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Making The Case: Why Lance Stephenson Will and Won't Fit at SF

An offseason trade brought Lance Stephenson to the Clippers and gave him a way to revamp his image. Now, it appears he'll be the team's opening night small forward. Why will it work out and why won't it?

Leon Bennett / Getty Images Sport
Leon Bennett / Getty Images Sport

Redemption is one of mankind’s most sought after experiences. We always want to get redemption for the things we’ve done wrong in the past and jump at any chance to make those failings become successes down the road. You might fall six times and get up seven, but it’s the way you get up that matters. For Lance Stephenson, this might be the last chance he gets to resurrect what’s left of his once-promising career. For the Los Angeles Clippers, their season and possible championship run might hinge on how he performs; both on and off the floor.

When the team acquired Lance Stephenson to kickoff this offseason, there were some that wondered just what the Clippers were even thinking. While Matt Barnes wasn’t exactly the most reliable of options at small forward, he helped turn the team into one of the best teams during his tenure here. The Clippers’ starting lineup became one of the most feared units in the entire league; running roughshod over competition nightly in a method that saw their Net Rating be one of the best in basketball. They were a force to be reckoned with. Now, Barnes is gone and all that remains is Stephenson’s attitude and act. The team can succeed no matter who starts at small forward, but Stephenson could have a hand in something special or something calamitous.

According to Dan Woike, Stephenson is starting tonight at small forward. Hence, the reason for speculating on how he could do and what it could mean for the team. It’s the Clippers’ fourth different opening night starting small forward in the last four seasons. In 2012, the team started Caron Butler. In 2013, it was Jared Dudley who got the honors. Last season, it was the aforementioned Matt Barnes. Up now is Lance Stephenson and it’s about time we gaze into a crystal ball in an attempt to see how this could play out; on both fronts.


It’s a scary thought that, while shipped out for pretty much nothing, Stephenson could make a positive impact on a title contending team. That is the case here, though. Stephenson’s calling card with the starting unit will be defense, an area the team has struggled with at times during their stint together. While Barnes was a solid defender, he still didn’t possess Stephenson’s overall quickness and grittiness on that end of the floor. Yes, the team was successful with Barnes defensively, but they also had issues against some of the premier wings in the Western Conference; namely Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Kawhi Leonard, and Gordon Hayward. Stephenson is not a shutdown defender, but he is enough of a deterrent in one-on-one situations that he should help the team against a slew of versatile threats.

Off the ball, Stephenson can get lost and caught peaking back to see where the ball happens to be. It’s up to him to get better and trust those around him. The Clippers’ starting lineup doesn’t feature chumps defensively. Chris Paul is a perennial fixture on the All-Defensive First Team and DeAndre Jordan is one of the better defensive big men in the game today. Blake Griffin, while not a great defender, has an overall profile that appears to be getting better. Lastly, J.J. Redick is a pretty solid overall team defender and has his own moments of keeping shooting guards at bay – i.e. James Harden. The addition of Lance into the starting lineup does help them defensively, though.

It’s up to him to prove that he belongs here.

By putting Stephenson in at small forward, the team can limit the amount of stressful minutes the backcourt has to take up defensively. For instance, against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs two years ago, the team opted to use Chris Paul against Kevin Durant in an effort to slow down the game’s best scorer. Stephenson, while not likely to keep Durant fully in check, will at least bridge the gap and allow Paul to focus on other things. In the preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, Stephenson effectively guarded Klay Thompson which allowed Redick to conserve energy by staying with Harrison Barnes in the corner. The inclusion of Stephenson means easier days defensively for the other perimeter players on the Clippers.

Offensively, Stephenson doesn’t supply much in the way of firepower. Two seasons ago, he showcased a wide array of offensive versatility, but he wasn’t able to carry that over with him to Charlotte. Perhaps with this team, in this setting, Stephenson can find what once made him so dangerous. He won’t be asked to facilitate all that much – unless it’s to get Paul off the ball and allow the team to focus on other methods in which to terrorize opposing defenses – and the main requirement of the small forward in this offensive ecosystem is much like that of Golden State’s; stand in the corner to await open threes or make rim runs on backdoor cuts in half-court settings. Stephenson could do all of that. He just has to find the happy medium that he had in Indiana.

The other added benefit of starting Lance Stephenson is that the bench won’t have to play the volatile unit that is Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers with Stephenson. The less ball-dominant players on one unit, the better. While it was only preseason, the bench did not perform all that well when Stephenson and Crawford were on the floor together. One of the ways to go about limiting the amount of stress put on the bench and starters is to limit the amount of minutes the biggest violators of fundamental basketball actually play together. Stephenson with the starters maximizes not only his own potential on this team, but the potential of the entire bench as a whole.


One of the biggest hurdles to Stephenson fitting in seamlessly with the starters is that the Lance from last year is the Lance that plays from here on out. In the six preseason games that he played in, he only scored 28 points in 134 minutes. That comes out to only 7.5 points per 36 minutes of action. On top of that, he shot just 12-of-36 (33.3 percent) from the field and 1-of-9 from three. If Stephenson’s inability to put the ball in the basket is here to stay then the Clippers are going to have major problems starting an offensive lame at small forward. It’ll bog down the spacing, create problems for the pick-and-roll, and teams will give Stephenson even less respect than they showed Barnes.

While Stephenson did average 11.7 points per 36 minutes in the two preseason starts, as well as a plus-minus of +16 in 40 minutes, the team still needs more out of him. He missed both of his three-point attempts and, while he got to the rim, he struggled to finish through contact sometimes and still took some hideous mid-range shots. Those bad shots will be his ultimate downfall if this experiment does not work out for the team. There are bad shots and then there are terrible shots. Right now, Lance Stephenson still takes some terrible shots – i.e. long two-point jumpers with plenty of time on the shot clock.

It’s up to him to prove he’s worthy of it.

To be successful, both the team and Stephenson must weed out the bad shots from his repertoire. It’s one thing if Chris Paul, one of the best pure mid-range shooters, takes a semi-open mid-range jumper. It’s a completely different (and unneeded) thing if Lance Stephenson starts doing that. It doesn’t help the offense whatsoever. One of the things people took for granted with Barnes is that Matt lived in the analytical zones. Barnes took 624 shots last season. Of those 624, 596 of them were either from three or inside the paint. We’re talking 95.5 percent of his shots. Even accounting for the last two seasons, Barnes took 93.6 percent of his field goal attempts from three or inside the paint. Stephenson is a completely different player.

Even at Stephenson’s height of success (2013-14), he still only took 82.3 percent (716-of-870) of his shots in those two optimal zones. When accounting for last season, that number is 75.7 percent over the last two seasons. Perhaps Lance started taking worse shots with Charlotte because he felt more was expected of him thus leading him to press the action a lot more than he ever should have. Perhaps not. It could also be that Lance started buying into his own mystique far too much. If that’s the Lance who shows up in Los Angeles, the Clippers could be in trouble.

Then there’s the defense. Is it all overstated? Stephenson has the ability to be a dynamic one-on-one defender, but he has the tendency to get lost off the ball because he’s too busy watching everything else. It leads to Lance being beaten on backdoor cuts, getting lost around screens, and generally being a step late to everything. Engaged Lance is good Lance. Lazy Lance is the enemy of the Clippers. And it is entirely possible that the team gets the Lance who coasts defensively and never fully gels offensively. After all, that’s part of the reason the Clippers even were able to acquire him in the first place.


This is the decisive year for Lance Stephenson’s future. If he’s not able to help a team on the cusp of doing something special, then it’s simply because he was far too large of a calamity to overcome his own faults. Stephenson is one more screw up away from being an afterthought in this league. One more terrible outburst – one more terrible season – from being written off completely. A lot of people already are writing him off and, in the process, writing the Clippers off because they took a chance on Lance.

It’s hard to pin a team’s entire title hopes on someone who is probably seen as the sixth or even seventh most important player – behind Paul, Redick, Griffin, Jordan, Pierce, and, possibly, Smith – but that might be the case with this team. The team needs Stephenson to show up and not actually hurt the team. If he can supply what Matt Barnes did, but do so with even better defense, then there’s no telling what the Clippers might be able to accomplish this season.

As it goes, this is the best Clippers roster we have seen; at least from a name standpoint and a talent standpoint. How they gel and come together throughout the year will be one of the biggest subplots of the entire campaign. The man who has more to prove than anyone else is Lance Stephenson. He has to show that last season was an aberration and that he’s learned and grown from all of his experiences. He’ll be the starting small forward tonight, but we’ll see how long he has that job. It’s up to him to keep it. It’s up to him to prove he’s worthy of it. It’s up to him to prove that he belongs here. If not now, then when?