Fireworks were being shot across New England in the wake of what may have been the most impactful free-agent signing in the history of the Boston Celtics. For the first time Boston had landed an All-Star in the midst of his prime, the Hawks' Al Horford. Twitter blew up, fans rejoiced and looked ahead at Kevin Durant's decision, but quietly a now-former C's figure was walking out the back door.
That's right, Evan Turner, a Celtics figure forever. If you asked him, he'd probably say he was the team's biggest free-agent signing ever, and in a roundabout way he may be right.
Boston, this was definitely one of the toughest decisions I've ever made. I can't say enough how appreciative I am for all the love and support. Every night I played at TD garden was like a dream come true. Thank you for showing me how a REAL sports city does things! You'll forever be in my heart!! C's up ☘☘☘
Turner got his due in a hefty $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving a career behind in Boston that spanned only two seasons. Nevertheless, what he did on and off the court directly allowed him to keep playing basketball at the NBA level years after being drafted second overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, who dumped him for essentially no return in 2014. At the same time, his contributions were specifically impactful in making Boston a viable destination for a major free agent. That's no small thing, and on both ends Celtics fans should be grateful forever, even if you didn't particularly love his game.
While calling Boston the "top of the top" Turner fully understood the importance of the opportunity he was handed from the start, beginning an important experience for both him and the team off of a disastrous 2013-14 in Brad Stevens' first season:
"I'm gonna miss Boston...the two years I spent there really made up for four rough years at the start of my career, and then not knowing what was going to happen before I signed with the Celtics."
Free agency famously begins on July 1 with a mass of hoopla. Names fly off the board like bread at a dinner table, the major players court meetings before making a highly touted decision, while others fall through the cracks until later. In 2014 the last of those statements described Turner.
An Indiana castoff who couldn't help his team in the playoffs (playing about 12 minutes per game during Indiana's run and not appearing at all in seven games), in free agency he lasted well past the time where fans are glued to computers awaiting summer Woj bombs. It was July 21 and the headline was minor: The Celts had agreed on a two-year deal with Turner at just under $3.35 million per year, and the contract wouldn't even be announced until September 29 on the eve of training camp.
It was a recipe for success from the start though. Low-risk and high-reward that would turn out to be the latter for the Celts over the length of the deal. In his first season as coach, Stevens juggled lineups and a variety of personnel moves by Danny Ainge that allowed 19 players to appear in NBA games with the team. As a result, the team fell to the back of the pack and into the high lottery. The former Horizon coach of the year Stevens was looking to prove himself as a 25-57 coach while Turner, a former Big Ten Player of the Year at Ohio State, was attempting to salvage what was left of a pro career that only saw him post averages of 11.1/5.3/3.1 in four seasons after being selected so high in his draft class.
The start of something special
Nothing came easily for the Celtics in 2014-15, but Turner did his part in any role that Stevens saw fit. He was as much of an enigma on the court as he was off. For every wild layup he'd have in a big moment, he'd commit a reckless turnover on the ball that would make your head spin. His outside shot was always a question. Sometimes what he'd say after a game would frustrate the masses, especially as the Celtics sputtered to 16-29 start through the end of January.
At that point Turner was making his impact felt beneath the surface, shooting a solid percentage through the season's first two months but in incredibly inconsistent playing time. That began to change as the calendar flipped to 2015, as did the look and feel of the team. Rajon Rondo was shipped to Dallas, and in came a scrappy young swingman named Jae Crowder. Jeff Green would soon be moved in a deal that would eventually see Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome join the green. The team was taking on a new shape that would soon become its identity, and with that came more shots and freedom for the man in the middle of it all, Turner.
Through January, Turner saw time at every position one through three and a season-high 9.3 shots per game. He averaged 9.9/5.5/5.5 in the month and started to shine as a more outspoken personality in the locker room. Despite still committing maddening mistakes here and there, he quickly seemed to gain the trust and admiration of a coach who was learning more through reps himself.
"Evan is another ball-handler," Stevens said of Turner back in 2014. "He's a bigger guy who can switch defensively or guard shooters. Evan likes to be in at the end of the game. That's kind of Evan's thing. He plays pretty well in those moments. I think he's still growing and getting familiar [with us], but he's been great so far."
That was just the tip of the iceberg in the Stevens/Turner relationship. Brad saw everything that Celtics fans would eventually love about Turner down the line. The charisma, the confidence that oozed throughout the locker room and settled on his teammates, and most importantly the ability to touch many areas on the basketball court.
Then, after Turner posted 12/7/9 in the biggest win of the season over top-seed Atlanta, 89-88, before the All-Star break, including the game-winning floater, Isaiah Thomas arrived.
