The Los Angeles Clippers needed an overhaul in the offseason after falling apart in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets. Breaking up the core wasn’t an option, so they made the very understandable decision to trade a seemingly easily replaceable starter in Matt Barnes and a disappointing free-agent acquisition in Spencer Hawes for the mercurial Lance Stephenson.
It’s very early in the season, but the trade that looked rational at the time has backfired so far. Not only has Stephenson been a downgrade over Barnes, but he might have lost his place in the rotation after starting the first nine games of the season.
Stephenson played just two minutes in the Clippers’ win over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday after averaging over 22 a game before that. Los Angeles was without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, so in theory Stephenson’s off-the-bounce shot creation could’ve been a plus. Rivers decided to go another way, with Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Paul Pierce surrounding Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
“I just needed spacing,” Rivers said after the game, according to ESPN’s Justin Verrier. “With CP and J.J. out, I wanted as much spacing as we can get. It allowed Jamal and Austin to go downhill. It allowed Blake [Griffin] to post. Nobody really wanted to trap. They had to pick their poison.”
That’s a perfectly valid explanation for moving Stephenson to the bench. He’s a 30 percent career outside shooter. Teams will routinely ignore him behind the arc, using his man to pack the paint to prevent easy buckets inside:
It makes sense to have guys out there who are more of a threat. The reason Rivers gave for not using him more with the subs, however, is much more concerning.
“He came in, I didn’t think he was ready,” Rivers said. “We were already down. We didn’t have enough time to wait.”
In his short time on the court Stephenson turned the ball over, resulting in a fast-break dunk for Stanley Johnson, and then didn’t contest a three-pointer by the Pistons rookie. Detroit extended its lead from three points when Stephenson checked in to 11 when he sat, and while it wasn’t all his fault, he certainly didn’t help matters. The more defensively-inclined Luc Mbah a Moute got the nod in the second half and delivered, logging a plus/minus of +12 in nine minutes.
Rivers was non-committal about whether Stephenson was going to regain his spot in the starting lineup once Paul and Redick return, saying that small forward will remain “a revolving position” throughout the season. The thing is, it didn’t have to be.
Had the Clippers decided against trading Barnes, he would be entrenched in that position, sopping up minutes to keep Pierce fresh. He would also be providing two things Los Angeles has lacked so far this season: three-point shooting and defensive rebounding.
The Clippers went from ranking fifth in the league in three-point attempts and third in three-point field goal percentage last season to 18th and 25th, respectively, this year. Those numbers have a lot more to do with Redick’s and Paul’s health and a huge slump for Jamal Crawford than anything else. The fact that the Clippers failed to replace Barnes’s league average shooting, however, is still a problem.
Stephenson is averaging around half the attempts per 36 minutes Barnes took last season and shooting a worse percentage. Wesley Johnson has shot decently but has gotten limited minutes. With Pierce slumping, there’s just not enough shooting at the position. As mediocre as Barnes was as an outside threat, he’s better than the current options.
The same happens with defensive rebounding, an area in which the Clippers have also regressed. They went from ranking ninth in defensive rebound percentage to being the fifth-worst team in the league in that category. Barnes had one of his worst years as a pro as a defensive rebounder last season and was still better than Stephenson has been this year and close to on par with Johnson, who’s largely played in lineups that include Josh Smith as the lone big man instead of Griffin and Jordan.
Again, those struggles in those specific areas aren’t the sole responsibility of Stephenson nor would be easily solved with Barnes still on the team. If Born Ready were contributing in other aspects, such as secondary playmaking or defense, they wouldn’t even be a problem. He isn’t though, which means that losing Barnes to get him has, improbably, resulted in a significant downgrade across the board.
The Clippers knew they were taking a short-term risk by making the move to get Stephenson, since he was coming off a dreadful year with the Charlotte Hornets and his track record for success had been small. At the time it seemed worth it, if for no other reason than to get rid of Hawes’s contract, which still has two guaranteed years after this one. Los Angeles can — and likely will — turn down the team option on Stephenson, which will help them stay under the luxury tax next offseason.
The trade for Stephenson wasn’t a terrible move in terms of on-court value and the savings are real. It also won’t likely cost the Clippers a shot at a title because the other four starters are great as a unit regardless of who fills in at small forward. What it’s done, however, is unnecessarily introduce uncertainty in the starting lineup early in the season without providing any tangible upgrades.
The Clippers could’ve had Barnes starting like they have for the two seasons before this one while still adding Pierce to take some of his minutes in the playoffs. Instead, Pierce might need to start sooner than expected or Rivers might need to up Johnson and Mbah a Moute’s minutes.
Sometimes leaving good enough alone is the best course of action. The Clippers decided against it and it’s costing them early in the season.