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Preseason Game #5: Film Room | Stephenson and Starters

In the team's fifth preseason game, Doc Rivers switched things up and started Lance Stephenson at small forward. It had its benefits and hiccups. This Film Room looks at the experiment that was Stephenson with the starters.

On Tuesday night, head coach Doc Rivers decided to switch things up in the battle for the small forward spot by opting to start Lance Stephenson against the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were not exactly at full strength, but they did feature two of their best perimeter threats and Rivers values defense out of the wing position with the other four starters being so good offensively. So, the nod went to Stephenson and he showcased some things with the starters that at least can be built upon if he’s kept in the starting lineup. This Film Room will take a look at the time the Los Angeles Clippers’ core four and Stephenson spent together on the court against Golden State.

It appeared as if the starting small forward race was going to come down to the duo of Wesley Johnson and Paul Pierce. At least that’s what we all assumed. Instead, we saw Lance Stephenson start on Tuesday night and he did an admirable job. It gives the team another option and keeps a guy like Pierce on the bench to help steady it. In turn, that allows Johnson to think less when on the bench unit because he’ll be used sparingly and just be asked to be athletic. While his offense isn’t anything near what it was with the Indiana Pacers, Stephenson can provide an impact on a nightly basis if used properly. In theory, Stephenson at small forward could work on several fronts.

The first is that he’s such a quality perimeter defender that it would save Chris Paul from having to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter threat. That means less of Paul on guys like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Mike Conley, etc. Instead, the team could throw Lance Stephenson onto the player and give Paul several minutes of respite. Saving Paul’s legs, especially defensively, is one of the upsides to this move. The other is that it would also allow Paul to play off the ball more offensively. Stephenson is a good passer, especially in pick-and-rolls. By having Paul move off the ball, though, it would open up new avenues for the team to space the floor and score more efficiently.

While he’s not prototypical small forward size, Stephenson can guard some of the small forwards in this league. The only ones he’d have trouble with would be the elite of the elite guys. Players such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George. But, let’s face it, those guys are going to torture most every defender who guards them because, well, they’re freaking amazing. Stephenson will battle defensively and provide ball-handling when on offense so as to help the team as much as possible. Tuesday night, the starters didn’t really miss a beat with Lance on the floor and that bodes well for his attempt to grab the job. Roll the tape!

We begin with the team’s second possession and the game’s third possession overall. Chris Paul brings the ball into the frontcourt, passes off to DeAndre Jordan, and then Paul goes to the left elbow. Jordan passes to Lance Stephenson at the right wing and the team then proceeds to run a variation of HORNS here. Paul sets a down screen for J.J. Redick in the corner after passing the ball, Redick runs Klay Thompson into the screen, and then begins to sprint towards another screen. Jordan sets a high screen at the top of the arc and Redick comes off of it at a sharp enough angle as to keep Thompson firmly behind him. Stephenson hits Redick perfectly in stride and Redick gets a friendly bounce off the rim for two points.

Golden State could have done a better job to prevent this play as it happened, but that could also be due to the lack of time this unit has had together. There are three normal starters on the floor and two bench guys, so that could be why Festus Ezeli takes far too long to step up on Redick’s curl. Had Ezeli stepped up, then Redick’s alternative here is to pass back to Jordan at the top of the arc. From there, most likely, we get Jordan passing to Paul at the left wing and the team running a pick-and-roll. Either way, Stephenson knew what to do on this play and it shows that he can make a pass perfectly on time. That’s a big part of playing with the starters and a key ingredient to what the offense needs out of him.

This play showcases one of the main reasons Stephenson might be able to start for this team at small forward. Everything begins with former Clipper Shaun Livingston dribbling the ball across midcourt and probe dribbling in an attempt to find a passing lane. The reason there isn’t one for the longest time, though, is because Stephenson is stuck on Klay Thompson like white on rice. Thompson begins in the near corner and then trots along the baseline before receiving a little screen from Festus Ezeli. Stephenson stays glued to him, though. Lance fights through the screen, gets over the top of it, and stays right on Thompson’s hip enough to force Klay into a wild pass attempt that DeAndre Jordan swats away into the waiting hands of Chris Paul. This ignites the break. Paul immediately gets into the middle of the floor with Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick as his running mates. Griffin sprints ahead of Paul, takes up multiple defenders, and Redick fills the wing gap. Paul hits Redick and Redick hits nothing but net.

