Every year, certain players struggle for myriad reasons: new situations, injuries, personal issues, changing roles. Basketball is a fluid game, so a lot can change during the course of a season, and not all changes benefit everyone. Sometimes players only need a change of scenery or a turn of the calendar to bounce back, however, and then it’s like they never left.
This year will be no exception, and these five players highlight a list of guys looking to prove themselves in a variety of fresh situations next season.
Lance Stephenson, Los Angeles Clippers (last season w/ Charlotte: 8.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.9 apg, 37.6% FG, 17.1% 3PT)
No player seemed to struggle more publicly or loudly than Lance Stephenson, who was a total flop during his first year in Charlotte after signing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Hornets last offseason. It’d be his only year there as well, as Michael Jordan sent Born Ready to the Clippers this offseason.
There’s no way to overstate how bad Stephenson was for Charlotte last season. He seemed out of shape to begin the season and never really settled into his role there, bricking three-pointers at a historic rate and too often settling for ill-advised jumpers rather than taking it to the hole. Putting him next to another ball-dominant, streaky guard like Kemba Walker seemed like a risky gambit, and it didn’t pay off. Apparently the Hornets felt he was a poor enough fit that they weren’t interested in seeing what happened before a team option in 2016-17.
In Los Angeles, Stephenson should in theory have a more defined role, coming off the bench and acting as the lead ball handler with those units the way he did during his more successful Pacers tenure. Doc Rivers seems like the type of veteran coach who might be able to corral the volatile Stephenson, although his son Austin might struggle to coexist in the same backcourt, given that neither he nor Lance are great shooters.
Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets (last season: 9.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, 40% FG, 32.4% 3PT)
Nicolas Batum will actually be replacing Stephenson in Charlotte, hopefully bringing some outside shooting and understanding of the role that the now-Clipper failed to bring. The former Trail Blazer has his own reputation to restore, however, as Batum struggled seemingly out of nowhere last season and posted career-low numbers virtually across the board.
This could’ve been due to a combination of Batum’s passive nature and changing role, as well as some nagging injuries. Last season’s Portland squad witnessed the continued ascent of Damian Lillard, the consistency of LaMarcus Aldridge and a career season for Wesley Matthews prior to his injury. At times, Batum seemed too willing to defer to his teammates, to the extent that he lost his way on the offensive end.
Batum’s numbers from last season are an anomaly when compared to the rest of his career, and since he’s still just 26 years old and in a contract season, his chances to rebound are encouraging. The numbers reflect that as well: Batum shot just 30 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, but shot 38 percent on the same shots just two years ago, per SportVU.
Rajon Rondo, Sacramento Kings (last season w/ Dallas: 9.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.5 apg, 43.6% FG, 35.2% 3PT)
Rajon Rondo’s infamous tenure in Dallas rivals, if not bests, the rockiness of Stephenson’s in Charlotte, and the Mavs were more than happy to be rid of him this offseason. Of course, then, he signed with the Kings, forming the Boogie Cousins-Rondo pairing that we would’ve loved to see maybe three years ago, when Rondo rumors meant something.
Now, the difficult point guard is trying to rebuild his image and his value on a one-year, $9 million contract in Sacramento. And while the Kings do have a bunch of talent, it doesn’t necessarily fit together, and Rondo looks like the most conspicuous piece as a point guard who can’t shoot and no longer defends. This redemption might be the most doomed, but it’ll also be the most interesting to watch.
Alec Burks, Utah Jazz (last season, 27 games: 13.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 40.3% FG, 38.2% 3PT)
After receiving a sizeable contract extension at the start of last season, Alec Burks suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that he now says is 100-percent recovered. That’s good news for he and the Jazz, since Dante Exum will likely miss all of next season recovering from the ACL he tore recently.
Burks will be looking to prove that he’s worthy of his $40 million contract, and with Exum out, he’ll have every opportunity to do so. His role will get a bit more straightforward as he handles the ball more, and he’ll serve as the main complement to Gordon Hayward on offense. Utah would love to see him improve on the finer points of his defense, however, especially given that he has the size and athleticism to become a solid defender.
Jeff Green, Memphis Grizzlies (last season w/ Memphis: 13.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 42.7% FG, 36.2% 3PT)
While his numbers were solid, Jeff Green simply didn’t offer the Grizzlies the type of all-round play that’s required in their slowed-down system. Memphis went out and got Matt Barnes this offseason, which relegates Green and his streakiness to a lesser role, one that could include increased time as a small-ball power forward, as pointed out by Grizzly Bear Blues.
Green’s offensive potential still makes him a valuable contributor to the Grizzlies, and a role like that could suit him well, where he could find better opportunities in a secondary role with more mismatches and opportunities to attack versus rotating defenders.
Really, though, Green has been this type of on-the-brink, tantalizing role player for his entire career. Perhaps a solidified role on a contender will finally make this year the one.