In what may have been their most perplexing move of the offseason, the Atlanta Hawks acquired Evan Turner in a trade for Kent Bazemore in late June. Each player has one year remaining on his current contract and the modest savings of $663,106 for the Hawks lend little credence to the idea this move was a pure salary swap. While Bazemore’s shooting and ability to play up-tempo basketball make him a nice addition to a Portland team that reached the Western Conference finals last season, Turner’s fit on a young, rebuilding team is intriguing at best.
Turner is a bit of an enigma in today’s NBA game, which is dominated by floor spacing and three-point shooting. A career 29.6 percent three-point shooter who shot just 21.2 percent from behind the arc last season is anything but a threat from the perimeter. In the 16 playoff games he played for the Blazers last season, he attempted just one shot from behind the three-point line.
Deploying a player whose shot opponents do not have to respect creates a real dilemma for an NBA coach. The game today virtually demands playing at least four shooters on the court together. A unit with two players who are not a threat from the outside is simply too easy to defend. Lloyd Pierce will have careful decisions to make when deciding how and with whom to deploy Turner.
Last year, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts used Turner most frequently in a lineup that included Jusuf Nurkic, who made just three treys all season, but the unit also included one of the best back court combinations in the league, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Add Al-Farouq Aminu as the fifth player and you have a lineup that defended well, dominated the boards on both ends and functioned just fine offensively, thanks to their two star guards.
In spite of Turner’s shooting limitations, the way Stotts successfully used him as a key rotational player highlights the aspects in which Turner is an asset, even when considering the way the game is played today. Turner is essentially a big guard who can handle the ball and create for others while being a versatile defender who can defend up to the four spot and is also a strong rebounder. Looking ahead, the real mystery is how Lloyd Pierce will work the veteran into lineups this season on a team that is younger and less talented than Turner’s former team.
Turner is capable of playing on the floor with the Hawks’ best players, Trae Young and John Collins as long as the other big on the floor besides Collins is a shooter, like Alex Len, or if the other big on the floor is Turner himself. Is Turner capable of starting with Young, Collins, Len and Kevin Huerter? He could, but it is more likely Pierce will want Turner on the floor when Young isn’t, essentially making him the backup point guard.
On a second unit, Turner could function as a back court mate with DeAndre’ Bembry, who is capable of defending the one spot but is more of a slasher and transition finisher offensively. However, this pairing puts the team in the challenging position of getting limited shooting efficiency from the guard spots. Bembry has been a reliable three-point shooter at times in his career but has not posted the efficiency overall to be considered a real threat from the perimeter.
Either in contrast to, or in addition to, a potential backup point guard role, it will be interesting to see how often Turner shares the court with Young. There are some gains that could be made by playing these two together. Turner can allow Young to work off the ball on some possessions helping manage workload for the small guard. If Young is going to become an elite guard in the league, it will be primarily because of his ball skills. Still, functioning at a high level in off the ball actions would make him all that more difficult to defend.
In addition to being another option as a creator while Young is on the floor, Turner could function as a screen-and-roll player. He could thrive in dribble handoff actions as well. A player who is big enough to screen but can do more than dive to the rim is an asset. The ability to catch during the roll action and still be creative with the ball really opens up the offensive options for the team when running those sets.
The real quandary for Pierce here is that this team simply is not loaded with high-efficiency three-point shooters. The Hawks finished 16th in the league last year while shooting 35.2 percent from behind the arc. However, two of their best shooters from a season ago, Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon are gone.
The Hawks do have two veteran newcomers whose primary skill is shooting, Chandler Parsons and Allen Crabbe. While both of those players are options to function in a second unit with Turner, they also present other challenges defensively as well as potential struggles to play with place.
Ultimately, Turner will be at his best when he is on the floor with the team’s best players, just as he was a year ago when playing for Portland. However, maximizing the return on a veteran in the final year of his contract should not be the priority for the Hawks. Rather, using Turner to steady the play on the floor while young teammates are developing and getting experience is more important.
If Turner’s role is more centered around leading a second unit, there is a good chance that unit could struggle to play quality basketball and be competitive, especially against good teams. If the story unfolds as so, the blame should not be directed at a veteran who was traded from a contender to a rebuilding team in an important contract year. In the end, Turner’s real contribution this season is likely to come from intangible impacts on a young, developing roster.
One other way that Turner could bring value is as a trade piece as the season approaches the trade deadline if the Hawks are not competing for a playoff spot. Of late, the prevalence of the buyout option somewhat limits real returns from the mid-season trade market unless a team is willing to take on salary. Turner’s expiring contract and real NBA skills could make him a legitimate trade target for contending teams in January.
It is interesting that Pierce was an assistant with Philadelphia during Turner’s fourth season with the Sixers when he was a starter on rebuilding team that won just 19 games. As the trade deadline approached, the Sixers traded Turner to Indiana who would go on to win 56 games and reach the Eastern Conference finals.
As the 2019-20 season approaches, the Hawks roster is loaded with newcomers including four veterans who arrive with different narratives and story lines as to how they landed in Atlanta and what potential contributions they bring. Of those four veterans (Turner, Crabbe, Parsons and Jabari Parker), Turner has been the most reliable and versatile player throughout his career. He may not be a perfect fit on this roster, or any roster for that matter, but his consistent approach and certain skill set should be at least a temporary asset as the Hawks continue building a team and organization with aspirations of being a contender in the near future.