It’s hard to judge offseason signings when they happen. What makes sense, in theory, doesn’t always translate to the floor. Right now we’ve gotten a sense of how those additions have adapted to their new teams, but it’s still too early to be overly concerned or bullish about the bad and the good.
Yet, there are some cases in which a fit or a contract is questionable from the get-go, and even a few games seem to confirm every doubt cast at the time.
That’s the case with the Trail Blazers’ newest free agent, Evan Turner.
From the day he signed, it was hard not to be skeptic about whether his skill set was what Portland needed. So far, those worries seem validated. Turner contributes little on offense without the ball in his hands.
He’s at his best attacking in isolations or the pick and roll and either looking to score or pass. That’s a problem because the Blazers have two players who can do that at a higher level in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
The hope was that he would get his touches and allow Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to play off the ball more. Unfortunately, that’s not how Portland’s offense works, at least when the starters are in.
The two stars - along with everyone else — already move without the ball a lot in Terry Stotts’ “flow” offense. The Blazers covered the third most miles on offense last year, according to SportVU stats. They do a good job of getting good looks and putting players in scoring position just by executing. When they need an extra facilitator, Mason Plumlee fills that role. The forwards, meanwhile, cut, take open shots and crash the offensive glass. That was enough to be the seventh-best offense in the league last season.
It’s not surprising, then, that Portland’s big addition is coming off the bench. Turner would have been a bad fit with the starters, as he rarely cuts with purpose and is a career 30 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Opponents don’t really have to worry about him when he’s off the ball.
Maurice Harkless, the man who took Turner’s starting job, is arguably less talented but he attacks open space, still has a chance to develop into a league average spot up shooter and can guard multiple positions.
Turner is familiar with the sixth man role, but even off the bench, he seems to be an awkward fit with the way the Blazers are playing. When Lillard rests and the bench unit checks in, Stotts likes to keep McCollum in. It’s his time to dominate the offense, and he takes advantage of it. He becomes the point guard. His shot attempts per minute increase a bit but his assists spike.
The ball is in his hands, which means it can’t go to Turner, even if it should. More variety could actually help keep the offense going without Lillard, a problem in the past two seasons. Against the Nuggets Stotts gave the ball to Turner a bit more, especially late in the third quarter to good results. Yet, it’s extremely hard to imagine that becoming a fixture of the Blazers’ game plan. McCollum needs touches and a lot of those come when Lillard is off the court. That’s not likely to change.
That leaves Turner without a role on offense. In Boston, he was clearly the second-best shot creator on the roster. In Portland, he’s third-best, and that makes a world of difference. He can’t start because his talents are not needed in that unit.
The bench could use another creator, but to empower him means taking the ball away from one of the team’s stars. Turner has the second-worst net rating on the team behind only Meyers Leonard, and it’s not a surprise since he just makes little sense on that roster.
Complicating matters further, there is another wing on the team who does fit seamlessly with what the Blazers do on offense. Allen Crabbe is everything Turner isn’t. He thrives off the ball, and he’s a deadly shooter. Crabbe is already getting more minutes than Turner and also finishing games while Turner sits late.
That means Turner is essentially the fourth wing in the rotation, someone who just plays very good defense and keeps the offense running. Those are valuable contributions, but are they worth that huge $17 million a year deal he signed?
Fair or not, Turner’s contract will keep coming up because it was one of the moves that got the Trail Blazers into salary cap hell. By signing him and then retaining both of Harkless and Crabbe, the front office ventured into the luxury tax this season.
Next year, with McCollum’s extension kicking in, they will once again be over the tax line. Owners will open their wallets for contenders, but the Blazers are no on that level yet. That means someone has to go.
Fortunately for the Blazers, we are months away from the trade deadline. There’s still time for Stotts to figure out how to use Turner’s shot creation more with both the starters and those McCollum-led bench units. Maybe there’s a balance to be found that is not apparent now.
It would be silly to declare his addition a certified failure so early in the season. Still, it’s fair to wonder if Portland is getting a little buyer’s remorse, even this early in the season.
Turner has proved everyone who counted him out wrong in the past. The Blazers have to be hoping he can do it again. Otherwise, his tenure in Portland might be shorter than anyone expected.