Conventional wisdom argues that the key to understanding the Portland Trail Blazers is their big three. A team featuring Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic—a trio accounting for more than 62 points a night, each with a usage rate between 25 and 30 percent—seemingly needs no further explanation. Conventional wisdom isn’t right. Gauging by the early part of the 2017-18 season, reserve “point forward” Evan Turner is important to Portland’s success...not as obviously as the star players, but just as integrally. At least to a degree, as Evan Turner goes, so go the Blazers.
Turner’s season has been up and down, with variations in role and rotation spot. This inconsistency is having a major effect on Portland’s record thus far this season. Turner’s scoring averages don’t fluctuate dramatically. He averages nearly 11 points per game during Blazer victories, and less than 9 points per loss, but the story goes deeper that point production.
Turner shoots poorly when the Blazers lose. The statement seems as obvious as “water is wet” or “Bite me, Lakers”, but Turner’s percentages correspond more directly to team success than those of the star trio. Lillard shoots 39 percent in wins and 41 percent when the Blazers come up short. McCollum and Nurkic have more traditional percentage splits, with McCollum scoring at a virtually identical rate regardless of the final outcome. Correlation is not causation, but the phenomenon is interesting and bears watching.
As a bench player and often lead ball handler in the second unit, Turner has the potential to either drive the offense or cause it to wither and die. He likes the ball in his hands. When he’s played “you take it, I take it” with Lillard or McCollum, the results have been mixed.
Lately, Head Coach Terry Stotts has opted to give Shabazz Napier rotation minutes as the primary ball handler in the second unit, shifting Turner back into a more traditional scoring role. Admitting small sample size, the move has paid dividends. While they can be a little turnover happy, the Shabazz/Turner combination comes in at a +22 points per 100 possessions. That’s incredible.
Napier’s highly efficient scoring rate influences those numbers heavily, but there’s more to it. It seems counter-intuitive, but giving Turner a little less responsibility allows him to pick his spots better, acting as an outlet valve. He can work on smaller players in the post or take the mid-range look. Shooting 44 percent on the year, Turner has hit at a 50 percent clip since Napier joined the rotation. Given Portland’s rotation, anything that can get the second unit offense playing more free and with less one-on-one play is a good thing.
Although Napier is currently surging, Portland is going to need Turner to continue his improved shooting in that second unit. No matter how many nice surprises Portland gets off the bench—Napier, Pat Connaughton, and Ed Davis come to mind—they still need consistent scoring in order to succeed. Higher-profile players will garner the headlines while less-experienced players are greeted with astonishment and accolades, but Turner will remain an overlooked, but important, part of Portland’s second-unit production.