The Portland Trail Blazers went into 2016 NBA free agency with a handful of holes to fill on their roster. Not long after their first target, Chandler Parsons, agreed to terms on a max contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, they quickly shifted their focus to Evan Turner and agreed to terms on a four-year deal with him instead. How do the Blazers integrate him into their offense?
Turner is a player with a multitude of skills: defense, positional versatility, slashing, and playmaking to name a few. However, the one that is missing, 3-point shooting, makes his pick up by the Blazers a bit of a question. So if Turner is going to integrate into the "Stottsfense," what are some ways that coach Terry Stotts could deploy him?
First, let's go over a few things here to understand what value Turner brings to the offense. As a career 30.5 percent shooter from distance, he's not a huge threat from beyond the arc (although a 15 percent shooter can be lethal) but what he can do with the ball on the perimeter is create.
Among bench players last year Turner was second in the NBA in assists per game (4.6), and No. 4 in total passes made per game. Having the ball in his hands and making plays is what he does. Now, you might ask how exactly Turner is going to start alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum when having the ball in their hands and making plays are also their strengths, and I'm not sure. That's what Stotts gets paid to figure out.
The assumption at this point has to be that Turner will get some secondary playmaking with the first unit, allowing both Lillard and McCollum to work off ball a bit more and pulling some of the playmaking that Mason Plumlee provided out to the perimeter. Then he'll get more primary playmaking duties with the second unit, relieving some of the burden McCollum had to bare the brunt of almost exclusively.
If you get into the fine details for Turner, McCollum, and Lillard last year you can see that Lillard and McCollum both preferred to hold the ball a bit longer per touch (Lillard, 5.64 seconds; McCollum, 4.27) than Turner (3.68). Also both Lillard (5.59 seconds) and McCollum (4.18) dribble the ball more per touch than Turner (3.18), so if you're thinking that he can't fit in as the third play maker or worried he may be a "pound the ball into the hardwood 37 times before making a decision" type, don't fret.
Now, Turner sets up players in a variety of ways. When compared against the current backcourt pairing, he stacks up rather well:
Turner finds the interior assist a bit better than McCollum, while McCollum favors the 3-point kick-out. Lillard surpasses both in every area but he's also Option A, B, and probably C. The numbers above are just a raw comparison to show how Turner stacks up to the incumbent playmakers, as a percentage of touch and/or time to assist Turner surpasses both of them.
The first point there, that Turner creates a bit more inside than McCollum, is something to take a look at. At 6-foot-7 Turner has the size to see over small defenders but that's not all - defenders take a step back off of him beyond the 3-point line because they're not really afraid of him burying it in their face. So, he can see over the defense and he has the airspace necessary to fire the pass to the right person, at the right time, in the right place.
Take a look at this clip against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Turner catches the ball on the right wing with Jerryd Bayless picking him up defensively. "Picking him up" is a loose term here - Bayless doesn't consider Turner a threat a foot behind the line and decides that giving him 4+ feet of airspace on top of the fact that Bayless is 6-foot-3 with an identical wingspan - so Turner doesn't have much of an issue hitting the back-cutting Marcus Smart for the lay up.
Now we'll go to a play run here by the Celtics that's also in the Trail Blazers' playbook, but there's a slight wrinkle here. If you assume that Avery Bradley is playing the role of Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner is CJ McCollum, Tyler Zeller is Mason Plumlee, Marcus Smart is Damian Lillard and Jonas Jerebko is Al-Farouq Aminu, this play may look slightly familiar:
The Miami Heat actually do a really good job of snuffing out the multiple actions on this play; they don't get caught on the dribble hand-off/screen, there's communication along the baseline allowing the switch to occur denying the backdoor cut. Then the defender on Turner doesn't get stuck on the down-screen and is able to force the action out above the 3-point line. At this point, if this were McCollum instead of Turner you would expect a secondary ball screen, but instead Zeller slips the screen and Turner feels the defender take a loose path and attacks the paint.
Last year this probably would've been a floater/runner from McCollum- a good to great shot for him. Turner instead draws the defense, committing Hassan Whiteside to the play and putting a touch lob up for Zeller to tap in. With his size, strength, athleticism and finishing ability - remember Turner shoots over 57 percent inside 8 feet - Turner presents a different problem for defenses to solve that just wasn't present last season. While Aminu and Harkless certainly grew in their roles, improved as shooters and offered cuts off the ball and transition finishing, their ability to create their own shot or shots for other is still very limited.
Where Lillard and McCollum form the Blitzkrieg attacking force of the Blazers' offense, Turner and the other frontcourt members could form the pincer movement attacking the flanks from both sides. Or to paraphrase Sun Tzu in the Art of War, "fight the enemy where they aren't."
Who should be really excited about the arrival of Turner? The bigs. Last year with Boston, four of his six top pass recipients were in the frontcourt. The biggest beneficiary was Kelly Olynk, who brought in 16.6 percent of Turner's passes. Lillard and McCollum both played a bit of catch with each other last season passing to each other over 21 percent of the time, and then both opted for Plumlee as the secondary option. Bringing Turner into the fold may increase the ball movement throughout the entire team in this sense.
During Portland's big surge last winter, Zach Lowe of ESPN.com noted that Portland was well ahead of the game when it came to setting off-ball screens:
Everyone cuts and screens. Portland leads the league in off-ball screens by a mile, more than even the Warriors, per data supplied to ESPN.com from the tracking site Vantage Sports.
With another perimeter option to set the table, those off-ball screens have the potential to reap even more rewards.
It appears that in order for Turner to be successful, Plumlee will have to cede a large chunk of his ball handling/playmaking duties, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. While Plumlee put in yeoman's work rolling to the rim and cutting to the hoop regularly, he finished below average league-wide in both points per possession and field goal percentage. With less attention paid to him, perhaps he can see an uptick in performance there.
As for Ed Davis? Ed Davis does what Ed Davis does. Whether it's McCollum, Lillard, Plumlee, Turner, or Papa Murphy dishing him assists he's going to roll to the rim incredibly effectively and clean up the offensive boards regularly. Expect a lob or two more for Easy Ed. And let's be honest - everyone loves a nice lob to Ed Davis.
If the Blazers retain Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner may be his new best friend. Take a look at the shots he gets for Zeller and Olynk in these clips. Through good picks from his bigs, Turner works the pick-and-pop brilliantly - drawing both defenders into the play and away from the big who has relocated to the open space above the free throw line/elbow region. These are spots that Leonard has feasted on over the last few years:
Obviously, we've focused on Turner's playmaking skills and how they could best be utilized by Portland next season, but it doesn't take into account that Turner also scored over 10 points per game himself. It doesn't factor in that Turner not only creates in the open court but he's also capable of scoring in transition. Nor does it account for Turner giving Portland a legitimate post-up option on a nightly basis.
A lot still needs to be decided regarding Portland's offseason. None of the restricted free agents are yet locked in to return. There could be more signings, there could be a trade. Much like last season, there's not a whole lot in early July that's set in stone on opening night for the 2016-17 season.
While I've openly questioned the need/fit for Evan Turner on this team, when you sit down and examine what he brings there are a few glimmers of hope here. It still feels like adding Turner is forcing things to an extent, particularly at the price it cost to bring him in, but there are a couple of scenarios and situations where adding Turner could bear some fruit. The one where he takes a little bit of the ball from Lillard and McCollum with the starting unit, and co-captains the bench unit has the potential to be at the very least, easy on the eye.
Even if this whole thing blows up and it doesn't work at all, at least we'll get a good quote or two along the way.