Talk to most Trail Blazers fans and the prospect of more Evan Turner makes their blood run cold. His large contract and jagged fit conspire to keep him on the wrong side of questionable for most roster jockeys. The first two games of their series against the New Orleans Pelicans have seemed to confirm this impression. After Turner scored 13 points on 6-15 shooting in Game 1, Head Coach Terry Stotts—plus a toe injury—curtailed his minutes in Game 2. Injury-based or not, the move was justifiable: Portland was outscored by 16 points in Turner’s 20 minutes.
Turner’s main negative impact in the playoffs has come on the offensive end—Portland’s offensive rating has plummeted from 111.8 when Turner is on the bench to 93.6 when he’s in the lineup. This is a continuation of a season-long trend (Portland’s offense got 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Turner saw the floor this season and he’s been a negative on that end every year since 2013-14) despite the fact that Turner shared the floor with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for more than 40 percent of his minutes this season. He played with at least one of them for all but 59 minutes this season.
It’s possible that Stotts will completely excise Turner from the rotation for the remainder of this series. He doesn’t have a key role defensively against the Pelicans and has been such a negative on the other end of the floor that it might make sense to run a nine-man rotation without him. Moe Harkless returned from injury in Game 2 and played well in a role very similar to how they were employing Turner. Raise Harkless’ minutes to normal starter-level (assuming he can handle an increased load) and bring Shabazz Napier back and the Trail Blazers have nine guys who can play ahead of Turner in the rotation.
Let’s assume that Stotts doesn’t press the nuclear button on Turner’s minutes. The Blazers can’t afford to give up production against New Orleans. How can Portland use Turner better to boost their offense when he’s on the floor?
I’ve written in the past about how teams can use their non-shooters as effective offensive weapons, but Turner presents an entirely different problem than most wings. Stotts could put the ball in his hands as the point guard in pick-and-roll, but that’s a massive waste of Lillard and McCollum. They could run action through him in the post, but he hasn’t exactly been the most willing passer in those situations, especially when the Pelicans guard him with Rajon Rondo. One thing the Trail Blazers haven’t experimented with this season is using Turner as the primary screener in pick-and-roll. Per Synergy, Turner only had four possessions all season where he took a shot, got fouled, or turned the ball over as the roll man, but considering the specific matchup with New Orleans, it might make sense to give it a shot.
Given that the Pelicans are using Rondo to defend Turner, a Lillard-Turner pick-and-roll combination would likely produce one of two results: either Jrue Holiday and Rondo will trap Lillard to get the ball out of his hands or New Orleans will switch, which takes Holiday off Lillard for that possession. Either result would be a positive for the Trail Blazers.
If the Pelicans trap, Turner is an accomplished passer (unlike some of the other options Portland has used as the roll man). Stotts should feel good about having the ball in his hands at the free-throw line orchestrating a 4-on-3 advantage. Turner has size to see over the defense and, while he doesn’t have a lot of experience operating out of the short roll, he has good enough vision and decision making to be deployed this way.
If the Pelicans switch, Lillard has had a much easier time against Rondo than against Holiday. Turner would simply exit the play and take up position in the corner to take Holiday as far away from the play as possible while Lillard runs another pick-and-roll with one of Portland’s big men.
Unless something changes, Turner going mostly-unguarded on the perimeter will continue to have a ripple effect through the rest of Portland’s offense. Lillard and McCollum have a harder time getting to the basket and finishing when Turner’s on the floor. That’s shown through both games of this series. Lillard has taken only 11 shots at the rim through two games and has drawn just a single shooting foul inside the arc in his 82 minutes. Other mitigating factors that have changed Lillard’s approach in this series—Holiday has been fantastic deterring his drives and Anthony Davis lurks like a unibrowed Loch Ness Monster in the paint waiting to swat Lillard’s shot into the stands—but Turner’s inability to hurt New Orleans from outside adds another defender to the paint and makes life for Lillard and McCollum that much more difficult.
Down 0-2, the Blazers need to try something new. If they’re not going to take Turner off the floor, putting him in a different kind of play might make enough of a difference to justify his playing time and increase Portland’s margin enough to give them a shot at victory.