Evan Turner's role and history with the Portland Trail Blazers is complicated. Brought in in 2016 to ease some of the tension off of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the playoffs, that narrative and his purpose has shifted. In his first two years, Turner played the traditional 3 spot, dribbling the ball on the floor with Portland’s stars. At the conclusion of 2018-19, Turner had played half of his minutes as a true point guard, often with neither McCollum or Lillard on the floor.
This change in usage was reflected most in Turner's assist percentage, which doubled year-over-year. Turner's turnovers went up as well, and we saw him start to hone his game. He shot even fewer 3-pointers, and for much of the season he was the catalyst that pushed the Blazers’ second unit forward.
That was important for Portland, a team that has not only shifted Turner's role, but how it relies on its personnel over the past three seasons. At certain points over this season, the second-most important factor for the Blazers was: Jusuf Nurkic, defense, Turner, the second unit, and Jake Layman. It simply depended on which month — or sometimes which week — you were asking about.
Turner was supposed to be vital for Portland heading into this postseason. They knew they didn't have Nurkic, and as both injuries piled up and Ramadan approached, the Blazers needed the comfortability and reliability of Turner in that bench unit.
Of course, that's not what Portland got from Turner.
In the postseason this year, Turner scored a measly 2.7 points per game, shooting 32.6 percent from the field. Defensively he was solid, but Turner just didn’t have the impact necessary on offense and at times he became unplayable. Terry Stotts apparently thought so, too, and the 22-minute per night Turner hit that mark twice in the postseason — both against the Golden State Warriors. He withered, and the fervor around the discussion of his staying in Rip City has been dialed up once again.
It's possible that Turner was out of his comfort zone. The players he passed to during the regular season got erratic playing time in the postseason. Stotts’ truncated layoff lineup meant Zach Collins, Seth Curry, and Meyers Leonard — three of the top five recipients of Turner’s passes during the year — were no longer steadily playing.
Absent that, Turner's poor playoff performance was at least partially the result of the inherent issues at hand with this Blazers roster: there's not enough shooting, and the coaching staff doesn’t trust the end of the bench on defense. In the playoffs, Turner played less with sharpshooting talent and more with Portland’s starting wings in Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. His ability to generate offense as a passer was tied to their inability to shoot the ball.
In that way, we end the 2018-19 NBA season a bit like we did several years ago, after Turner's first playoff performance underwhelmed. Portland’s system has been scouted, and although Stotts has added wrinkles to this offense, it's not enough to overtake the lack of shooting production per dollar spent, compartmentalized by individual contracts.
As a regular-season ball handler and dynamic forward who can guard four positions, Turner has molded himself into something approaching the value of his $70 million deal. But on a team that has as many fatal flaws as the Blazers do — aggravated by a lack of wing shooting — Turner finds himself back where he started.
The initial assessment of Turner was that Neil Olshey overpaid him, even for the role he was sold on several summers ago. Yes, the Blazers did need a way to get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands against postseason traps, but Portland still required additional shooting. They don't have that yet, and so Turner looks worse in comparison.
Unfortunately, a more complex consideration of Turner’s use in Portland, one that takes into account his excellent regular season progress, results in much the same outcome. He can’t shoot, and because he’s a dribbler but not a driver, a lack of individual offense limits what Turner can produce himself.
Evan Turner is a good basketball player, although overpaid. He would be an excellent piece on a legitimate Western Conference Finals contender, but at this point the team around him doesn't require a man of his talents. In that way, Portland is constructed a bit backwards. Long-term wing shooting will be of particular desire this summer for Olshey. That might help Turner moving forward.
For now, much like Portland itself, Turner remains a useful-but-flawed player with an obvious obstacle to overcome. And like the Blazers, there’s no clear route to fix what ails him.