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Film Room: The Lance Stephenson Exemplum - Part 1

Through the first two preseason games, Lance Stephenson has been a quandary. He's not shooting well, seems like a negative on the court, and isn't providing much else. But is that really what's going on? Or is there more? This Film Room takes a look.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, did you guys think you were only getting Film Rooms done for each game and didn’t think you were getting ones for players at all this year? Well, you’re getting some for players as the season goes along depending on how they’re playing or what they're showing. In the case of this Film Room, we’re going to take a look at the scuffling start for Lance Stephenson. Through the first two preseason games, Stephenson has shot a combined 2-for-14 from the field and hasn’t really made much of a difference on the surface. But, how has he really played? This is Part One of the Stephenson series and looks at just the game against the Denver Nuggets. The second part will come later and look at the other game.

Beyond the 2-for-14 that he’s shot from the field, it appears like Lance Stephenson hasn’t really supplied the Los Angeles Clippers much else judging solely off of the box scores and play-by-play. Yet, if you glanced at the footage beyond the box score, it seems like Stephenson is trying to make an impact in ways he knows how to – i.e. attacking the basket, trying to defend, and generally being involved overall. The issue is that he doesn’t make the right decision a lot of the time. Part of that could be due to him not being used to playing with this current group, as only two of them – Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers – were on the Clippers’ bench last season. There’s a steep learning curve and Stephenson is getting lost in the mud. With that said, roll the tape!

We begin towards the latter stages of the first quarter and see a pretty lengthy possession here for the Clippers. The initial play starts out with Austin Rivers swinging the ball to Josh Smith at the top of the arc and Smith then handing it off to Stephenson after DeAndre Jordan sets a nice little screen to free Stephenson. Now, once he gets the ball on the wing, Stephenson has two options here; he can either take the extremely wide open three that the Nuggets are giving him or he can pass out of it. He chooses the second option and hits Smith for a pretty open mid-range jumper. It’s not a terrible shot, but it’s certainly not an ideal one. If you had to choose between the two shots, you’d choose the Stephenson three since it’s a higher efficiency shot. However, we don’t get that. We get the Smith shot. And he misses. But, much to the Clippers’ fortune, the ball gets tipped back by Jordan and the team regains possession.

As the ball gets tipped back, it lands in the hands of Jamal Crawford. Crawford wastes no time and passes to Rivers on the far wing. Rivers passes back to Crawford and Crawford swings it to Stephenson at the same exact spot Stephenson bypassed the open three. Stephenson then attacks the semi-closeout by Will Barton in an effort to get to the rim. Barton does a good job of bodying Stephenson and Jameer Nelson tries to rip the ball free. Despite that, Stephenson makes a nice little play to get Jordan the ball on the right block, but Jordan has it stripped by Nikola Jokic and the possession finally comes to an end. A lot happened here, but there were some positives and some negatives. First, the negative was that Stephenson passed up an open three. But, even then, he found a guy for an open mid-range jumper. After that, he made a solid drive to the basket and dumped the ball off to a big, but the big couldn’t really do much with it.

Overall on this play, you can’t fault Lance for Smith missing the open jumper or Jordan having the ball stripped. You can, however, fault him for not taking the open three. That’s the negative here among the two positives. No one knows if Stephenson hits that three, but taking it would have at least given the Clippers some semblance of spacing. If you had to grade this play, you’d probably give Stephenson a B- or C+ here. He couldn’t beat Barton off the dribble, but he did get into the paint and drop the ball to a big in scoring position. He didn’t take the three, but he did find a guy for an open mid-range jumper. It’s a solid grade.

Later in the quarter, Stephenson is inbounding from the sideline with 14 on the clock. Rivers comes to get the ball and he receives a screen from Smith. Rivers turns the corner really well on the screen and looks like he has a lane to pass back to Smith, but he hits Stephenson on the curl at the top of the arc when Gary Harris pinches down to help on Smith’s roll. Harris does an excellent job of recovering here. It forces Stephenson into taking one of the worst shots in basketball. Stephenson dribbles in an attempt to lose Harris, but he ultimately hoists up a terrible stepback long two that clanks off the back iron. This is an F play. It’s terrible. Not a shot he should even be attempting with a defender the quality of Harris right in his face.

