I want to believe in Lance Stephenson, but he won’t let me.
So many aspects of his fit with the Los Angeles Clippers make sense, not the least of which being his status as a basketball-playing human who can come off the bench for an NBA team — something last year’s Clips needed but didn’t have. Stephenson is only a year removed from his final season with the Indiana Pacers, one marked by three triple-doubles, sterling across-the-board counting stats and a legitimately fearsome defensive reputation.
If that player or, really, anything close to that player shows up in Los Angeles this season, the Clippers will be dramatically improved.
But that’s really just the start. I also want to believe in Stephenson because his ball-handling capabilities could mean a reduced role for incumbent bench firecracker Jamal Crawford (if he’s not traded). In theory, phasing Crawford and his offense-stalling, efficiency-strangling style of play out of the reserve picture would be a good thing. The Clippers had no alternative before, but now that Stephenson is around, maybe there’s a better way for the backups to play…IF Stephenson’s total flameout with the Charlotte Hornets last year was an aberration.
He shot 17.1 percent from long range last season, the lowest accuracy rate in league history for a player who took at least 100 attempts. He lost his starting role, he didn’t defend like his reputation suggested he could and he posted negative Win Shares. Negative!
That’s a lot to look past, but if you believe in Stephenson’s earlier work, and if you trust that a winning culture in Los Angeles (led by Doc Rivers and Chris Paul) can make a difference, you can see the upside.
There’s Stephenson anchoring the second unit, pushing the pace, finding shooters as he barrels into the middle. Then there he is on the other end matching up with the scariest perimeter opponent. Point guard, shooting guard, small forward…doesn’t matter.
All that is possible, and all that is why I want to believe in Stephenson and what he could represent for a Clippers team that has decidedly underperformed in recent seasons.
But then, sadly, Stephenson reminds me (and you, if I’ve suckered you into joining me) why it’s so hard to put your faith in him.
“They’re just missing that guy that’s tough and doesn’t bow down to no one,” Stephenson said in assessing the Clippers, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times.
That’s just not it, Lance. That’s not it at all.
Paul leads the Clippers, and he’s as pathologically defiant and competitive as anyone. Matt Barnes was on the roster last year, and I’m pretty sure at least 80 percent of the reason he’s still in the league now is because he’s viewed as exactly the kind of player Lance is describing.
The bigger problem here is that Stephenson’s comment implies he plans to be that guy, and that’s the last thing the Clippers need from him.
In the hierarchy of their expectations for Stephenson, steady defense, decent spot-up shooting, facilitation and the ability to attack the basket in transition are near the top. Run through a hundred other needs — perhaps including “don’t steal rebounds from DeAndre Jordan” and “don’t blow in anyone’s ear” — and you still won’t find the Clippers hoping Stephenson assumes the instigator/tough guy mantle.
They need him to fill a defined role along with the other bench additions they hauled in over the summer. A lack of steady, reliable help off the pine was the sole reason L.A. fumbled away a seemingly decided series against the Houston Rockets last year. After vanquishing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round on the Herculean strength of their starters, the Clippers had nobody in reserve they could trust.
They need stable production, not wild, confrontational loose-cannonry.
This is why I can’t believe in Lance Stephenson, even though I want to. He fundamentally misunderstands (or maybe refuses to accept) what he needs to be.
It created a rift in the Pacers locker room, and it contributed to his abject disaster of a season with the Hornets. Stephenson has a lot to offer, but he seems intent on offering more — routinely to the detriment of himself and his team.
If some combination of Rivers, Paul and an on-staff reality-check guru can convince Stephenson to tone it down and play within himself, the Clippers will have a serious weapon.
If they can’t, they’ll have a serious problem.