NBA trades hinge on the value of a given player’s talent against his contract. Evaluating those twin factors is the subject of debate throughout NBA Twitter, Slack chats, and front office war rooms. Differentiating between degrees of bad contracts is perhaps more important this year than it’s ever been. With so much 2016 money still on the books of NBA franchises, fans and analysts tend to lump all bad contracts into the same category. It’s not that easy. Players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are simple – their entire salary can basically be treated as dead money — but most everybody else sits somewhere above that line. This includes Portland Trail Blazers swingman Evan Turner.
Turner’s value is difficult to pin down. Detractors would argue that the majority of the $36.5 million he’s owed over the next two years will go unmatched by his play on the court. Those who see his value as a defender and passer posit that, while he’s still not a positive asset, he brings enough to the table to still be worth eight figures per season. The answer is likely somewhere in between. Exactly where he fits, especially in trade discussions, will depend on who’s asking.
Recently-traded Dennis Schröder provides an analogy. To the Atlanta Hawks, his $46.5 million over three years held a lot less value than it did to Oklahoma City Thunder. Turner is in a similar spot. His future role — not just talent, but skill set and opportunity — would influence his value for any trade partner.
A team with an incumbent starter at the small forward position could give Turner the keys to the offense off the bench, which is his best role at this stage of his career. His lack of outside shooting makes it difficult to bring out positive value from him offensively without giving him the ball nearly every possession. This would interfere with most starting lineups. But as the key, primary ball-handler off the bench, Turner could command a similar salary to Tyreke Evans with the Indiana Pacers this summer (one year, $12.4 million).
The Blazers already stagger two ball handlers in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Turner’s strengths make less sense for them, therefore he’s less valuable to the team. But that doesn’t mean he’s less valuable for everybody. Turner’s value will change with each team Portland calls in a potential trade.
Teams like Phoenix, Orlando, and Chicago are ostensibly trying to improve this season and have play-making holes. Orlando had no cap space this summer and couldn’t eat Turner’s contract, but both Phoenix and Chicago made big moves in free agency and theoretically could have been willing to extract a first-round pick out of the Trail Blazers to take Turner. Phoenix went with a one-year deal for Trevor Ariza to ensure they had as much cap space as possible next summer (though Devin Booker’s max extension flies in the face of that plan). They will deal with a lack of primary ball handlers throughout the season. Chicago decided to splash the cash on Jabari Parker and essentially have no above-average passers on the entire roster. They’ll probably suffer for it as well.
Where those three possibilities exist (or existed), others could open up. Most teams carry multiple high-level ball handlers, making Turner redundant and a negative asset. The Blazers themselves fall into this camp. They don’t have that target role for him to fill and he doesn’t have the capabilities to fill any other roles. Portland just needs to find the right team on the other end of the line who would value Turner’s gifts and be willing to spend for them. It’s not likely right now, but as salary situation, rosters, and injuries shift over the course of the season, it is possible.