Lance Stephenson: A Lame Duck in L.A.

The Los Angeles Clippers had gotten off to a strong start, winning their first four games before falling just short at Golden State, and at home against Houston. For the most part, the starting lineup has performed well: Blake Griffin is putting up 29 points per game, Chris Paul is averaging 8 assists, JJ Redick is hitting threes, and DeAndre Jordan has had big blocks as well as rebound totals. The one obvious spot for improvement is new arrival Lance Stephenson.

After turning down a five-year offer from the Pacers in 2014, Stephenson joined the Hornets and disappointed throughout last season. The Clippers then landed him in an offseason deal that sent Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes to Charlotte.

Stephenson can still make impressive passes, as he has shown when dishing to DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Nevertheless, it’s hard to rebut that the Clippers are winning in spite of Stephenson.

One could argue that Doc Rivers already takes Stephenson’s shortcomings into account when coaching. Stephenson is only averaging 21 minutes so far, and Rivers has a bench that is effectively filling the small forward spot by committee.

The Clippers must have hoped they could recapture Stephenson’s potential by acquiring him. He’s only 25 and had a solid season in 2013-14 to the tune of 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per contest. That resulted in his career best Player Efficiency Rating of 14.72.

Larry Bird was reportedly frustrated when Stephenson left Indiana. Of course, that was before his terrible 37.6% from the field and 17.1% on three pointers while with the Hornets. Stephenson’s minutes dropped to 25 per game compared with 35 during the season prior. Finally, his defense particularly on the perimeter was considered a strong point in Indiana.

In 2013-14, opposing players shot about 3% worse than average against Stephenson. In Charlotte, that skill appeared to slip too: the league shot 2% higher overall against him.

Even coming off his best season, many teams worried about adding Stephenson’s personality to their respective locker rooms. After he wasn’t selected to the All-Star team in 2014, Stephenson appeared to play more selfishly and nearly came to blows with teammate Evan Turner. Later that year, he engaged in some bizarre behavior during the Eastern Finals against the Heat which led to questions regarding his mental stability.

During Game 6, he touched LeBron James’ face and later slapped Norris Cole. When asked for an explanation by reporters, he replied: “I don’t remember that.”

There was also a strange incident when he blew in LeBron’s ear. Putting all that aside, it seemed as if the Pacers were his ideal environment. Several Pacers employees guided Stephenson, including Vice President of Player Relations, Clark Kellogg. Stephenson lost something upon departing for Charlotte, and to make matters worse he was a poor fit on the Hornets’ roster. Charlotte already had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, and Marvin Williams. Stephenson got off to a poor start and never really recovered.

Through his first few games as a Clipper, Stephenson is averaging 6.0 points to go with 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 39.4% from the field. That’s not what you want from any of your starters, especially because he ranks eighth on the team in efficiency. At the same time, Stephenson isn’t playing half of most games because Rivers is using his depth. After all, Jamal Crawford is actually averaging more playing time than Stephenson, with Paul Pierce and Austin Rivers nipping at his heels.

Stephenson is getting his name written into the lineup, but in the scheme of things, his impact is that of a prominent bench player. Wesley Johnson is another swingman whose limited minutes impact Stephenson’s usage.

I think the Clippers can be successful with Stephenson starting, but I would certainly be less enthusiastic if he were playing as much as Griffin. As it stands now, he rarely plays during fourth quarters.

The best you can say about Stephenson so far is that he isn’t trying to do too much. After a season of high turnovers and terrible shot selection, he has tried his best to blend in with the high talent level present on his current roster.

Stephenson explained: “I’m not going to complain. I’m on a championship team, and I’m going to have to take a sacrifice.”

In the November 4 game against the Warriors, Stephenson hit two wide open threes when Blake Griffin was double teamed. Regardless, there were also some head-scratching plays, including the time that Stephenson overcommitted on defense and found himself out of position which led to an easy bucket. During another sequence, he was whistled for an offensive foul after pushing off his man. The frustration on his face seemed like a reaction to more than just a single poor play.

Stephenson’s expensive $9.4 million team option for next year means that he is unlikely to return to the Clippers, and certainly not at that price. Even teammates can sense that he’s trying to channel his manic energy. As Crawford remarked about Stephenson: “Good guy, but he’s crazy.”

He may be able to put a sometimes volatile past behind him, but Stephenson’s ceiling no longer looks all that high. It may be considered a victory of sorts if he is a solid role player for the Clippers just a season removed from alienating many of his teammates in Charlotte.

On the other hand, I find it difficult not to expect more from a swingman who inspired a bidding war just a summer ago. He wouldn’t be the first player in NBA history to ooze potential and ultimately fizzle, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating to watch.

photo via llananba