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How Good (or Bad) is Evan Turner Off the Ball?

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Evan Turner is better with the ball in his hands and that makes him a cleaner fit with the Trail Blazers' bench unit. But to what extent can he play off the ball, and what does that mean for the starting unit and the team as a whole?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to imagine Evan Turner coming off the bench in Portland and taking some of the playmaking burden off CJ McCollum. He's effective in the pick-and-roll and proved he could lead bench units in Boston. That's all well and good but the Blazers had problems last year even when both Damian Lillard and McCollum shared the floor. Much has been made of the Blazers' late-season starting unit but they really struggled to score in the playoffs. That lineup went from a scorching 113.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season to 103.9 against Los Angeles and then a worse-than-the-76ers 94.4 against Golden State (numbers from stats.NBA.com unless otherwise stated). And it's not difficult to see why.

Watch Andrew Bogut in the clips below and notice who he's "guarding":

They're giving Mo Harkless the Tony Allen treatment. Andrew Bogut is playing free safety and breaking up any threatening action the Blazers put together. In the first five minutes of the first quarter of the first game, Bogut's already taken away a Plumlee roll, blocked an Aminu layup, and stolen a pass to a wide open Lillard. It's almost impossible to score against a good defense if they don't have to guard a player. After the first two games, Stotts cut Mo's minutes in half and he played his best regular season lineup less and less as the series progressed.

One alternative was to play Crabbe instead of Harkless. That lineup did pretty well during the regular season but only got on the floor for 30 minutes against the Warriors, mostly because they allowed an abhorrent 139.6 points per 100 possessions. That's a pretty small sample size but it also gave up 107.4 to the Clippers and 102.3 during the regular season. That last number would have been just outside the top 10 in team rankings but a team's best lineup outperforms their overall numbers by definition. It's a solid lineup but it's hard to imagine the Blazers being championship contenders if that's their best.

This was the rock and the hard place the Blazers were stuck between last year. When the playoffs started and the scouting improved, Portland didn't have a lineup that was great on both sides of the ball. They had to pick between defense or scoring, largely because of the limitations of their small forwards. That's one of the big holes Portland needed to fill going into the offseason. That's why Neil Olshey talked about prioritizing a wing during his press conference. That's why Chandler Parsons, an exceptionally well-rounded small forward, was a primary target of the offseason.

Instead, we got Evan Turner.

At first glance, Turner appears to be an even worse fit alongside Lillard and McCollum than Harkless. He shot a lower percentage from outside on fewer attempts and his form looks worse. Compare Turner's shooting form on his bread and butter mid-range pull-up to a corner 3-pointer:

On the pull-up, he releases the ball high and at the apex of his jump. His legs sway forward bringing his shoulders back and the whole shot looks rhythmic. Everything changes once he steps behind the line. His release is a little lower and he loses the sway in his legs. He releases the ball earlier and jumps forward clearly struggling with the additional distance. This only gets worse as he steps farther out so it's no surprise he shot a god awful 15 percent on above the break threes last year. It would take a minor miracle for Turner to get consistent at that distance but there's hope for the corners. Even with the bad form, he shot 32 percent from the corners the last two seasons. That's certainly not good but it's within striking distance of respectable. With more repetition and cleaner looks Turner could easily shoot 35 percent from the corners next season.

That's important because teams are currently willing to leave Turner open to protect the paint. He may command a little more respect than Harkless (who shot 27 percent from the corners last year), but his defender is still able to disrupt actions all across the floor.

Boston scores on a few of these plays but notice that in each of them Turner's defender has two feet in the paint. Kent Bazemore was particularly aggressive in the last clip going all the way to the free throw line with Turner standing in the corner.

That's a problem but at least they weren't defending him with their center. Atlanta still felt the need to close out when Turner caught the ball on the perimeter. This is an important detail because it allowed Turner to use his skills as a playmaker. When his defender scrambled back to contest his shot Evan was often able to drive into the paint and create a shot for himself or a teammate.

This is where Turner separates himself from the Blazers' current small forwards. Both Crabbe and Harkless struggle attacking in anything but a straight line and they rarely find open shooters. Turner drove more often than either of them (4.9 drives per 36 minutes compared to 3.2 for Mo and 1.2 for Crabbe) and managed a much higher shooting percentage (55 percent vs. 44 and 38 percent, respectively). He also created more assists and turned the ball over less often.

