PORTLAND - The boos have long since stopped coming for Hedo Turkoglu. When he first visited the Rose Garden as a member of the Toronto Raptors in March 2010, fans let him know what they thought of Turkoglu spurning the Portland Trail Blazers in favor of a more lucrative offer to play in a bigger, more diverse city. Turkoglu was greeted with disparaging signs and booed every time he touched the ball.
Way back then--way meaning two and a half years ago--the Blazers viewed Turkoglu as a second creator on offense who could help them counter defenses focusing in on star guard Brandon Roy. If there's ever a sentence that should prove the uncertainty in long-term projections, that's it.
By the second time Turkoglu returned for the 2010-11 season opener, then as a member of the Phoenix Suns, it had become clear Turkoglu had done Portland a tremendous favor. His five-year, $52.8 million deal already looked like an albatross, causing the Raptors to unload Turkoglu on the Suns after a single season north of the border. Nobody bothered booing then.
On Wednesday, the Rose Garden finally played host to the kind of performance the Blazers front office expected to take place in a home uniform. With the game on the line, Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy turned to Turkoglu. After Portland improbably rallied from down as many as 23 points to within three with two and a half minutes to play, Turkoglu responded with a layup and a three-pointer to push the advantage back to eight. Orlando made its free throws down the stretch and became the first team this season to knock off the Blazers at home.
Turkoglu's career path--or at least the perception of it--could be the subject of volumes. Never considered much more than a solid starter, he suddenly was viewed as the key when the Magic upset the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the 2009 NBA Finals. Turkoglu timed the run perfectly, just as he was hitting free agency, and parlayed it into a lucrative contract at age 30.
Seemingly the only team that wasn't sold was Orlando itself, which never made much of an effort to re-sign Turkoglu. Instead, president of basketball operations Otis Smith dealt for Vince Carter to replace Turkoglu in the starting lineup. The money that might have gone to Turkoglu was instead earmarked for bringing back restricted free agent Marcin Gortat and adding Brandon Bass to beef up the frontcourt.
Barely a year later, the Magic reversed course, deciding to bring Turkoglu back as part of a deal with the Suns that also added Jason Richardson and sent Carter and Gortat to Phoenix. Van Gundy reinstalled Turkoglu at small forward as if he'd never left, and Turkoglu resumed putting up similar numbers to what he posted during his previous stint with the Magic.
Turkoglu's run in Toronto was a disaster for legitimate reasons. His defensive effort was abysmal and he didn't help his cause by reportedly getting spotted partying after a game he'd missed due to illness. Yet through it all, Turkoglu's advanced stats scarcely budged. The difference was much more in perception than performance.
If Turkoglu's performance has been forgotten, that makes him a fitting symbol for his team. Before the game in the media room, another reporter observed with some amazement that Orlando had won 52 games last season. After tonight's win, the Magic is tied for third in the Eastern Conference at 7-3, yet all the storylines around Orlando center on a possible forthcoming Dwight Howard trade.
The Magic has two big problems: the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. Orlando is rightfully regarded as a cut below those teams and part of a suddenly crowded second tier in the Eastern Conference. Other than a misstep at Detroit, the team had entering Wednesday beaten the teams it should have and lost the two times (at Oklahoma City, vs. Chicago) it had faced a superior opponent.
Against the Blazers, the Magic showed a possible extra gear. Taking advantage of a sluggish Portland team playing two nights in a row at home, Orlando used precise ball movement to generate a series of open looks beyond the three-point line. The Magic torched the league's best three-point defense to the tune of 11 first-half three-pointers and 16 overall in 27 attempts (.593 accuracy), one shy of an opponent record for the Blazers.
While we often talk about balanced scoring, Orlando has a slightly different concept--balanced ballhanding and passing. The Magic is above average in terms of assisted field goals despite lacking a pure playmaker. Turkoglu hands out nearly as many assists as point guard Jameer Nelson (including a team-high six on Wednesday), and six Orlando players (Nelson, Turkoglu, Chris Duhon, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick and Howard) average at least two assists per game--a claim just two other teams (the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks) can match. Pair that with the Magic's outside shooting and opposing defenses can struggle to keep up.
When Orlando needs a score, however, Turkoglu is the man. He is a difficult matchup for defenses in the pick-and-roll because he is a triple threat, capable of driving, shooting and passing. At 6-10, Turkoglu almost always has a height advantage against his defender, giving him the opportunity to survey the defense and see passing lanes even when he is trapped. That doesn't make him worth $50 million, but that does make him a valuable piece of what remains a contending team.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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