How far can Clippers ride Lance Stephenson’s ups and downs?

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LOS ANGELES – Lance Stephenson, having just scored 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting after two straight DNP-CDs, sat at a table in the Clippers’ press-conference room Friday when DeAndre Jordan entered. Stephenson urged Jordan to join him taking questions, though he clearly wasn’t certain of the procedure.

“I don’t get these shining moments,” Stephenson said.

Not lately.

Just two years ago, Stephenson was nearly an All-Star at age 23. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists for a Pacers team that earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. His future looked bright.

But he signed in Charlotte, where he and the Hornets suffered through a miserably disappointing season. They accepted Spencer Hawes‘ burdensome contract just to rid themselves of Stephenson.

Stephenson hasn’t exactly gotten back on track in Los Angeles. He has been on the fringe of Doc Rivers’ rotation and on the trade block.

Yet, he might be the Clippers’ most pivotal player in their pursuit of a championship.

Stephenson has immense upside. There’s a reason he was viewed so highly just two years ago, and he’s only 25. It’s difficult to fathom why suddenly stopped being that two-way guard who defended, dished, rebounded and shot well enough from outside.

Accordingly, it’s hard to believe he can’t get close enough to that level again to help the Clippers in a major way. They’re already a very good team. They don’t need the moon.

There are signs, usually fleeting, for optimism.

When Stephenson has played with the Clippers’ big fourChris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and Jordan – they’ve dominated: 115.0 offensive rating/95.0 defensive rating/+19.9 net rating in 155 minutes. Of the 44 lineups that have played so much, just two – the Thunder’s Russell WestbrookAndre RobersonKevin DurantSerge IbakaSteven Adams (112.9/91.5/+21.5) and Warriors’ Stephen CurryKlay ThompsonBrandon RushDraymond GreenAndrew Bogut (112.6/92.4/+20.1) – have been more successful.

Stephenson remains plenty athletic. Just watch this dunk from Stephenson’s breakout performance against the Lakers Friday:

Jordan sat to Stephenson’s left for interviews after that game. Chris Paul arrived to join them, and the star guard even got his own chair and pulled it up to Stephenson’s right – putting Stephenson front and center.

When Stephenson was asked about the dunk, Jordan loudly interrupted.

“Wooohooo!” Jordan cried. “Woooo!”

But Rivers hasn’t been quite as enthusiastic.

Asked whether Stephenson – who entered the rotation Friday with Paul Pierce getting a day off – earned more playing time, Rivers hedged.

“Lance was great,” Rivers said. “I’ll let you know after the game, the next game.”

Stephenson got just nine minutes in a blowout win over the Bulls on Sunday. He didn’t play in the second half until garbage time.

Rivers is learning plenty about his team with Griffin injured, particularly the effectiveness of going small. It seems that should create a larger role for Stephenson, who played stretch power forward against the Lakers.

But besides sharing the court with the big four, Stephenson has seen the Clippers’ offense crater when he plays. It doesn’t seem to matter the combination. Stephenson has played regularly with eight other players: Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce, Pablo Prigioni, Cole Aldrich, Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute. The offensive rating for those two-man pairings with Stephenson ranges from 72.2 to 97.2

For perspective, the 76ers (94.5), Lakers (97.1) and Nets (98.6) rank in the bottom of the league in offensive rating.

Asking Stephenson to handle a bigger burden with lesser floormates, his apparent primary purpose when the Clippers traded for him, has been disastrous.

It raises questions whether Stephenson will follow Smith – the Clippers’ other offseason acquisition with a checkered history – out of town. Smith argued with assistant coach Mike Woodson, and the Clippers practically gave the forward back to Houston.

I liked both additions – Smith on a minimum contract, Stephenson for Hawes and Matt Barnes – for how little the Clippers gave up in exchanged for raising their ceiling. Smith and Stephenson might flame out, but the Clippers couldn’t play it safe and beat the Warriors (or, as we’ve learned this season, the Spurs). The Clippers had to increase their variance if the goal was a title, even if that meant lowering their floor. Smith and Stephenson seemed like reasonable shots to take.

For what it’s worth, Doc still speaks of Stephenson as someone who’ll stick for the rest of the season.

“The thing I love about Lance is, he hasn’t been playing, and I still say he’s going to help us,” Rivers said. “But I just like his spirit. He’s ready every night. He wants to play. He’s been a great team guy.”

He’s also probably expendable.

At worst, Stephenson – whose $9,405,000 team option for next season will almost certainly be declined – functionally possesses a $9 million expiring contract. That could grease the wheels of a bigger trade with a team looking to send out a more talented player without taking on long-term salary. If the Clippers are willing to dip further into the luxury tax to chase a title this year, Stephenson could help net a key contributor.

Or he could just be that key contributor himself.

We know roughly what Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jordan offer. It’s a lot, but it’s also not enough to win a championship – not when Golden State and San Antonio are playing so well.

The Clippers need to swing a break in their favor, and Stephenson seems like the wildest variable. According to their coach, they’ll find out where he can get them.

“I think this team has a chance to be really good,” Rivers said. “I think Lance is going to get better. He’s going to play for us.”

Cavaliers reportedly snap up Alfonzo McKinnie off waivers

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Going into training camp, Alfonzo McKinnie was expected to be the starting small forward for the Warriors this season.

