The 2019 playoffs were the highlight of Damian Lillard’s career, at least as far as team success. Lillard dragged the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference Finals before being swept by Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
The franchise was drastically different just four seasons ago. Lillard was flanked by CJ McCollum, while Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Rodney Hood played significant minutes, as did Seth Curry, Enes Freedom, and Al-Farouq Aminu under head coach Terry Stotts.
The Blazers were sixth in scoring that season and third in the NBA in offensive rating. Their net rating of plus-4.2 was seventh in the league.
Portland had another guard, though – a long, tall, smart playmaker – who spelled Lillard and McCollum as someone who could lead the offense, keep the ball moving, and use his length and IQ on both ends of the floor.
That was Evan Turner.
Turner wasn’t spectacular in any sense, but he was the ideal change of pace for Portland’s diminutive backcourt and played a role in the team’s statistically great offense that season.
There’s a similar player widely expected to be a lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft – someone with height, length, and a pass-first mentality who could be the ideal change of pace for the Blazers current tiny backcourt of Lillard and Anfernee Simons.
Anthony Black would give the Trail Blazers an improved version of the Lillard/McCollum/Turner lineup
Former Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey handed Turner a four-year, $70 million contract in the summer of 2016. As the Blazers had two rising stars in the backcourt already in Lillard and McCollum, it was seen as a fairly drastic overpay for someone who would slot in almost exclusively as a reserve.
Turner was a productive player for Portland, though. Maybe not a $70 million player, but he was a leader in the locker room and averaged 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists during his trio of seasons with the Blazers.
When Lillard led Portland to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, Turner played an integral part. Alongside Dame, CJ, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, the former Ohio State Buckeye was a member of the team’s most productive offensive lineup during the regular season.
He was a key part of the playoff rotation as well – Turner had 14 points, 7 rebounds, and a pair of assists in the series-clinching Game 7 win over Denver in the conference semifinals.
Like Turner, Black is a 6-7 point guard with a high IQ – quite possibly the highest in the entire 2023 draft class – and despite his size, is a true point guard. He’s a talented, selfless playmaker and connector on offense who uses his length and intelligence to above average results on the defensive end as well.
This fit wasn’t lost on Kevin O’Connor and J. Kyle Mann of The Ringer NBA Draft Show, either. While discussing Black at about the 23-minute mark, they had an exchange detailing exactly how perfect the 19-year-old would fit next to Dame and Simons:
O’Connor: “The Portland one is interesting, they tried this years ago with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and they overpaid for Evan Turner. It didn’t work on the court, but the idea of it made complete sense. It was a great idea, it just didn’t work. I think it’s a different type of system now, they do have better wing defenders if they keep Jerami Grant, if they’re able to find a center that can move their feet better than Jusuf Nurkic, which is a low bar, they can do that, I think for Portland, they’re in a situation now where if they choose to keep Dame and that he wants to be there … Anthony Black would make a lot of sense with what they currently have.”
Mann: “Anthony Black with the Blazers is really interesting. If you think about going forward … you take his strengths and then you just kind of plug them into these two dudes who are dribble scorers if you think about Anfernee Simons, and he gives you size, and you think about Shaedon Sharpe … I kinda like that fit.”
Adding Turner to Lillard and McCollum in 2023 rather than 2016 likely produces a much different outcome. Today’s NBA is more wide-open, high-scoring, and conducive to versatile, connective players of Turner’s size and skillset.
If Portland decides to keep its lottery pick, revisiting what could have been with Turner by bringing Black into the fold alongside Lillard and Simons is an enticing idea.