Suddenly the Celtics were back in the spotlight. Thomas, like Turner, wasn't highly sought after in free agency and was eventually dumped from the Suns team that signed him for what amounted to a bag of balls. He joined an enraged Crowder, who was dumped as a throw-in for Rondo; Tyler Zeller, who was tossed to make space for Lebron James in Cleveland; Brandon Bass, who had been unloaded from his old team in Orlando years prior for Glen Davis; and Jerebko/Datome, who had seen limited playing time in Detroit. Turner seemed to be the glue that meshed all the personalities, shoulder chips, and energy both on the court and in dialogue. Before long, the Celtics mattered again.
Boston would win 20 of their last 31 games down the stretch behind 10.7/5.6/6.9 play from Turner, who would post three triple-doubles throughout 82 games (third in the NBA, tied with Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams). Turner went from a perceived sign-and-dump for picks candidate to a centerpiece starter on a playoff team, while the Celtics went from another lottery team in the making to a squad defined league-wide by their tenacious style and unwillingness to back down from any opponent.
In a way the Celtics became what Evan Turner was. A roster not blessed with top-level talent of the best teams in the league but rather the confidence and poise to go up against the greatest with the mindset that they're going to win. It reached a level to where many thought the they would compete with James's Cavaliers in the first round of their stunning playoff appearance, and they did fight relentlessly despite falling in all four games.
Summer '15 was different for both Stevens and Turner. Receiving respect for their roles from maybe just Ainge alone in 2014, they were now joined by their intense drive to win despite what any outside force thought was best for them. They clearly grew closer through the experience, with Turner befriending Stevens' son and joining coach on a NBA expedition to Africa. Boston, for them, was the NBA home the two college basketball legends were always seeking.
For 2015-16 Turner, Stevens, and the cast that slowly morphed together through the year prior while trying to erase the team's horrid start now finally had a fresh slate. E.T. was an undoubted presence in the locker room, and after a 20-11 run to end the season together, the team, like Turner, had no doubts about how far their tenacity could take them.
"I think we can finish...40 wins last year?...we're going to be really good though. Let's say that." Turner threw out to the press at media day 2015 before detailing his trip to Africa, future Uber career, and gas mileage.
The legend of Turner's quotes didn't exactly begin there, but the '15-'16 season definitely saw such an influx of them that, as they began to make the rounds in tweets and as the Celts were rising in prominence, they hit the national spotlight.
Last season, among other things, Turner said his goal for 2016 was to not get arrested, his pass to Crowder against the 0-16 76ers was like Michael Jordan to Steve Kerr, a guy like him with 15% shooting from the perimeter is "lethal," the crowd at the TD Garden when the Celts played the Lakers in Kobe Bryant's final season was really for him, that more women would get into the NBA if he was the logo, and that Stevens must've been drunk/high for benching him. That was all in '15-'16.
While everything Turner said in the locker room was front-row entertainment, there did seem to be a motive behind it. Beyond representing how loose and cool the Celtics had become playing together, the excessive confidence that filled just about every statement Turner laid out about himself or the team resonated. Many doubted the Celtics' ability to win 50 games as some boldly predicted in 2015-16, but the Celtics played the way Turner spoke: with an undeniable confidence in themselves and in Stevens' coaching philosophy. It trickled down from Thomas to new arrivals, like Terry Rozier, who were able to make an impact late in the season. In the end, thanks to some injuries, the team fell just short of 50 wins and the three-seed they held most of the year, but Turner (who averaged 10.5/4.9/4.4 in 81 games) created such an allure around the Celtics that top-line players were beginning to take note.
This summer, after two seasons creating the "Celtics Hustle" identity that Jared Dudley and others outlined was clearly being noticed around the NBA, Boston did something never before imaginable around the franchise: they signed a top-tier free agent in Al Horford and were one of the finalists for the top of this summer's class in Durant. There may not have been a more important figure in creating that environment than Stevens, who Turner owes some gratitude for being placed in a situation to succeed as greatly as he did here.
Turner opted to leave the Celtics this summer in favor of a massive deal in the first days of free agency almost two years to the day that he agreed to come to Boston for around $7 million. The time had finally arrived for him to cash in and depart, but the Celts felt the benefit of his time here immediately. In the end, E.T.'s Boston tenure was short but as impactful as any role player in the history of the team because he and the players around him believed they were so much more.
Often times the hardest thing to do in sports is give your team something to rally around and hold as an identity. That's what Turner accomplished and why Stevens was probably crushed to see him depart from his bench:
"Evan's great. Evan has been nothing but a pro since he's been here. He works," Stevens remarked in May. "I don't think we had two conversations about him starting or not starting. He accepted whatever his minutes were, and when they came he knew what his role was and what he had to do to be successful, and he just tried to help the team. I appreciated Evan for that."
As for Turner, along with calling Boston the top of the top, it looks like he's already off to the right start in Portland with how he described his relationship with Damian Lillard:
"He said he's definitely been a fan of mine for a while...he thought I could help take them to the next level and that they're focused on doing some big things."
Do you hear that? That's the sound of the standing ovation already beginning when Turner comes back next year in a Trail Blazers uniform. It'll be that loud, and he'll deserve every single clap. On that night, the sold-out crowd really will be for E.T., a Celtics figure forever.