However, injuries along the front line — Willie Cauley-Stein is out for weeks still, plus Kevon Looney and rookie Alen Smailagic are banged up — and some strong play from Marquise Chriss meant he was going to make the Warriors roster. With the team being hard capped after signing D'Angelo Russell this summer, the Warriors had no choice but to cut McKinnie.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have snapped him up off waivers.

This is a good move by the Cavaliers, a low-risk pickup — McKinnie is on a minimum contract — that could get them a 3&D wing on a young team. He played in 72 games for the Warriors last regular season plus got playoff minutes, and shot 35.6 percent from three. He’s long and athletic and a player both the Raptors and Warriors liked but had to move on from because of other roster situations.

For the Warriors, they will have Glenn Robinson III starting at the three with Alec Burks behind him. They could have really used McKennie.

Report: Nets signing Taurean Prince to two-year, $29M extension

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The Nets traded two first-round picks to the Hawks to clear double-max(-ish) cap space for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And get Taurean Prince.

Prince was an afterthought in his trade to Brooklyn, which signaled the Nets’ big summer. But Brooklyn acquired him for a reason and will pay to secure him longer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Considering this information came from his agent, this is almost certainly the most favorable framing of terms. Maybe Prince got all $29 million guaranteed. But if there are any incentives, I bet that $29 million counts them as achieved.

The Nets are trying to build a championship contender. This deal gives them multiple avenues for uisng Prince.

His contract could help for salary-matching in a bigger trade. I can’t recall the rookie-scale extension so short, if there ever was one. Two years are not an especially long commitment. That hints at using this deal as a trade chip. So does Brooklyn extending Prince before he played a regular-season game there.

Of course, Prince has a track record from Atlanta. He’s a good outside shooter with the frame to defend well when engaged. Maybe the Nets really believe in his long-term potential. He fell out of favor with the Hawks only after they changed general managers.

The Nets needn’t decide on Prince’s long-term future now. They have paid for team control for the next three seasons (including this season, the final year of his rookie-scale contract). They can monitor how he plays – and what trades become available.

Pacers, Domantas Sabonis agree to four-year, $77 million extension

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Indiana is going all-in on the idea of Domantas Sabonis playing the four next to Myles Turner at the five this season. The Pacers have put up the money, now we’re going to see if it can actually work.

After initial struggles to find common ground on a contract extension — leading to reports of the Pacers testing the trade waters for Sabonis — the two sides have come to terms on a four-year contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Pacers.

The exact figures here are still in flux.

How likely those bonuses are remains to be seen.

This is a pretty fair contract number, a little more than $19 million a year average for the man who came in second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting last season seems about right. Plus, if it doesn’t work out with Sabonis starting next to Turner, this is a very tradable contract and there would be interest in his services (he was harder to trade at his $3.5 million current salary and get anything of value to match that smaller number).

The Pacers hope it doesn’t come to that and Sabonis becomes part of one of the better, younger frontcourts in the league.

Sabonis is skilled and versatile on offense, a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who sets good screens then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game.

The concerns with Sabonis, and why some teams are not convinced he’s a starter, are twofold. First, he is not good defensively and is not a rim protector.

The second concern is that he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Indiana is betting on this core. They have inked big contracts with Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). Victor Oladipo will be coming up for an extension in a couple of years and, if he returns to pre-injury form, is a lock max player. Throw in this Sabonis contract and that is a lot of guaranteed money. Are these guys worth it?

We’ll find out soon enough, the Pacers have gone all-in with them

Report: Spurs signing Dejounte Murray to four-year, $64M extension

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In 2018, a 21-year-old Dejounte Murray became the youngest player ever to make an All-Defensive team. The following fall, he showed progress on his outside shooting and distributing. Everything was coming together for the young Spurs point guard.

Then, disaster struck.

Just before last season, Murray tore his ACL. He missed the entire year.

Yet, he’ll still get a contract extension in San Antonio.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Given his injury, it’d be difficult for Murray to reject this deal. It’s life-changing money. What if he lost significant athleticism or fails to hit his stride next season? That’d be a grim way to enter restricted free agency next summer.

But what if Murray picks up where he left off? This could be a major steal for the Spurs.

Given the wide range of potential outcomes, this extension seems fair. However, there’s also a reasonable chance Murray significantly underperforms or overperforms this deal. (That’s why it’s fair.)

Murray is a stout defender and elite rebounder for a guard. He can push the pace and slash to the rim. But it’s tough for lead guards who don’t shoot well from the perimeter. Murray’s playmaking for others must also improve, especially if San Antonio eventually transitions from an isolation-heavy offense around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Murray is just 23. It’s OK he’s not a finished product. The Spurs should know better than anyone how to feel about his progress since the injury. They probably deserve benefit of the doubt in evaluating his value.

Still, long-term fit questions linger with Derrick White. White stepped up in Murray’s absence last season, especially in the playoffs. But White is another subpar 3-point-shooting guard. Can they play together? White will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason.

San Antonio is mainly focused on the present, and Murray and White will factor prominently this season. They’re still just supporting players for now, though.

Long term, Murray’s extension is a key step toward whatever comes next for the Spurs.