Portland Trail Blazers: Evan Turner Will Have a Big Impact

The Portland Trail Blazers spent a lot of money this offseason retaining the core of last season’s team. Their one major outside move was to bring in Evan Turner. How will the former Celtic impact the team, and can he keep them on an upward swing?

Last season no one expected the Portland Trail Blazers to be successful. With four of the five starters on a perennial playoff team suiting up elsewhere, they were set up to take an understandable fall back to earth. The playoffs seemed unlikely as Damian Lillard brought the team up to speed.

The acceleration was closer to instantaneous, and Portland rocketed to the fifth seed and a second round bout with the Golden State Warriors. Fueled by an 18-4 stretch that took them from 15-24 to 33-28 by March 1st, the Blazers showed they were not a team that would roll over and accept a down season.

While Damian Lillard was brilliant and played at an All-NBA level, the breakout star of the season was C.J. McCollum. A mid-major point guard in college, McCollum was deployed as a starter alongside Lillard and the pair rained down three-pointers on the league.

General Manager Neil Olshey made a number of shrewd moves in free agency and the trade market, bringing on a number of frontcourt pieces. Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, and Al-Farouq Aminu all joined the rotation. Plumlee showed playmaking spark in the short-roll game with Lillard and McCollum, and Aminu’s combination of defense and corner shooting unlocked lineups as he slid to the power forward spot.

In total, last summer sparked a successful season. But was that success a leap too high, one where regression would pull the young core back down to earth? Or was it a logical step on the trajectory of a still-growing team?

Those are questions to be answered this season, and last year’s breakout players will have to prove their ability to stay great. But amidst a tight-knit locker room, it’s the newcomer who will have to prove he can provide something that helps this team reach even greater heights. The X-Factor for the 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers is Evan Turner.

The Perfect Fit

Evan Turner came into the league as a future star, a guard in a forward’s body. Taken with the second overall pick by Philadelphia, he was unable to provide the playmaking and defensive impact the team expected. After a trade to Indiana and a terrible stint backing up Paul George, it looked like Turner’s potential was all but used up.

Then Brad Stevens took his dwindling career and breathed new life into it, finding the roster and role to best maximize his gifts. On a team with ace defenders and spot-up shooters, Turner became the fulcrum for the bench’s offensive attack. Passing out of the high post he hit open shooters and cutting wings, using space provided by stretchier big men in Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko.

Alongside Isaiah Thomas he was less effective, unable to space the floor for his tiny running mate because of a complete inability to shoot from distance. Turner hit only 24 percent of his three-pointers last season, an area where he has always struggled and seen no improvement.

The beauty of Brad Stevens’ system is that a player is set up to succeed, and Turner’s strengths were emphasized. He averaged five assists and five rebounds the last two seasons, one of only a handful of players to hit those marks. Despite his poor outside shooting, Turner did most of his work closer to the basket, reaching a career-high 46.9 percent effective shooting percentage.

After the vultures circled in Philadelphia and Indiana, Celtic Green chased them away. But can Turner succeed in his new home?

A New Role

Evan Turner was a strong contributor on the Celtics because of their lack of playmakers. As noted above, Turner filled the hole left when Isaiah Thomas was on the bench.

Portland, however, does not suffer the same dearth of playmaking. Last season the Trail Blazers thrived on offense, staggering the minutes of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard to ensure there was always one dynamic playmaker on the court. Mason Plumlee is a talented passer in his own right, and there is hope he can develop into a second option when teams double Lillard and McCollum, a la Draymond Green on the Warriors.

Where does Turner fit? That’s the $70 million question for Portland after signing him to a lucrative contract. On the surface he fits a need for the team, which let Gerald Henderson walk in free agency. With Allen Crabbe as the third guard in their rotation and Al-Farouq Aminu best deployed as a small-ball 4, Turner can provide depth at the 3 along with Maurice Harkless.

It’s when one peels back the layers that Turner’s fit becomes more questionable. Last season Terry Stotts always left a primary ball-handler on the floor. In such lineups, Turner would be a detriment to Portland’s spacing. Even if he works on his cutting and tries to add some off-ball zip, he will be a worse fit than other options on the roster such as Crabbe and Harkless.

The Trail Blazers did not sign Turner to have him play off the ball, leaving two possible means of deploying him. One is to quit staggering Lillard and McCollum, instead deploying them together for the bulk of their minutes. This would maximize their offensive impact and allow Turner to hold the ball when he comes in with bench units.

This path has issues, however, not the least of which is the fact Turner is making too much money to play a mere 20 minutes off the bench every night. Portland would also struggle against teams with two dynamic guards, as Lillard and McCollum are both small and poor defenders. Staggering their starting backcourt allows the larger Crabbe to come in and defend the opponent’s best guard.

Portland’s second option is perhaps their most fascinating. They would play Turner major minutes with either or both of the starting guards, and place the ball in Turner’s hands. While McCollum and Lillard are both better with the ball in their hands than Turner, the Splash Bros Lite demand maximum gravity in off-ball situations. This formation could unlock excellence for the Trail Blazers.

The Golden State Warriors send out two elite shooters and run them around screens and pin-downs, with the ball in the hands of a big – be it Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, or newly acquired Zaza Pachulia. While Steph Curry is one of the league’s best ballhandlers, the Warriors’ offense best hits its ceiling by achieving constant ball and player movement, minimizing weaknesses, and taking the ball out of his hands.

A similar concept could key a Portland attack featuring Turner alongside Lillard and McCollum. Setting up in the high post, he could feed the ball to shooters as they race around the court. Running pick-and-roll with a big, defenders would be forced to stay home and allow Plumlee, Davis, or Ezeli to rumble to the rim.


Evan Turner is not Portland’s best player, nor will he make or break the team. But if Portland wants to avoid the lows of regression and continue their upward climb, Turner will need to make a major impact. If Terry Stotts can determine his best role, this offense could be scary. If Turner fails to fit in, the Trail Blazers could follow the path of other recent upstarts and crash back down to earth.

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