Meyers Leonard, the Ivan Drago lookalike center who has been in street clothes due to a shoulder injury and will miss the rest of the season, did the second-dumbest thing an NBA player can do, and now his team is at a decision point.
I say “second-dumbest” because “getting caught on a hot mic using an anti-Semitic slur” is only slightly less dumb than the same scenario but using or implying the N-word—see Sterling comma Donald for the fallout of that particular error in judgment.
But still, using a word guaranteed to offend not only Miami Heat owner Micky Arison but also NBA commissioner Adam Silver personally, since both are Jewish? The Heat have suspended Leonard indefinitely, and it’s only a matter of time before the league is left with the decision whether racial or ethnic slurs of all types are covered on the list of things that will get you banned for life, not just slurs against the league’s majority-Black players.
And more important on the actual basketball court, this leaves the Heat in a position where they may suddenly find themselves with $10.2 million—Leonard’s 2021 salary—put back onto their cap room, where the 18-18 team, sixth in the East but just a game out of fourth and four back of the Milwaukee Bucks for the 3 seed halfway through the season, can use that money to pursue a free agent signing or add salary at the March 25 trade deadline.
Rumors abound that DeMarcus Cousins, released recently by Houston, may already be a Heat target; they were looking to replace Leonard’s lost production all season, but now they can do it while getting what one presumes would be a bargain price for a castoff.
Leonard scored 10 points all season—3-of-7 shooting, all from three, plus 1-of-2 from the line, in 29 minutes’ worth of three games before getting hurt, for his $10.2 million.
Cousins was inconsistent in a stretch-5 role in Houston, hitting just 33.6 percent of his 3-pointers for a woeful .469 eFG%, but his defense is still good enough that he managed a 0.3 positive VORP before being released. If Miami uses him more like Golden State used him in his last year in 2018-19 or the Pelicans and Kings used him before that, playing to his traditional big-man strengths the way they play to Bam Adebayo‘s strengths when he’s on the floor as the starter, we could see a career renaissance for Boogie.
If Cousins isn’t the play, Miami could try and upgrade at the power forward slot, where Kelly Olynyk has been the weak link in the starting lineup, shooting just 32.8 percent as an ineffective stretch 4.
There are so many intriguing possibilities there. Would the Indiana Pacers be willing to blow up their franchise and trade away Domantas Sabonis for prospects or draft picks?
Brandon Ingram signed a max extension for a lousy New Orleans Pelicans team that looks like it’s about to be mired in Mediocrity Hell as their hoped-for surge following the drafting of Zion Williamson doesn’t appear to be panning out. Could the prospect of building around Zion with lots of cap room or picks mean they could be persuaded into a big trade, their 15-21 record so far in 2021 speaking for itself?
Sure, neither of those latter two ideas are realistic, and there are no league sources backing up either—I’m just channeling my inner ’90s-era Peter Vecsey and throwing out ideas—but the point is that if Miami can shed $10.2 million in cap space, create an opening on the roster that they could use to shore up very real weaknesses in their squad, and make another Finals run, they’ve got to do it, right?
This is the silver lining to the dark cloud of anti-Semitism that spewed forth from the mouth of Meyers Leonard on a hot mic.
If a genuine star player makes a mistake like this, it’s a PR nightmare for the player, the team, and the league, but ultimately, someone like LeBron can say whatever he wants.
If a scrub who’s wasting the owner’s money says it, that, my friends, is an opportunity, and it’s one the Heat would do well not to waste.