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Meyers Leonard’s Miami Heat career likely is over, with the team on Tuesday confirming the veteran big man requires surgery for what previously had been listed as a strained left shoulder.
Leonard signed a two-year, $19.5 million free-agent contract this past offseason to return to the Heat, with only the $9.4 million for this season guaranteed.
Acquired in a July 2019 trade with the Portland Trail Blazers for Hassan Whiteside, a deal that helped open the salary-cap space for the acquisition of Jimmy Butler, Leonard, 28, started for most of the 2019-20 regular season, helping the Heat to the No. 5 Eastern Conference playoff seed.
A severe ankle injury last February, however, limited his effectiveness going forward, although he did make two starts in last season’s NBA Finals, when Bam Adebayo was sidelined.
He then remained largely out of this season’s rotation, limited to 29 minutes over three appearances before his shoulder injury during mop-up duty in the Jan. 9 road victory over the Washington Wizards.
“As long as the surgery is going to be fine, I know him, he’s a strong mental dude, he’s going to do everything to get back. It’s tough,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said after Tuesday’s practice at AmericanAirlines Arena, ahead of Wednesday night’s game against the visiting Wizards.
Leonard received his contract, in part, because of the ability to potentially utilize his salary in a trade, either this season or in the offseason. That still could remain a possibility, although now seemingly less likely.
The Heat likely will apply for and receive a disabled-played exception for Leonard’s injury, to bring in a player for the balance of the season earning no more than half of Leonard’s 2020-21 salary.
An affable presence in the locker room and passionate presence on the bench, Leonard’s booming voice now is muted.
“I mean not only on the bench,” Dragic said. “Every day in practice, in the locker room, he as always encouraging guys. He was the most vocal guy on our team. We’re definitely going to miss him.”
Most of the minutes in the Heat power rotation behind Adebayo this season have been taken by first-round pick Precious Achiuwa and the outside-shooting Kelly Olynyk. Moe Harkless and Chris Silva also are options in the power rotation, but each currently is sidelined by injury. The Heat also are carrying veteran power forward Udonis Haslem, who has yet to play this season.
“We all have his back,” guard Tyler Herro said of Leonard. “So whatever Meyers needs, he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. So I’m just really, prayers to him.”
Herro explained Tuesday why he was held out of Sunday’s practice due to pandemic protocols but then allowed to return for Monday night’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
“It was a false positive, that my girlfriend had tested positive, false positive, and she tested two negatives,” he said of the ensuing testing that allowed him to avoid time away due to COVID-19 contact tracing. “So we were able to still play because of the false positive. So in hindsight, it was really nothing. It was just a false positive.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday that Kendrick Nunn, who was held out of Monday’s loss, has become part of a backcourt squeeze, with Dragic and Avery Bradley back from recent injury absences.
“He’s right there,” Spoelstra said. “And we are finally at a point in the season where we have to make some tough decisions, and that’s not an easy decision for the head coach.
“He just needs to continue to stay ready and do whatever is necessary to help us get back or get on track, and play more consistently.”