While the end result of this play is awesome, the real fun stuff is Stephenson guarding Thompson. This isn’t an elaborate set run by Golden State, but it’s one that they do run with their starters. It’s an attempt to get Thompson moving, his defender running off screens, and giving Thompson easier shots. Except that doesn’t happen here because Stephenson fights over the screen and Jordan stays back to protect the rim. This play could have gone better for Golden State if Thompson simply faded towards the arc more on the curl. The pass led him under the arc which allowed Stephenson to close the gap quicker and thus force Thompson into a supremely tough decision. Either way, the play was a good sign for the team and for Stephenson himself.

J.J. Redick sprints into the frontcourt after passing the ball off to Chris Paul and proceeds to receive a screen handoff from Paul. Thompson does a good job of at least staying on Redick’s hip and the help defense by both Livingston and Ezeli is good enough to force Redick into passing. As Redick comes off of Paul’s screen, though, notice how DeAndre Jordan starts to trot towards the paint as a roll man. This forces Harrison Barnes, who is in the weakside corner on Lance Stephenson, to crash down and try to prevent any possible pass to Jordan at the rim. Because of this, Redick is able to find Stephenson wide open in the corner. While Stephenson misses this shot, this is still a quality look for him and one that he will be getting quite a bit if he were to start for the team. The miss is fine. Process over results.

One little note about this shot: Lance Stephenson took only 9 corner threes all last season. He made just one of them. During the 2013-14 season, he attempted 48 and made 24. From the right corner alone, he was 21-of-37 (56.8 percent) that season. That shot you just watched is from the right corner. It is possible that Stephenson is able to find his corner shooting stroke all over again. Not to the tune of 50 percent from the corners, but he could possibly do well in this offense considering the amount of open shots he’ll get from there. Stephenson just has to find the touch again.

This is another interesting set the Clippers ran on Tuesday night with Chris Paul being off the ball. Paul feeds Jordan at the top of the arc and Jordan just passes off to Stephenson. From there, Paul sets a rub screen for Griffin at the left elbow to free him up. Griffin slices over the top of the screen, gets the ball after a pass from Stephenson, and sinks the jumper over Livingston. There’s nothing magisterial about this play whatsoever. The thing that is quite interesting, though, is that they seem keen on getting Paul off the ball so he can set these little screens in the paint. Golden State did a lot of this the last two years with Stephen Curry.

In fact, two years ago, Curry used to do this same exact thing when his team was in the bonus. He’d force the big to make contact with him and then he’d fall to the ground and earn free throws because of it. Last year, though, the Warriors used it a bit more and it opened up more things for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. It appears as if the Clippers might start using more of this type of action this year. If they do then they certainly have identified another growth spot for the offense; Paul off the ball.

This is one of the downsides to having an endless rotation of starting small forwards. Paul dribbles into the frontcourt, gets a screen from Jordan, and attempts to pass to Stephenson in the corner, but Stephenson isn’t there anymore. The miscommunication is that Stephenson starts to cut the second Thompson hedges to help on Paul’s downhill sprint off the screen. Paul passes to the corner spot where he thinks Stephenson will be wide open for a three-point attempt, but Stephenson thought it’d be better to cut to the rim and await a pass.

Had Stephenson stayed in the corner, it’s likely he has another semi-open three-point attempt and no one knows the result of it. However, perhaps Stephenson had the thought of what happened on his last three-point attempt in the back of his mind and that’s why he cut. We don’t know. We’re not inside his head. With more repetitions and more time together, Stephenson likely stays in the corner and attempts this shot. This was actually the second time there was a miscommunication between Lance and a passer in the first quarter. The first time was Blake Griffin expecting Stephenson to stay in the corner and making a pass to the spot, but Stephenson – much like on this play – had made a baseline cut and wasn’t where the pass was going. Things like that will get hashed out over time.

