Evan Turner has been an Indiana Pacer for just five games. That is an incredibly short window for a player evaluation, but Turner's ability to fit in and contribute in Indiana is hugely important to their postseason plans.
The Pacers snagged Turner, along with Lavoy Allen, in a deal at the trade deadline for Danny Granger. In a statement made after the trade (h/t Brian Windhorst, ESPN), Larry Bird talked about how he thought Turner could make a difference for the Pacers:
"We felt we needed to make this trade to strengthen the core unit and our bench. In Evan and Lavoy, we think we got two really good players that can help us and we look forward to what they can bring.''
Turner is undoubtedly a talented player, but for a team like the Pacers with a defined and successful system at both ends of the floor, the issue ultimately is less about talent then fit.
In terms of base-level skills, he’s a standout. There’s no question that Turner can handle the ball smoothly and set up his teammates to score — a combination that puts him in select company among wing players. None of those skills, though, have managed to pull Turner’s career from an unfortunate gray area. As long as he’s neither efficient enough to justify a prominent offensive role nor well suited for a complementary one, Turner will continue to pose problems of utilization for whichever team employs him.
Through these first five games, Turner's numbers have been reasonable enough—per 36 minutes averages of 17.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists. The Pacers have also been relatively successful when he's been on the floor, outscoring the opposition by an average of 0.9 points per 100 possessions. The problem is that the five games have been played against the Lakers, Bucks, Celtics, Jazz and Warriors.
Other than the Warriors, those teams are all among the league's worst and certainly not the kind of competition you'd want to use as a test sample for playoff success.
The result has been that both his and the team's numbers have been inflated, making things look much rosier than they may actually be. He's been getting the chance to work with more opportunities than he probably would otherwise, and his Usage Rate with Indiana, 24.7 percent, would rank second on the team across the entire season.
As the competition level increases in the playoffs, Turner will likely play a smaller role and spend less time with the ball in his hands. That's where the questions really come.
So far, the Pacers have been mostly plugging Turner into the same role Granger filled. The two units he'll see time with most often are C.J. Watson - Lance Stephenson - Luis Scola - Ian Mahinmi—a bench unit anchored by Stephenson's shot-creation abilities, and George Hill - Paul George - David West - Roy Hibbert—the starting unit with Stephenson subbed out to stagger the rotations and allow Stephenson space to play with the bench.
Unfortunately, Turner duplicates so much of the existing skill sets in both rotations, particularly playing with Stephenson and the rest of the second unit, that he's limited in what he can offer. Neither unit really needs a primary ball-handler nor a shot creator, which is what Turner is most comfortable doing.
Much of that second-unit offense is built around pick-and-rolls with Stephenson and either Mahinmi or Scola. To really make those sets work, the Pacers need spacing around them. While Granger wasn't shooting the ball particularly well, he was still an implied outside threat.
But teams just aren't threatened by Turner on the perimeter. Here you can see just how comfortable the Jazz defense is collapsing on a Stephenson pick-and-roll, leaving Turner wide open.
Same thing here with the Bucks defense. Although Turner's man gets caught by a pin-down screen, he was already playing defense in the lane, totally comfortable leaving Turner alone in the corner.
Essentially the same thing happens when Turner is playing with the starters. His primary offensive role should be spacing the floor, and it's just not one he's been particularly effective in.
Over his last three seasons in Philadelphia, he ranked 195th, 121st and 279th in points per possession on spot-up opportunities, according to mySynergySports.com (subscription required).
Turner is at his best when he's creating off the dribble or in transition, and he's shown the potential to do both so far with the Pacers. He's been very good in the pick-and-roll, knocking down 7-of-12 shots in those situations with Indiana, also according to mySynergySports.com.
The problem is that every possession that's devoted to putting Turner in the best position to succeed takes someone like Stephenson, George or Hill off the ball and removes a dynamic element from their game.
The driving force behind the trade was the Pacers' championship aspirations for this season. Granger had been shooting terribly since returning from injury, and the second-unit offense continued to be the team's Achilles' heel. Moving Granger was the Pacers' last chance to get all the pieces in place for a title run.
The structure of their salary commitments made moving Granger a tricky operation and ultimately left very few options. The considerable cap space that had been devoted to Granger's expiring contract is needed to try to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer, which meant anything the Pacers took back in a Granger deal had to also be built around expiring contracts.
Not wanting to cut anyone else from the roster, the Pacers were left chasing a single player with an expiring contract that matched Granger's who could help them in the playoffs this season. Turner fit the bill on the first two criteria, but the jury is still out on how much he'll help the Pacers in the playoffs.
There may be an advantageous balance to be struck, one that works best for both Turner and the Pacers. But right now, they're still searching for it, and the clock is running as the playoffs approach.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats