Lance Stephenson, one of the last high-profile free agents remaining, has found a home. The Pelicans will become the fourth team in three years to count on the mercurial guard for frontcourt depth after inking him to a one-year contract.
The fact that Stephenson had to wait until September to get a minimum offer from a team that can’t guarantee him a spot in the final roster clearly shows what his standing is in the league. That will likely be the last chance he will get to rebuild his reputation and get his career back on track. He needs to make this opportunity count or by this time next year he will be mulling over offers to play in China.
Fortunately, he has landed on the right team. The Pelicans have an immediate need for someone with his skill set due to injuries to its starting guards and could use him off the bench even when everyone is healthy, provided Stephenson’s late season play with the Grizzlies is not a mirage.
Explaining everything that went wrong with Stephenson in Charlotte would take hours, but one of the biggest reasons things didn’t go well had to do with a lack of confidence. Stephenson wasn’t a featured option in Indiana, but he had the trust of his coach and teammates and seemed to always, for better or for worst, be in attack mode.
That wasn’t necessarily the case in Charlotte, where he became tentative to an extreme degree. He stood around when he was off the ball and when he caught it open, he would pump fake at nobody and predictably put the ball on the floor. That problem followed him to Los Angeles, where he was traded last offseason but never gained Doc Rivers’ trust.
Lance Stephenson's last two seasons in a Vine. Just take the open three, Lance. https://t.co/ijMQadANrP
— Jesus Gomez (@JejeGomez_PtR) December 13, 2015
Things should be different in New Orleans, mainly by necessity. Jrue Holiday will be out for a while due to family issues, and Tyreke Evans might not be ready to start the season after undergoing three knee surgeries in nine months. Langston Galloway, Buddy Hield and Tim Frazier are all decent players and definitely steadier than Stephenson, but are far from being stars or proven primary playmakers. There’s a chance that next year Stephenson will be asked to be one of the Pelicans’ shot-creators, likely off the bench.
When he had that responsibility with the Grizzlies late last year, he regained some of his confidence and started to look more like a viable combo forward instead of a liability.
That ability to drive to the basket that Stephenson flashed in Indiana and, for a few games, in Memphis is what the Pelicans need. That’s Evans brought to the table and what Moore and Galloway struggle with. With Frazier likely starting at point guard, someone will have to get to the paint on bench units and Stephenson could be that player. He’s a good finisher as well — better than Evans on fewer attempts—despite not playing over the rim. He can be turnover-prone when he tries to find others, so it’s better if he’s in scoring mode when he gets downhill. His teammates can clean up the misses like they do with Evans.
There is a role for Stephenson on offense, as long as Evans and Holiday are out. When they return, he will need his defense to separate him from the other players in the rotation. It seems like so long ago, but in 2013 Stephenson was on his way to becoming one of the better perimeter defenders in the league thanks to his ability to guard both wing positions. His defensive rebounding was always a strength as well, even though his numbers were always a bit inflated from boards he stole from teammates. Those two qualities — which have eroded the past two seasons, but haven’t disappeared — could get him minutes on small lineups, which the Pelicans are likely to use more now that they have a solid combo forward like Solomon Hill around.
While Stephenson’s driving ability and all-around game should give him a shot at some minutes, what will ultimately determine whether he is a short term fix or carves out a permanent spot in the rotation will be three-point shooting.
Alvin Gentry might not be a zealot like Mike Budenholzer or Daryl Morey when it comes to the long ball, but he assisted Mike D’Antoni and had his biggest success as a coach on a Suns team that was a terror from outside. With no true stretch big man on the roster the perimeter players will have to do the heavy lifting, so playing a guard other than Evans that can’t shoot is not an option.
Stephenson is not known as a marksman, but he’s not dreadful from outside, either. He shot a career-best 38 percent from beyond the arc last season, mostly taking advantage of the wide open looks he got with the Clippers, although also he also did connect on some pull-ups. He will need to build on that and shoot at least a league-average 36 percent while not hesitating to pull the trigger to be a viable option next to Evans and Jones in those small-ball lineups.
Again, that reluctance to shoot when open has been a major problem from Stephenson, so this is not a minor issue. It will be on Gentry and Born Ready himself to change that mindset.
We are at a point in which expecting Stephenson to go back to being the promising if erratic young prospect he once was seems foolish. After two summers in which good teams convinced themselves they could help him turn things around, he greatly disappointed and has only been signed as an emergency addition. The league no longer believes he can be the dynamic two-way force he was in Indiana, and he has no one to blame but himself.
The goal for next season, then, is not to magically go back to the path he was supposed to follow after his left the Pacers. If he can simply fill in nicely for a while as a ball handler until the starting guards return and offer some lineup versatility afterwards, his season would be considered a success.
The expectations have never been lower. At 26 years of age, Stephenson has one last opportunity to prove that he’s an NBA player and he’s on the perfect team to do so. If he fails, one of the strangest careers in recent history could be over, all too soon.