To end the first quarter, the Clippers ran a typical flat set and tried to show an impending screen from Paul Pierce. Pierce bails on the screen and merely just hugs Jameer Nelson. However, this is actually a good thing. Austin Rivers cuts baseline and Jamal Crawford hits him with a good pass. Rivers gets swarmed by Denver defenders and kicks to Stephenson in the corner. Rather than take a contested three, Stephenson dribbles into the teeth of the defense, turns, and fires it back out to Rivers for a wide open attempt as the shot clock expires. This is great awareness by Lance, in all honesty. His shot would have been a bad one, but the shot he generated for Rivers was a good one. So, even if this play doesn’t show up as anything other than a Rivers missed three, it’s a really nice job by Stephenson to make the right play.

We’re now into the second quarter and Stephenson is sharing the floor with Rivers, Pierce, Crawford, and Smith still. Pierce passes the ball off to Crawford at the far wing and Stephenson comes along the baseline off of a Smith screen. Gary Harris plays the screen well and jumps the gap to prevent any backdoor pass for a layup. Crawford has to wait for Stephenson to get all the way over to where he is and then gives him the ball. Stephenson throws a quick left-handed dribble at Harris and then attempts a spin back over to his right. There’s one problem here; Harris is still right with him. Stephenson doesn’t care, though, and goes up with a wild right-handed shot that Harris contests beautifully. The shot clanks off and Denver gets the rebound. Just a poor decision and shot from Lance that speaks volumes about this struggles right now.

Roughly 90 seconds later, the Clippers are on defense and we get to see both bad and good Lance. Jameer Nelson receives a screen from Nikola Jokic and comes downhill at Josh Smith. Smith doesn’t leap at him or anything, but rather just lets him turn the corner along the baseline because Nelson doesn’t pose a threat. Watch the weakside of this play, though. Stephenson is in the corner guarding Emmanuel Mudiay. As Nelson tiptoes the baseline, Stephenson completely loses Mudiay. Nelson hits Mudiay and Mudiay tries to drive baseline for a layup, but Smith is there to contest him and Mudiay throws it away which springs the Clippers on a fast break.

The ball bounces right into the hands of Stephenson and he ignites the break. He already knows he has Rivers running the floor to his right and Smith filling the gap in the middle. As he’s dribbling, notice the look to the left that Stephenson does as he’s approaching midcourt. He then gets fancy with his dribble and hits Rivers perfectly in-stride for a layup attempt that gets goaltended by Kenneth Faried. Two points for the Clippers. It shows what Stephenson can do in the fast break as a ball-handler. He’s a solid decision maker and dribbler. That much is certain. The off ball defense on this play was not good, but he was helped out by Smith and Pierce (who dug down to prevent the pass to Jokic). Lance on the break is usually good, so there is some hope there.

A little later, Denver is met with full-court pressure as Mudiay has to dribble up while Rivers hounds him. Mudiay almost loses the ball, but ultimately maintains control and passes it off of to Jameer Nelson after Stephenson loses him for a split second. Nelson then gets a screen from J.J. Hickson and dribbles through the paint and free-throw line area. Josh Smith backs off as Nelson drives. This is by design, though. It’s to prevent a pass to the big and force teams into more mid-range jumpers. Stephenson attempts to recover here, but Nelson quickly makes a dribble move and finishes over him with a right-handed layup. Should Smith have done more? Possibly. However, he also played it well and Stephenson did recover solidly to contest the shot. Credit Nelson for hitting a tough shot over Stephenson, but give Lance credit for trying to affect the play on more than one occasion. Stephenson just has to not lose a player off the ball.

Shortly thereafter, Stephenson is dribbling into the frontcourt and receives a screen from Blake Griffin that he actually turns down because he sees Mudiay icing the pick-and-roll. Stephenson dribble-drives into the paint and looks like he might have a lane to finish, but Kenneth Faried attempts to make a play on any potential layup. Stephenson recognizes this and dumps the ball off to Josh Smith, who throws up a wild left-handed hook shot that falls by the wayside and Denver rebounds the ball. This play doesn’t end in a basket for the Clippers, but it shows great awareness and cognizance by Stephenson. He turns down the screen when he sees the ice, gets into the paint, draws the big man to him, and kicks it to a solid finisher. It’s not his fault the ball didn’t go into the basket. Really, really nice job by Lance as the ball-handler here. Well done.