All of this should get easier in Portland as well. Turner wasn't the only player who couldn't shoot in Boston. Even when he had the ball in his hands, the spacing on the court was cramped. Defenders would sag off of Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, turning the paint into a forest of long limbs. Turner became a master at fitting the ball through tiny spaces and dribbling through a crowd. Next season, he won't have to do any of that. When he attacks those closeouts, defenders will be sticking close to Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard. He'll be enjoying the most space he's ever had and should have his most efficient season as a result.

Stotts' offense should also make Turner more effective off the ball. I was surprised how often Turner was completely stationary in Boston's offense. He'd spend two, three, sometimes four possessions in a row just standing in the corner. Brad Stevens has a reputation for having a modern offense with lots of ball movement and player movement but it's really only heavy on the first. The Celtics ranked eighth in the number passes last year but third to last in player movement. Portland was the inverse. They came in the bottom ten in total passes but the top three in player movement.

That's important because player movement makes it harder for the defense to cheat. Imagine you're playing against Portland and are matched up against Turner. You've just left him in the corner to help defend a Lillard drive on the other side of the floor. You're totally focused on the ball and can't see Turner. You help stop Lillard and he is forced to pass the ball back out to the perimeter. Now you need to recover to your man. You turn and take a step towards the corner but Turner's not there. It takes you a split second to find him and you've already wasted a step going the wrong direction. Meanwhile, Portland has swung the ball to Turner who's about to dribble around a screen. You're already a step behind and can't close the distance. Turner uses the screen and the extra space to get an uncontested look from 15 feet. Buckets.

Good offenses create these tiny missteps and then takes advantage of them. Stotts loves to swing the ball across the floor and then immediately run a pick-and-roll. Portland couldn't do this with Harkless last year but I expect them to do it often with Turner.

Movement within the offense will help, but Turner can take it to a whole new level by cutting on his own. He's somewhat active from the corners, lurking along the baseline and sneaking behind ball-watching defenders.

But Turner could be much more active from the top of the key. This is the area that Dwyane Wade really mastered when he played off-ball alongside LeBron James. Watch what he does in this clip when his man shades into the middle to help defend a James pick-and-roll:

As soon as his defender's head turns Wade runs straight to the rim. His defender even takes a hop back out to the perimeter and clearly has no idea where Wade is. An excellent pass from James and it's an easy two points for the Heat.

Compare that to what Turner does in a similar situation.

The first clip illustrates that effective cutting requires great spacing. In the Miami example, there's hardly a single body in the paint. Defenders are staying tight to the shooters in the corners and Chris Bosh is popping out to the top of the key. Wade has plenty of room to both catch and finish. Against Boston, there are three Atlanta jerseys in the paint. Turner should still cut there, but it would have been a much tougher finish. Again, the Blazers will have much better spacing than the Celtics, especially when Meyers Leonard is on the floor.

The second clip is pretty much all on Turner considering how much time and space he has to prepare his cut. Kent Bazemore (his defender) takes like three steps and then a lunge at Isaiah Thomas but Turner doesn't move. He's got a wide-open lane to the basket and Bazemore is completely focused on the ball. For a split second, the Hawks have committed three defenders to Thomas. These moments are like lightning in a bottle. A hard cut from Turner at that precise moment and he catches the ball behind Bazemore, Jeff Teague and Al Horford, creating an absurd four-on-two for the offense. That's the type of complete breakdown that would have forced Atlanta to change how they defended Turner. But timing is everything. Turner hesitates and that lightning vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

This is the cut that Turner needs to perfect. He might be able improve his shooting in the corners but it would take a minor miracle for him to become proficient above the break. No matter how carefully Stotts designs his offense, Turner will spend some time without the ball at the top of the key. If he can't shoot from there, then he needs to find another way to be a threat. This cut is the best way to do that.

All in all, Turner is a more effective off-ball player than I thought. His overall 3-point shooting percentage is atrocious but he's close to decent from the corners. This forces teams to close out on him and gives him an opportunity to drive by his man and create. Defenses cheat off of Turner but they can't ignore him completely. No one will confuse him with Tony Allen. This should make him a better option on offense than Harkless. His strength and discipline should make him a better option than Crabbe on defense. From that perspective, Turner is a modest upgrade offering an improved middle road between the offense vs. defense extremes of Crabbe and Harkless.

However, the Blazers will still need Turner to improve significantly if they're going to make the leap from good to great. You could say the same thing about Crabbe and Harkless, meaning the Blazers didn't solve their biggest problem this offseason so much as acquire an additional potential solution. If one of the three can rise to the challenge then the Blazers will be in great shape. They'll be a young team with a solid starting unit and the depth to go with it. If not, then they'll continue to struggle in the playoffs -- a team full of interesting lineups but no great ones.