ESPN took a hard look at the Clippers roster and considered the moving pieces volatile enough to blow up. They ranked the Clippers 5th in their team turmoil poll, the only contender in the top 5. Perception is reality here; things can go awry with Lance Stephenson on deck. His moodiness and temper and irascible nature can be a match to a gasoline fire that he watches burn from a distance.
Stephenson’s history in the NBA has been of a vacillating brooder or a valued role player on a playoff team. He is a career 44% shooter. He is a talented defender and he is a talented headache. He is emotionally erratic, easily frustrated and when things are going well he suppresses his immature nature and plays team ball. But when he is in the midst of a slump, unable to meet the high expectations he has for himself…watch out.
Stephenson who calls himself “Born Ready” had a great year in 2013-14, a free agency year. As a reward, he bombed last year in Charlotte after taking $9 million, getting off to a horrible start, not able to recover or handle the criticism, putting undo pressure on himself because of the contract. In other words, he was anything but ready. He didn’t integrate well into a new culture and was trade bait as early as December, identified as a failure. The Hornets were relieved the Clippers needed more versatility.
The Clippers have been desperate for awhile now, rowing the boat with one oar. Chris Paul is the only Clipper who can handle the ball and create his own shot consistently enough (sorry Austin Rivers). In need of versatility, Stephenson is a breath of fresh air.. He can handle the ball, find the open man, cut to the rim and hit an open three. If things go as the Clippers hope, Stephenson can give Chris Paul a rest on offense, and keep the offense moving. Or, Stephenson can detonate the whole damned thing in a manner of minutes, sulking on the court, infecting the promise.
Stephenson is in need of constant mentoring and leadership. Paul, a tough love customer doles out critiques like a baker doles out croissants. Paul is a no frills leader and in the depths of his competitive intensity is less than complimentary with his opinions, such as- wtf were you doing over there? It made DeAndre Jordan so upset he entertained the thought of leaving for Dallas. Stephenson responds more to gentleness and encouragement which is where Paul Pierce enters the picture. He can adopt the good cop persona to Paul’s bad cop and in the process make sure Stephenson stays moderately sane in the midst of the stress of playing in a big market. Which is one more Lance Stephenson thing.
Indy and Charlotte were small basketball towns. Los Angeles is not. Add to it the pressure of being a contender, playing for Doc Rivers, expected to do something in an entertainment town, distractions everywhere, critics everywhere, a lot of media coverage. Have a few bad games in a row and it feels like the world is against you. Is Stephenson resilient enough to handle the horizontal nature of Los Angeles basketball love?
As if Doc Rivers doesn’t have that problem to solve there is his other problem, another acquisition, Josh Smith. Another pouter and moody player, Smith can go rouge on offenses when he is not happy. Although he was a perfect citizen in Houston and was responsible for winning game 6 in Los Angeles for the Rockets, he can go off the sanity island too. But unlike Stephenson, Smith is used to critics. They have been on him his entire career and he has learned how to manage the good and bad of what people say and write about him by not really caring one way or the other. Another advantage Smith has is that he is going to play a lot of minutes since the Clippers are thin in the backup power forward area. Smith is another versatile player who can move the ball, shoot three’s, find the open man, get to the rim.
If problems come in three’s, then Doc is going to have to find a way to manage his son, not as a father but as a coach. Austin Rivers’ comments about USA Basketball players- which don’t bear repeating, that’s how stupid they were- reveal that Rivers is invested in doing something significant and showing it on the court, on getting lots of playing time. Will he fit in with his father’s plans for him? As a player, what is he anyway? Just a fill in for a Chris Paul breather? Or, can he do things besides getting to the rim? Can he make two jumpers in a row? Or, is he a social media whipping boy and joke?
So many Clippers question marks. If Doc figures it out he will be more of a genius than many previously thought. Doc has an advantage in that two great leaders, Chris Paul and Paul Pierce, will measure the temperature of the room and make the necessary adjustments. If that fails, Doc has his past experience to lean on. He coached Rajon Rondo to a title. If he can do that, he can do anything.
photo via llananba