• Reaction was split when the Portland Trail Blazers signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract on opening day of the spending spree that was 2016 free agency.

    Few believed that Turner was worth such a lengthy, lucrative payday in a vacuum, but even the opposing majority understood the 34 percent spike to the salary cap at least somewhat justified affording him that deal. It’s not like the market confirmed the notion that Portland overpaid. Luol Deng signed a similar deal with the Los Angeles Lakers a day later, and the Blazers eventually matched an offer sheet to Allen Crabbe from the Brooklyn Nets that was slightly more expensive.

    Most importantly? Portland wanted another capable ball handler to take pressure off Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and Turner’s rare size at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, at least in theory, allowed general manager Neil Olshey to fill two roster gaps with one player. The former second overall pick was coming off a career campaign with the Boston Celtics, too, surging over the season’s second half to become a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

    Two and a half years later, skepticism surrounding Turner’s deal has proven prudent. His usage is at an all-time low, he’s made no improvement from beyond the arc and he isn’t the defensive ace that makes up for those offensive deficiencies. It says far more about limitations of the Blazers’ roster than anything positive regarding Turner’s performance that he’s been entrenched as a starter since early December. But that inherent personnel defect, thankfully, hasn’t stopped Terry Stotts from searching for ways to ease the burden on Lillard and McCollum, while diversifying an offensive system that’s mostly looked stale in 2017-18.

    Portland paid cash to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Shabazz Napier on July 6, 2016, less than a week after signing Turner. The former Connecticut star and personal favorite of LeBron James played in 53 games last season, averaging less than 10 minutes per contest, but nevertheless established himself as a player worth keeping around for the first time in his career. What the Blazers didn’t see coming, probably, is that Napier would mean so much more to them this season that humbling distinction alone.

    It’s no secret by now: Portland has been at its best this season when employing a three-guard lineup of Lillard, McCollum and Napier. Lineups featuring that triumvirate are killing opponents on both sides of the floor, to the tune of a 114.0 offensive rating and 92.4 defensive rating – good for a net rating of +21.6, greenest among any Blazers trio that has notched at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com/stats.

    As Turner continues to struggle and Mo Harkless fades into further obscurity, Stotts has grown increasingly comfortable calling the number of that three-guard unit. Lillard, McCollum and Napier have notched 17 combined minutes in Portland’s past two games, home wins over the Phoenix Suns and Indiana Pacers, the latter of which came after a dominant fourth quarter spearheaded by those three guards.

    Pace is what most separates lineups including Lillard, McCollum and Napier from others. The Blazers play at a middling pace on the aggregate, but average 104.7 possessions per 48 minutes when going small on the perimeter, according to NBA.com/stats, a number comfortably higher than the Los Angeles Lakers’ league-leading mark.

    Additional tempo is a natural byproduct of playing three guys simultaneously who can easily be identified as point guards. The other assumed one, however, hasn’t quite come to fruition. Portland is assisting on 48.7 percent of its baskets this season, the lowest share in the NBA by over four percentage points – equaling the difference between the 29th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder and 16th-ranked Memphis Grizzlies. Lineups with Lillard, McCollum and Napier are barely any better, getting help on 49.6 percent of their made field goals.

    Such a low number would be problematic if the Blazers relied on the pass to create efficient offense, but that’s never been their strategy under Stotts, despite the beautiful hum of their offense when things are really clicking. Instead, the biggest benefit of inserting another legitimate playmaker – for himself or others – beside Lillard and McCollum has been Portland’s penchant for pushing the ball and attacking early in the shot clock, when defenses are scrambling.

    The Blazers’ boast a 58.7 effective field goal percentage on shots taken “early” in the clock, defined by NBA.com/stats as between 18 and 15 seconds. One problem: Those attempts account for just 18.3 percent of Portland’s shots overall, just barely higher than the rate of attempts taken with seven seconds or fewer on the shot clock. That’s a losing proposition for any team, but especially one that lacks the ancillary offensive support needed to consistently find makable looks as the seconds tick away. Lillard and McCollum can only bail Portland out so often.

    Mitigating the amount of times they have to is key, and that’s why Napier’s presence looms so large – on both ends of the floor. The Blazers’ three-guard look creates turnovers on 16.9 percent of defensive possessions, not just a team-high among qualified trios, but a number that tops the first-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder’s.

    Defense leads to offense, the old adage goes, and Napier’s 3.7 deflections per-36 minutes leads Portland by a margin so large it’s problematic. Stotts’ ultra-conservative scheme is somewhat to blame for his team’s infrequent defense-to-offense attacks, but that’s an issue hardly worth correcting considering the Blazers have finally figured out a way to play top-10 defense despite subpar personnel. Napier, with his quickness, instincts and perpetually-running motor, adds a dimension to Portland’s defense that none of his teammates can replicate, one that’s also manifested on the other end of the floor.

