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.
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 four – Chris 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 Westbrook–Andre Roberson–Kevin Durant–Serge Ibaka–Steven Adams (112.9/91.5/+21.5) and Warriors’ Stephen Curry–Klay Thompson–Brandon Rush–Draymond Green–Andrew 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.”