NBA team building: a blessing for some, disaster for others
In one of the very first moves of the whole free agency period, the Portland Trail Blazers signed swingman Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract.
Turner had played the two previous seasons with the Boston Celtics. In 2015/16, he recorded 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 28.0 minutes per game, compared to 9.5, 5.1 and 5.5 in 27.6 minutes per game the season before. Turner’s 2015/16 PER was a career-high 13.6, his offensive rating a career-high 102, and his true shooting percentage a career high .513%. Even though he once averaged 17.4 points and 6.0 rebounds for the first two thirds of the 2013/14 season, his last in Philadelphia, last season was pretty much a career year for Turner.
The thing is, though, that those numbers aren’t especially good. The assists per game are intriguing in a swing man, yet the advanced stats paint Turner as somewhat inefficient and ineffectual. A .513% true shooting percentage is below average, as is a 13.6 PER, as is a 102 offensive rating, the second lowest amongst the Celtics’ rotation players, ahead only of Marcus Smart’s 101 – for context, compare these to Amir Johnson’s 117 or Jae Crowder’s 113. In conjunction with this, Turner will turn 28 during the first week of the upcoming season, and therefore with this four-year deal, the Blazers will be paying him for his prime years. And his prime thus far has not been very prime.
Notwithstanding his inefficiencies and limitations as a player, Turner found in Boston his niche as a sixth man on a good team at a low price. Portland is now paying him in the expectation that he will be far less niche, and becoming the all-encompassing point forward he was drafted to be. However, a wider discussion of the value of Turner’s new deal, and of his merits as a player, is not really the intention of this space. The intention here is to use Turner’s new deal to illustrate a point about optics and circumstance in the realm of roster composition.
Compare and contrast Turner’s situation to that of another former Pacers swingman – Lance Stephenson. Stephenson is currently a free agent after completing last season with the Memphis Grizzlies, who have since added Chandler Parsons and Troy Daniels and made no significant noise about bringing him back. Indeed, outside of brief rumours about a return to the Indiana Pacers with whom he began his career – rumours since shot down by Larry Bird – there has been little in the way of interest for his services.
The conjecture here is that the two players are not all that different.
On the surface, maybe they are. There has been a difference in terms of their career paths to date, at least. After three-and-a-half difficult years on mediocre to poor Sixers teams and a part-season with Indiana in which he barely played, struggled, and gave himself absolutely no momentum going into his first ever free agency, Turner is fresh off of a good two years with Boston that rebuilt his value, and on which he finally played a significant role for a good team.
Meanwhile, Stephenson signed his first free agency deal with the Charlotte Hornets two years ago, and immediately struggled mightily for both results and fit. He was very soon dealt to the L.A. Clippers as a blatant reclamation project, and yet was absolutely not reclaimed there in any way, managing only a few months before being dealt once more at the past trade deadline along with a first round pick in exchange for Jeff Green. The big struggles Lance had in Charlotte and the bigger struggles on the bigger stage that is the current Clippers team overshadow the fact that he actually played extremely well in his three months with the Grizzlies – the more powerful narrative is that since leaving Indiana, Stephenson has been exposed as a system player, and that system has gone now.
On point of fact, all of the above is essentially true. But on point of fact, so is this: Stephenson is about to turn 26, and Turner is about to turn 28. Stephenson may have had two bad years, but he also has two more in hand. The best should yet be to come for Lance, whereas the best should mostly be here by now for Turner.
Whereas Stephenson looked terrible in Charlotte and L.A., Turner looked terrible in Indiana. Stephenson is a ball-dominant slasher with point-forward sensibilities, who cannot shoot the long ball, and so is Turner. The two are neither identical players nor are they identical cases, but they are similar. And yet while Turner just got paid $70 million, Stephenson has to yet to get a job.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where Stephenson once looked as though he was headed towards some kind of stardom. As a starter and 35-minute per game player for the 2013/14 Pacers, who made the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists as the 23-year-old Robin to Paul George’s Batman. When Charlotte signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract the following summer, it was a surprising move in how comparatively cheap it was, a deal thought of by many as being a bargain for a player who had somewhat just broken out as a star.