    There are many reasons Stotts won’t commit to playing Lillard, McCollum and Napier together for extended stretches on a nightly basis. Those units have actually rebounded better than the team overall, but that utter lack of size on the perimeter still comes back to bite them. The Minnesota Timberwolves pulled away from the Blazers last Sunday when Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler feasted from the post, exploiting major height and weight advantages over Portland’s guards – and that was when Turner or Pat Connaughton was on the floor to check one or the other.

    Sample size matters, too. Teams are shooting 24.3 percent from 3-point range and 67.2 percent from the free throw line against the Blazers’ three-guard lineup, per NBA.com/stats. Those numbers are bound to go up, just like the opposition is bound to focus more of its gameplan on that troika as it continues receiving more court time. Successfully employing three players at the same time who are 6-foot-3 or under has never been more plausible in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean doing so isn’t a rotational gambit – especially when none of the guards in question play much bigger than their measurements suggests, a la Marcus Smart.

    Still, having to deal with teams adjusting to Lillard, McCollum and Napier is a problem Portland is lucky to have. Coming into this season, after trading Crabbe in the summer, there was concern about quality of the Blazers’ perimeter options behind Lillard and McCollum. Would Turner find his footing? Might Harkless take another step forward? Was Connaughton actually ready for minutes?

    Only the latter-most question has yielded a remotely positive answer for Portland so far. Stotts probably didn’t envision Lillard, McCollum and Napier notching major minutes before 2017-18 tipped off. Now that they’ve earned them, though, those units must maintain their effectiveness when matchups allow for it. That’s a less than ideal scenario, of course, but the Blazers simply don’t have any better options.

Fantasy News

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    LeBron James put together a double-double in Wednesday's 120-94 win against the Warriors, ending with 23 points, six rebounds, 12 assists, a steal and a block.

    James is now averaging 11.1 assists per game and is still getting his when it comes to scoring. He is just inside the top-25 right now and will keep filling the stat sheet all season.

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma started and finished Wednesday night's contest with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, five rebounds, two assists, and three 3-pointers.

    Kuzma has put together a nice streak of games. He adds scoring and 3-pointers, but can't find a way to help teams in other categories. Kuzma will likely end up having late-round value at this pace.

  • JaVale McGee
    C, Los Angeles Lakers

    JaVale McGee put up a double-double on Wednesday, finishing with 18 points, 17 boards, two assists, three steals and three blocks.

    McGee was the better center in this contest and played 28 minutes to Dwight Howard's (15 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one block) 20 minutes. McGee put up one of his best performances of the season, but it's hard to get too excited by one night of work. Howard seems to be the center to own for the Lakers.

  • D'Angelo Russell
    PG, Golden State Warriors

    D'Angelo Russell ended the night with 21 points, two rebounds, eight assists, a steal and a block.

    Russell is clearly the go-to option on this Golden State team. He is a top-40 guy right now and has the potential to keep that up for the rest of the year.

  • Draymond Green
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Draymond Green didn't contribute much on Wednesday, ending with 10 points, only one rebound, five assists, a steal, a block and two 3-pointers.

    Green contributed in each category, barely. It was nice to see him knock down a couple shots from beyond the arc, but these are hardly the numbers owners were expecting when taking Green in the early rounds. He is currently returning top-125 value and could be a great buy-low opportunity, but it's hard to trust much on the Warriors right now.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein
    C, Golden State Warriors

    Willie Cauley-Stein scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and added five rebounds, three assists and two blocks on Wednesday.

    Cauley-Stein had the best game of the Golden State big men (Marquese Chriss ended scoreless with six boards, two assists and two blocks) and is having a top-100 year so far. He might be doing it quietly, but it's hard to fault you if want to pick up Cauley-Stein now.

  • Eric Paschall
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Eric Paschall came off the bench on Wednesday and dropped 15 points with three rebounds.

    Paschall still logged 32 minutes but didn't stuff the stat sheet like we have seen in the past. He put a nice move on LeBron, but he is starting to regress despite taking 15 shots in this one. If you picked him up, he is worth holding onto for a bit longer.

  • Damian Lillard
    PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard had trouble finding his rhythm in Wedensday night's 114-106 loss to the Raptors, ending with nine points (2-for-12 shooting), 10 assists, two blocks and two from deep.

    Lillard had a rough time finding the bottom of the net in this one, but still managed to get 10 dimes and two blocks. Lillard is a top-5 player right now and there is no reason to worry after tonight's performance.

  • CJ McCollum
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    C.J. McCollum finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block and hitting three shots from deep on Wednesday.

    McCollum has been shaky this season and it was nice to see an uptick in 3-pointers and rebounds in this one. He will likely pick it up as the season continues, and if you're looking for a buy-low candidate, this might be a good target for you.

  • Rodney Hood
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Rodney Hood (back spams) returned to action on Wednesday night and dropped 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, two boards, an assist and five 3-pointers.

    Hood looks like someone that should be owned in standard leagues as he is providing nice numbers from deep and shooting 50 percent from the field this season. He's currently inside the top-120.