clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Evan Turner, the Trail Blazers and the Burden of Heavy Expectations

New, comments

Evan Turner isn't perfect. Maybe that's OK.

Don't cry, Evan. You'll like Portland.
Don't cry, Evan. You'll like Portland.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

When reports surfaced yesterday that the Portland Trail Blazers lost forward Chandler Parsons to the Memphis Grizzlies and turned to forward Evan Turner instead, the world went crazy. Local reaction tended towards outrage; national reaction wasn't much more positive.

It's possible that this is less of an Evan Turner problem and more of an us problem.

I'm trying not to blame Evan Turner. Really, I am. I'm staying open to the possibility that the perception we've developed of Turner over the years is less the fault of Turner himself and more just attributable to the circumstances he's fallen into and the impossible expectations we've built up for him.

Six years ago, Turner was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft. John Wall went first, to the Wizards; the Sixers took Turner next, and we know now what a grave mistake that was. The 2010 draft was loaded. To take Turner, Philly had to shun DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Eric Bledsoe. In retrospect, we know the pick was foolish, but that hasn't stopped us from using it to define Turner moving forward. Turner can't be just another rotation player who finds steady work in the NBA; he has to be branded as the former No. 2 pick who disappointed.

Turner has never been just a player - he's always been a theoretical construct, an abstract idea compared to other abstract ideas that were clumsily, artificially forced into the conversation. During his early years in Philly he was a good young player, but overshadowed by Wall and never good enough to be the Sixers' franchise player - not that he ever should have been asked to play such a role. In Indiana, where he arrived at the trade deadline in 2014, he was expected to be the missing piece that helped get the Pacers over the hump and topple Miami to finally win the East; instead, the team imploded in the conference finals and Turner watched from the bench.

Turner was never meant to be a No. 2 pick or the missing piece for a title contender. He's not that guy. He never had that talent. Whether you can accept him anyway is really a matter of perspective. Turner has proven that he can win the respect of teammates, coaches and fans - it just depends on their expectations.

When the Celtics signed Turner off the scrap heap in late September 2014, he looked practically out of the league. There were no expectations anymore. There was no longer any talk of his pedigree or draft position. He was just a guy struggling to hold a job. And, impressively, he did more than just hold it - when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in December and watched Marcus Smart battle a couple of minor injuries as a rookie, Turner was thrust into the role of starting point guard. He handled it surprisingly well, averaging a solid 7.2 assists per 36 minutes in what turned into a weird combo point-wing playmaker role. He couldn't shoot worth a lick, but he was a solid ball-handler, playmaker and defender against all sorts of perimeter players. He was a big part of the Celtics' surprisingly hurrying up their development and turning into a playoff team, playing major minutes as they won 40 games in 2014-15 and 48 this past season.

Now Turner arrives, interestingly enough, on another team that's surprisingly hurried up its development and become a playoff squad in Portland.

I was pretty critical of Turner yesterday after the news broke that Turner, who's never posted a PER in his career higher than 13.6, was signing a four-year deal with the Blazers worth $70 million. I was in shock, really. I couldn't believe the Blazers, who were rumored to be in the mix for Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Chandler Parsons and a bunch of other big names, were instead settling for a glorified sixth-man type on the morning of July 1. It didn't compute.

If you need an upgrade on the wing and Parsons is your Plan A, then Turner as your Plan B is pretty disappointing. It's not clear whether Turner is an upgrade over the guys who got bench minutes on the wing for the Blazers this past season, even.

But in the last 18 hours or so, I've been trying to talk myself into Turner a little bit. At the end of the day, he is a piece, and he's a piece who might be able to help the team a little bit in a pinch next season and beyond. He's no star, but he'll have some value. As has been noted elsewhere, the Blazers needed to spend their cap space on something before heading into restricted free agency with a focus on retaining their current guys. After giving it some thought, Neil Olshey and the Blazers' front office apparently decided that Turner was the best "something" out there.

It's unclear how exactly Turner fits with this Blazers squad as we know it. If he's coming here to slide into the depth chart as a third guard behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, that's probably a perfectly fine way to use him. He might even be a wee bit of an upgrade over Gerald Henderson in that spot. If Turner is coming here to take Al-Farouq Aminu's spot at starting small forward, as has already been rumored ... well, that's a little more interesting. Either it means Farouq slides to the four, and the Blazers embrace their future as a smaller, spacier team, or it means Farouq gets demoted to the bench despite a really successful season starting. Either way, you're talking about a major change to your system, and it's hard to say if Turner is a good enough player to merit such a change.

The truth is that Evan Turner is flawed. His shot selection is questionable; his range is downright awful. His defense comes and goes. The good news is that Turner knows his limitations as a player - he's even joked about them. He might be imperfect, but he's self-aware and willing to play within himself, which is exactly what you want from a role player on a good team.

Of course, there will be plenty of resentment coming from the fact that he's a $70 million role player. He will make more money next season than Stephen Curry, which is downright criminal. But the process of accepting Evan Turner as a member of your basketball team gets a lot easier if you resist looking at him that way. Again, that's the folly of measuring Turner against unreasonable expectations. Just as it wasn't his fault that Turner wasn't John Wall, he's also not to blame for being a lesser player than Curry (or Klay Thompson, or James Harden, or Kyrie Irving, all of whom will make less money than him next season too). Evan Turner might be a No. 2 pick; he might be a $70 million man; he might be a July 1 signing from a team that almost nabbed the Whitesides and Parsonses of the world. Try to put all that out of your mind, for as long as you can at least. Forget the comparisons for a bit - for now, let's just give Evan Turner a chance to be Evan Turner. He might just surprise us.