As it has since turned out, Charlotte read him for his faux-stardom quite accurately. Indeed, considering how much he underwhelmed for them, perhaps not enough. There are parts of a shooting guard’s game that Stephenson doesn’t do, such as perpetual motion off the ball, spotting up from the wings/corners, and working off of screens. The assists totals, one of the more attractive and unique parts of his game, come from the amount of time he spends in control of the ball. And while his ability to run half court offence and be a secondary ball handler can be assets, he ought to only be a primary playmaker if there are no significantly better playmaking options on the team. If there are, Lance will be ineffective alongside them – if there aren’t, Lance is not himself a sufficient enough talent to carry the team anywhere significant.
All of which can also be said of Turner.
So why, then, has one just cashed in for nearly $18 million per year, and one has yet to get a dime? As ever, perception of ability is as important as ability. The subjective is as important as the objective. It can be proven using evidence from the past that the two are similar players at - when they are both playing their best - similar levels. Yet when signing free agents, teams are looking to the future. And while they should empirically be using the past to try and inform that future, recency bias and pure supposition tend to be all powerful. The results of these are that Turner is being paid like a star and Stephenson isn’t being paid at all, and there should not be even nearly that much of a gap.
Neither player has to date fulfilled their promise, in terms of the promise they were thought to have when they joined the NBA. But by virtue of being drafted second overall, Turner’s promise was held to be much higher. And for that reason, it is assumed there is still much left. To be sure, Turner is more consistent – the fact that he was a capable, average sixth man with Boston is to his credit, even if the opening here made it sound like a pejorative. But in six years, his level of play has never gone much beyond that. In the same six years, neither has Lance’s. But of the two, Stephenson reached the higher standard. Turner will always be limited by a lack of great athleticism that, no matter how good his moves are, will make them tougher to finish. Lance seems more limited by circumstance.
It is not insignificant that Stephenson has an ugly incident of domestic violence in his past, and Turner does not. But that was six years ago, prior to his NBA career even beginning. It would be weird for it to be a big factor now. Stephenson has been accused in the past of a selfish attitude, and of being difficult in the locker room, but so has Turner. Both have clashed with teammates. Both were younger and dumber. Both got to about the same level. One was just more consistent along the way.
There are always bargains out there, and the race is always to find them. The elite free agents are obvious, and subject to their own kind of bidding war. The rest of the bidding war is far more speculative – teams have to find quality players, and somehow find both more value in them than their incumbent teams do, and that their agent will try and claim is there. It is not easy, and the bidding gets excessive. Turner is representative of this – even if he expands his game hugely throughout the life of his next contract, it will surely never be a bargain. Stephenson might. After all, he already has been in his career, twice, the same number of times that he has been an overpaid misfit. This is not to say that Lance will definitely be a bargain - one thing Stephenson has shown in the last few years of his NBA career is how limited of use he can be in the wrong set-up. But he might, because he was pretty good twice, and still only 25.
Some teams need bargains more than others. It would follow logically that those teams should look at a player like Lance. In theory, on a struggling team that needs a talent infusion and anything resembling an asset, Stephenson could be a welcome addition. He could get a good share of the ball, play his role, redeem his value, and help the team. Especially if they are a struggling team with few future assets, such as the Brooklyn Nets.
Bereft of draft picks and with few established talents on the roster, the Nets have an odd roster at this juncture. Their efforts to buy potential young stars in Tyler Johnson (Miami) and Allen Crabbe (Portland) were snafued as both teams matched the Nets' offer sheets to their restricted free agents, with the Trail Blazers committing an alarming $145 million to a Crabbe/Turner wing pairing in the process. It would seem to be as ideal of a fit for a player such as Stephenson as there could be in today’s NBA, just as Turner once was a pretty snug fit for an upcoming Celtics team. Unfortunately for Lance, the Nets have opted for the established steadiness and shooting that comes from Randy Foye and Joe Harris. Not even they wanted him. So as Turner swims in his money and Brooklyn look to the Luis Scolas of this world, it’s looking more and more like China for Stephenson.