited for what I can bring to this team."
That hunger will have to be satiated off the court for the next few months, as Leonard continues to rehab from a shoulder injury that cut his 2015-16 season short. But in the long term, he'll Leonard has the opportunity to prove the belief Olshey and Terry Stotts have shown in him during his career in Portland has been well placed, just as the team will have the chance to have a player with a unique skillset signed long term to to what could end up being an incredible bargain of a four-year deal.
"I have enjoyed all four years here so far," said Leonard. "It’s been a progression for sure. I come in as a 20 year-old, wide-eyed, not really know what’s going and now, all the sudden, I know that I’ve been a factor and I know I can play and now it’s really time to take that next step. I feel like I’m really getting there, not just with the shoulder — that was a bit of a setback — but throughout parts of last year, I could really feel myself starting to come into my own and really being more consistent... I’ve been here with Dame all four years, Allen (Crabbe), CJ (McCollum), all the young guys. Now that we add more and more pieces, I’m excited and I know I can really be a big piece to this puzzle, because again, this is going to be an exciting time for the Trail Blazers."