Excuse me while I speak as the head of the "Evan Turner hater" wing of Celtics followers. We were wrong.
From day one, I never understood the Turner signing. In fact, I barely noticed it. He was one of the last free agents to sign in the summer of 2014, and I vaguely remember seeing it in tiny print as I scrolled through the NBA news feed on a boat in late July.
Drafted second overall, he was underwhelming to begin his career with the 76ers and a non-factor in his short Pacers stint. So what was he going to accomplish on a Celtics team coming off of their worst season in years with no concrete future in front of them?
Here in March, 2016 we have our answer. He would become a defining face in the formation of this new-era Celtics identity to which we have become accustomed. The confidence, the intensity, the fearlessness against any opponent, the unwillingness to give up, the versatility, the risks. Everything Turner embodies as a player, the Cs have come to represent in their play every night.
Even for all his wild turnovers, poor shot selections, and not-infrequent incidents where he forces a play that simply isn't there, it is hard to imagine the team being in a position to claim a top-four seed in 2016 without the influence he has had on the Celtics' identity. Turner has, without a doubt, been instrumental in Boston's growth from a young, scrappy team into a force that opponents dread facing on any given night.
Beyond the impact his personality has instilled in the organization, his on-court role has been vital too, especially over the last few weeks as some have even thrown his name into the "Sixth Man of the Year" award conversation. A starter last season, he has made his transition to the bench seamlessly, and it has even proven to serve him better in many circumstances.
In 27 minutes per game off the pine, he has posted some of the best stats off his career. E.T. has been posting 10.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game to go with a career-high 45% field goal percentage. Those averages stand at 10.7, 5.2, and 5.1 per over the last 26 games, a 19-7 stretch for the squad that has rocketed them into the conversation with some of the East's elite. "Elite" and "East" may not fit in the same sentence very well, but the Cs have played well throughout their competitive schedule and have put themselves on pace for an astonishing 48-50 wins.
Turner deserves a slice of the credit for that, I have to admit it.
When the Cs get into a lull offensively, there's no player capable of getting everybody around him more involved than Turner. When the team has needed difficult baskets as defenses have tightened up down the stretch, he has the mentality to attack and the skill to finish around the basket. He isn't a star by any stretch of the imagination, but he has the notion that he is one such star drilled in his mind beyond any shadow of a doubt. That sentiment has rested on the head of the entire roster. Nobody believed in him as a free agent two years ago, and he has helped to establish a groundwork for a rise few teams have made from the depths in the manner his has.
A year ago I probably would've lost my head if Turner said "you've gotta respect a 15% three-point shooter" mockingly after hitting one a few weeks back. For some strange reason he has continued to attempt shots from the perimeter when he is shooting worse than anybody in basketball with at least 45 attempts. But Brad Stevens hasn't shown the slightest urge to reel him in, and now you can understand why.
The good and bad in Turner is the good and bad in the Celtics. Stevens, from an outside perspective, has fallen in love with him from the start. They spent quality time together in Africa over the offseason, Stevens stresses belief in him even through some of his most brutal stretches, and what you'd imagine a coach thinks about this team Turner actually says out loud in his wide array of incredible quotes that could fit into a book by year's end.
In many ways, Turner is a human embodiment of the Celtics as we know them now: a defiant force, a ruthless ball of energy on the court, versatile in countless roles, and willing to go back and fight again even he fails in a certain spot.
However, even with all of those positive contributions in mind, I believe Boston would be best suited to move on from him this summer when he hits free agency. This view doesn't go back to my frustrations and distaste with his game. Rather, it actually connects to none other than Marcus Smart.
The league has been put on notice about Turner's rise as the Cs have risen to prominence. Along with that factor, the cap is set to rise to somewhere around $89 million for 2016-17 thanks to TV money. In a few short months, we will be entering a free agency bonanza to a level never before seen in league history. We saw Brandon Knight ink for $70 million, Goran Dragic for $86 million, and Jimmy Butler for $95 million last offseason. With cap numbers nearly $20 million above where they were back then, imagine what Turner could command on the open market?
Turner's skill set may be niche to the Cs, and he may love it here so much that he'd take a minor pay cut to stay. But the money isn't even the greatest issue for me. It's the notion that the team has to rise from where they are right now.
E.T. is one of the many reasons the team is as competitive as they can possibly be at their talent level. The fact that he controls the ball for most of the game is also, on the other hand, one of the variables holding them back from a higher level of contention. They can do better in today's game than utilizing Turner as their primary playmaker, and one player who I think has the potential to reach that level is a teammate who has stood in Turner's shadow offensively: Marcus Smart.
Turner is currently a better distributor, ball-handler, and offensive producer than Smart. It's not even close. That's why Turner has received 220 minutes (3.5 per game) on the ball this year compared to Smart's 99 (2.3 per game). So in 3,092 minutes of play for Boston this year; Turner has accounted for 7.1% of their possession time, while Smart has received just 3.2%. Neither compares to Isaiah Thomas, who dominates the ball at 399 minutes total (6.3 minutes per game) which is 12.9% of the Celtics' touches.
Smart is buried behind two ball-dominant players and for good reason on this current squad. His strengths as a player entail making off-ball plays on both ends of the floor. He grabs loose balls, plays passes in the air, rebounds, and shows a snappiness that can't be accurately quantified in the box score. The beauty of this team has been that every player knows his individual role and embraces it. Each piece of the puzzle works to its full potential, so more often than not Boston's players have been in the right place at the right time to make plays.
Thomas is Boston's best scorer, and he gets buckets on the ball. Turner is their best ball-handler. So that's where those minute allocations come from and will continue to stay if both return next season. So how will Smart be able to improve as an on the ball playmaker? With Turner in town the short answer is: he won't.
That's why the team would be wise to let Turner go this summer. Not because of the money but based on the fact that his presence has forced the team's best young asset to be under-developed offensively. Smart should be growing in the role Turner currently holds: a secondary on-the-ball guard who can create for both himself and others. He does many things on the court better than E.T., and the reason he's behind in one area is because he gets no opportunities to improve. At the moment, all Smart's offense consists of is off-ball creation for his teammates and poor shot attempts. Maybe, just maybe, he needs to be on the ball to make more happen.
For the Celtics, Smart still represents the hope that they have another budding star on their roster, and Turner stands for stagnancy. He's far enough into his career where we know what he's made of and who he is. Smart, on the other hand, is a rare defensive anchor at the guard spot, and there's still so much talent left to be developed given his youth. The team may take a small step backwards by empowering him in Turner's role next season, but in the long haul it could be a massive leap forward.
Even though he may not be as outspoken and fun in the media, on the court Smart represents some of the same tenacity and aggressiveness that Turner stands for. He has stood up to Lebron James and Kristaps Porzingis while getting right up in DeMarcus Cousins' head in a 2014 game. In many ways he is Turner, but in a 6'4", 220-pound frame.
Turner wasn't Boston's lottery selection; Smart was. So let's invest in the talent that Danny Ainge highlighted on draft night two years ago. The E.T. experience has been an important one for this team, but these playoffs should be that experiment's curtain call.