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.”

Fans plan to give out pro-Hong Kong t-shirts at Lakers, Raptors opening nights

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We are not yet out of the thick of things regarding the NBA and China. There are murmurings about how upset people are up with Daryl Morey back here domestically, and the beginning of the season will start with a sort of weird pall over it. NBA fans, perhaps the most socially progressive in major American sports, won’t soon forget responses from Adam Silver and LeBron James on the matter, which they’ve seen as limp-wristed.

To that end, there are two fan groups who are looking to spread pro-Hong Kong t-shirts during opening night games in the NBA next week.

Folks at Staples Center in Los Angeles should expect to see t-shirts in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong being handed out as the Lakers take on the Clippers on Oct. 22. A reddit user going by the pseudonym Sun Lared posted to the Lakers subreddit about printing up t-shirts, and their GoFundMe reached a reported $43,000 before donations were disabled, according to LA Mag.

Via Twitter:

Inspired by Lared, another GoFundMe has reached $34,000 as of publication to hand out free t-shirts as the New Orleans Pelicans travel to Ontario to take on the Toronto Raptors on October 22nd.

Mother these t-shirts make it onto the backs of fans, and whether they make it inside the arenas for those basketball games is another thing altogether. It certainly will be an interesting PR debacle if the NBA continues to confiscate pro-Hong Kong t-shirts and signs the way they’ve done during the preseason already.

This isn’t going away any time soon.

Zion Williamson has right knee soreness, won’t play final preseason game

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It’s the preseason, and so teams are trying to be extra cautious with their stars. That will apparently be the case this week as No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has reportedly not traveled with his New Orlean Pelicans for the final preseason game of the year against the New York Knicks.

Williamson has apparently strained his right knee, and his not heading to New York with the team isn’t looking like it’s just for rest as the regular season approaches. Williamson may actually have a bit of soreness working against him right now, which is the last thing any NBA fans want to hear right now.

Via Twitter:

The release from the Pelicans says that Williamson remained in Louisiana to undergo further testing on his right knee.

Hopefully this is nothing serious and the season can get off to a thrilling start. It certainly looks to be headed in that direction based off of how Williamson has performed already in preseason action.

New Orleans kicks off the regular season on Oct. 22 against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Ontario.

Michael Jordan opens first of 2 medical clinics in Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — An emotional Michael Jordan unveiled the first of two medical clinics he and his family funded in Charlotte, North Carolina that will provide care to underprivileged members of the community.

The six-time NBA champion and Hornets owner was on hand Thursday for the grand opening of the $7 million Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic. Tears streamed down Jordan’s cheeks as he said, “this is a very emotional thing for me to be able to give back to a community that has supported me over the years.”

The clinic, located in a lower-income section of the city, will provide vital access to primary and preventive care to individuals in the community, including those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Jordan vowed to do more, saying “this is just the start of a battle of being able to touch as many people as we can.”

Jordan first announced the $7 million gift in 2017.

Andrew Wiggins doesn’t agree with people who don’t rank him very high

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This season, his sixth, is going to be the season where Andrew Wiggins looks and plays like he loves the game. His steadily-declining shooting percentages are going to rocket back up. He’s going to break out as an elite player who should have gone No. 1, and not just a guy who gets empty-calorie points.

That’s what Wiggins is thinking, anyway.

ESPN put out its list of top 100 players in the league and very reasonably did not have Wiggins on it, despite him scoring 18.1 points per game last season. In an excellent job of trying to create a second story out of the 100 list by asking about the “snub,” Wiggins said he isn’t worried about what people say about the four-years, $122 million still on his contract, but he wants to re-establish himself, he told Eric Woodyard of ESPN.

“Everyone is counting pockets. Some people are mad about [it], some people are happy for you,” Wiggins told ESPN. “That’s how the world goes, especially when you’ve got something they don’t have or do something they don’t do. That’s how the world goes.

“Even when I averaged almost 24 points and got the max deal, people were still saying stuff,” he added. “Look at max players and some max players don’t average as much, but it is what it is. I’m just trying to get right, get back on track.”

If you just shrugged your shoulders, join the rest of the league.

Most Timberwolves fans have moved on from counting Wiggins as the second star to help out Karl-Anthony Towns. Most front office people on other teams have moved on as well, as evidenced by Wiggins’ nonexistent trade value (sources around the league say Minnesota has tested the market only to find no team that wants that contract unless the Timberwolves throw in sweeteners). 

Minnesota’s new head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Wiggins has to be a ‘main contributor’ if the Timberwolves are going to return to the playoffs. Which is one reason most experts have them missing out.

But Wiggins believes in himself. Timberwolves fans should expect and want nothing less than that, they just may not want to get their own expectations too high.