Every NBA summer is sure to produce its share of signings that look ridiculous, often from the moment ink is put to paper. It’s just the nature of the business, and while GMs obviously hope to avoid being the guy with the instant laughing-stock deal, plenty of teams deal with it from time to time – even the “smart” ones.
There’s another tier of albatross, though, that stinks up the joint even worse. These aren’t just guys who play badly on their new deals – those are common enough. These are guys who, through a combination of their play, contract and reputation, are actively undermining other important elements of the team. It’s not just that they’re performing negatively on the court; it’s that their performance is blocking an otherwise good thing from happening organically, and optics and locker room hierarchy stop their coaches from being able to do anything about it for fear of causing problems behind the scenes so soon after they were signed for big money.
It’s early and a lot could change, but two guys are already distancing themselves in the race for the Smelly Albatross Award at this point in the year.
Evan Turner, Portland Trailblazers
Through just under a quarter of the season, no player in the league has seen his team outscored while he’s on the floor as much as Turner – it’s not particularly close, in fact. A few players group in right around the negative-80s and 90s, before a couple Phoenix guys barely cross the 100 barrier… and then there’s Turner, sporting a vicious minus-131 in 363 minutes on the court. Turner’s plus-minus has been nearly 25 percent worse than any other player in the league, in other words.
This is remarkable on its own, but it’s downright silly when accounting for one simple factor: Turner plays on a winning team. If we filter only for players with at least 250 minutes on the floor this year (just over 15 minutes a game, so a rough approximation of “rotation players”), you have to go down another 11 spots to find the next guy on a team over .500 – and it’s Turner’s own teammate, Allen Crabbe, who’s still a solid 58 points behind Turner (on about 75 more minutes played, too). To find the next non-Blazer on a winning team, you have to drop down to the 47th row.
Portland is a bit of a strange team, sporting an 8-7 record despite being outscored by 60 points on the year, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear Turner is the chief culprit. He’s dragging other Blazers down with him – Crabbe is only on that ugly list in the first place because he’s played over two thirds of his minutes alongside Turner, during which the Blazers have been outscored by 86 points (they’re a plus-13 when Crabbe plays without Turner).
ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus figures were just released for the beginning of the season, and it would literally be impossible for them to agree any more than they already do. Turner is dead last of 407 players for this metric, which is designed to approximate a player’s per-possession value to his team while factoring for teammate and opponent context.
RPM figures are noisy, especially early in the year, but Turner’s mark is so low that it simply can’t be pawned off as small-sample variance. The gap between Turner at 407th (minus-5.97 points per-100-possessions) and Jerami Grant at 406th (minus-4.56 per-100) is larger than the gap between Grant and a player 20 spots up the list. No single player has been this far below everyone else for a full year since ESPN began tracking this stat publicly – and remember, this is a guy playing nearly 25 minutes per game (guys at the bottom of this list are often spot players without a large sample).
There isn’t a single element of Portland’s game that improves when Turner steps on the court. His grinding, iso-heavy offensive style hasn’t worked at all: The Blazers are assisting on over 60 percent of team baskets while he sits, a borderline top-five team level figure that drops to well below 50 percent (and the lowest mark in the league among teams) while he’s in the game. Portland turns the ball over way more often, struggles rebounding and sees nearly a 10-point drop in their team True Shooting Percentage when Turner steps on the floor.
Portland coach Terry Stotts has at least a couple other options at his disposal, but he doesn’t appear to be panicking just yet. A strong game (by Turner’s standards) against Brooklyn on Sunday may have given him a stay of execution after Stotts lowered his minutes under 20 for the first time all year in the previous game, but this situation is well past sample and variance concerns. Turner needs to be in a different role, or he needs to stay on the bench.
Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been a revelation for folks (this writer included) who weren’t sure about their fit before the season began, but they’ve done so almost completely in spite of one of their flashy offseason signings. A team that outscores opponents by over five points per-100-possessions on the year drops back to virtually neutral when Rondo plays – in a total non-shocker, their best per-possession rating comes while he sits.
Worse yet, on nights when he’s healthy enough to play, Rondo’s contract and reputation are keeping him on the floor over at least one more deserving name. Backup Jerian Grant has been flat-out better than Rondo from a numerical standpoint, and that’s without accounting for the defensive gap (Rondo has been completely lethargic on this end all year).
The Bulls’ starting lineup featuring Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez is doing fine for the year, outscoring opponents by a solid 3.6 points per-100. Insert Grant in Rondo’s place, though, and they’re a crazy plus-28 per-100, one of the 10 best five-man units in the NBA (minimum 25 minutes).
Rondo doesn’t appear interested in being on an NBA court much of the time, and coach Fred Hoiberg should consider obliging him a bit more often – even when he’s healthy. Grant has shown he’s ready for more, and even if Hoiberg doesn’t trust the likes of Isaiah Canaan when Grant sits down, he can go to a committee approach for stretches while Wade or Butler are on the floor with their ball-handling skills. Michael Carter-Williams will be back in a few weeks, as well.
Whatever he does, Hoiberg would be well advised to slow down on Rondo’s 30 nightly minutes. The Bulls are one of the league’s pleasant surprises early, but variance might catch up to them in certain areas at some point – and if Rondo is still torpedoing things for nearly two-thirds of the game once that happens, the margin for error might be too small to manage.
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