Lance Stephenson as the Clippers’ starting small forward was not the plan back in July, but it was the reality Wednesday night when Los Angeles tipped off the season in Sacramento. Stephenson played fairly well in his 19 minutes, most importantly he played within himself on offense (seven points on 3-of-5 shooting) and seemed focused on defense.
Back in July, the Clippers were looking for an upgrade over Matt Barnes and saw Stephenson and Paul Pierce as the answer.
But after Stephenson was pushed out the door in Indiana and Charlotte, there was a locker room (and on the court) risk in bringing him in — so team president Doc Rivers and staff did their homework. A lot of it, reports Sam Amick at the USA Today.
Rivers, who did not know Stephenson previously, was the first to admit that the Clippers had to do more due diligence than normal. Whereas the normal background check would typically warrant approximately 20 phone calls to people who know the player well, Rivers and Clippers general manager Dave Wohl made 61 such inquiries during their research of Stephenson.
“I don’t think we’ve ever made more (background) calls for a player in my life,” Rivers said. “We had to make sure, but I’ve got to tell you that I’m really excited. It’s one game (in the regular season), but I think he has a chance to be really disruptive to other teams. And what I love is he gives us another ball handler, and you can see that with the first group.”
If Stephenson works out as Rivers hopes, he will be a steal. He’s getting paid $9 million this season, but when the cap spikes next summer the Clippers have a $9.4 million team option.
There’s still a long way to go, but the next step is Thursday night on TNT where Stephenson will start opposite Wesley Matthews (if the Mavericks start him on the second night of a back-to-back coming off an Achilles injury, although he looked solid in the opener). There will be plenty of people in Indiana and Charlotte watching the Clippers tonight and all season, waiting for the Stephenson chemistry issues to surface.
Doc Rivers the GM bet on Doc Rivers the coach this summer — he’s got to meld Stephenson, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers into a second unit. Those are guys who tend to do their own thing rather than meld into the whole. But if Rivers gets them on the same page, he will have shored up the hole that was the Clippers bench. And all those phone calls would have been worth it.