All you have to do on this play is just watch Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson. The ball touches two hands on Golden State prior to getting to Thompson, but that’s of no matter here. The play starts with Thompson and Stephenson battling it out for position along the baseline. Thompson then attempts to come off of a screen by Barnes, but Stephenson does an awesome job of shooting the gap here which forces Thompson to have to stutter step and stop on his movement. Stephenson then gets ran into a screen by Green and then off of a screen on a pass by Ezeli. Thompson sees Jordan there in front of him and steps back into a contested long two with Stephenson on his hip. And, because he’s such a great shooter, Thompson nails the shot.

The result of this play absolutely does not matter. Look at the shot Klay Thompson had to settle for and realize you’d let him settle for that shot every time up the court. It’s a contested long two with a defender on his hip. Yeah, you’ll take an opponent making that shot all night to beat you. Instead, focus on the bulldog nature of Stephenson defensively. He fights through three screens and still makes a valiant effort to stay with Thompson. He shot the gap, got a hand up to defend, and tried like hell to disrupt this play. The result says he didn’t. The tape says he did. Tip your hat to Thompson and move on here. Great stuff all-around.

This is the added benefit of having Lance Stephenson with the starters. Unlike his predecessor, Matt Barnes, Stephenson can shoot off the dribble in the mid-range. While mid-range shots aren’t exactly what a team wants to live on right now, it’s still a valuable shot for some players. Stephenson is far more comfortable shooting off the dribble here as a ball-handler than if he were to come off of a screen a la Redick and turn and shoot. So, on this play we see Stephenson get the ball from Jordan after slicing up from the near corner. Stephenson and Jordan then run a double pick-and-roll play with zero roll by Jordan. This allows Stephenson to dribble into a comfortable right elbow jumper that he knocks down.

According to Shot Analytics dot com, Lance Stephenson took 45 shots last season from 16+ feet after dribbling four or more times and having a defender at least four feet away from him. Yes, that does seem oddly specific. However, that is the exact same shot you see up above. Stephenson hit 38 percent of those shots. In 2013-14, he took 43 of them and made 53 percent. You’re talking 88 total shots made at a 45.5 percent rate (40-of-88). This isn’t a shot you should see out of Stephenson all that much this upcoming season, but it is one that he has shown the ability to make.

We’re going to close with what should be Stephenson’s calling card with the starters; defense. It’s a side-out-of-bounds for Golden State and all you have to really do is watch Klay Thompson and Lance Stephenson battle it out all over again. There’s 14 seconds on the shot clock when the play starts, but Thompson doesn’t get the ball until the clock is ticking from 8 to 7. Why? Because Stephenson effectively killed two passes prior to the completed one getting made. Stephenson shoots the gap on a screen by Ezeli, which forces Green to feed the ball to Ezeli instead of Thompson. Thompson then tries to make a sharp cut to lose Stephenson, but Lance stays right with him and Thompson has to settle in at the left wing finally.

Thompson gets the ball from Ezeli and tries to beat Stephenson with a quick dribble to the left. Except that Lance stays with him the whole way here. This forces Thompson to attempt to back Stephenson down on the left block with roughly 5 or 6 on the shot clock. Thompson tries to throw a little shot fake at Stephenson to get him off of his feet, but Lance does a great job of staying square to Thompson and keeping his arms straight up. Thompson then has to turn into an insanely difficult fadeaway one-handed shot that bounces in. This is the definition of “high degree of difficulty.” Thank Lance Stephenson for that.

Despite the shot being made, Stephenson defended this beautifully. He disrupted the play multiple times and forced a great shooter into one of the most difficult shots imaginable. If this is the kind of defense that the team can expect out of him against superb scorers, then there should be no reason to not start the man. It would save Chris Paul’s legs defensively and the added ability of Stephenson as a secondary ball-handler could open up more things for the offense. In some respects, he’s sort of like a less refined and accomplished Andre Iguodala. That’s not to say that Stephenson could have that same impact, but he could do things that help the team find their way.

If you were to grade Stephenson’s stint with the starters, a B+ or A- grade for this game would seem appropriate. While there were some sketchy moments due to a lack of continuity and communication, the ball moved really well and the defense showed up. The core four starters are always going to be a fantastic offensive unit. What they need out of the small forward is tough defense, not-terrible decision making, and the ability to know where to be offensively. Lance Stephenson already provides the defense and decision making. All he has to do is get that last part down and it appears the starting job could be his. The unit definitely seemed on the same page for the majority of this game. Well done, Lance.