On the ensuing Denver possession, Jameer Nelson dribbles into the frontcourt and is being defended by Austin Rivers before J.J. Hickson runs into the play and sets a screen to free Nelson. However, it doesn’t work. Rivers stays with Nelson the whole way and deflects the pass right into the hands of Stephenson who starts the break. It’s your classic two-on-one break here. Stephenson passes it up to Rivers as they pass halfcourt and Austin dribbles into a layup attempt that draws a foul. This play caused quite a bit of fuss, though, as Stephenson openly threw his arms in the air and yelled towards Rivers that he should pass the ball. It looks like Stephenson walks away from him, but he did come back to help Rivers up.

There are two schools of thought on this play. First, Rivers should have passed it back to Stephenson for a shot attempt. It’s the right basketball play. While Rivers drew the foul and two free throws, it still serves the team better there if he passes to Stephenson. The other school of thought is that Stephenson gave the ball up way too soon. There wasn’t really a reason he had to give up the ball at halfcourt other than he might have felt he was getting too close to Mudiay. It’s possible that Stephenson panicked there, but he acted in the best interest of running the break. His reaction to it wasn’t exactly what you want to see, though. This is something that should change with more time together; both the reaction and the recognition by both players.

On the next Los Angeles possession, Blake Griffin gets the rebound and kicks it ahead to Stephenson. From here, it’s just a simple two-man game that turns into a one-man show. Stephenson gets the ball, sprints into the frontcourt, and then goes to work against Erick Green. He’s going nowhere initially with his dribble, so Griffin comes over to set a little screen that Green tries to hedge over the top of in an effort to prevent any further damage. However, it backfires. Stephenson goes with a quick behind-the-back dribble and loses Green entirely over the top of the screen. Green gets caught up on Griffin’s backside and Stephenson jacks up a right elbow jumper that goes in. Mid-range jumpers aren’t exactly efficient, but this one is for all the right reasons – i.e. it’s wide open, taken by a guard who is solid off the dribble, and directly in rhythm. Nice play by Lance.

The team has a side-out-of-bounds on the next possession and J.J. Redick dumps it down to Blake Griffin in the post. Griffin kicks it out to Stephenson with 14 on the shot clock and they run into a side pick-and-roll with Randy Foye and Kenneth Faried as the defenders. Foye fights over the top of the screen and Faried attempts to string the play out as Stephenson dribbles. Stephenson starts to fade towards the corner, but he finds a great passing lane to Griffin on the semi-roll here. The bounce pass perfectly hits Griffin in the pocket and he takes a gather dribble before going up with a right-handed hook off his left leg. The ball winds up short off the rim, but it’s a hell of a look for Griffin and a great showing of patience and poise by Lance on the pass. These are the things Stephenson can bring to the team. The pick-and-roll is his friend.

We’re now into the final quarter of action and the Clippers look like they’re going to pull away in this game. Not so fast, though. This possession starts out with Pablo Prigioni dribbling up the court and giving the ball to Josh Smith. After giving the ball to Smith, Prigioni runs up and sets a screen on Gary Harris so that Stephenson can get the ball. Stephenson comes off the Prigioni screen, as well as a screen by Smith, before just stopping dead at the free-throw line. From there, he has two options; he can either take a super contested mid-range jumper after Harris recovered or he can kick it to the far wing where Prigioni is wide open after Smith set a screen on Jameer Nelson. Lance goes with neither. Instead, he chose to pass to Austin Rivers on the right wing after Rivers comes to get the ball once he realized Lance was going nowhere.

Rivers then receives a screen from Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and throws a wild pass back to Stephenson, who is all the way on the far wing. Stephenson goes one-on-one against Harris and actually looks like he’s going to bully his way into the paint. However, Harris does an awesome job of stripping the ball from Stephenson late in the shot clock which forces Lance to gather the ball back in the far corner. Stephenson then has to hoist up a desperation fadeaway jumper off of one leg that ends in an airball. This is one of those possessions that Stephenson cannot afford to have. He had a passing lane to Prigioni, bypassed it, and then dribbled into a terrible predicament. Not a good look.

A few minutes later, we get a Denver possession that highlights Lance’s off ball awareness. Will Barton dribbles into the frontcourt, passes to Wilson Chandler, and then Chandler passes back so that they get the ball moving. Barton runs a quick pick-and-roll with Nikola Jokic here and passes back to Chandler who passes to Emmanuel Mudiay. Once that happens, Chandler runs up to set a screen on Rivers, but he slips it so that he can find a seam into the paint. Mudiay hits Chandler with a pinpoint pass and Chandler quickly passes to Jokic who puts the ball in the bucket. Now, you’re probably wondering where Lance Stephenson comes into play here. Well, watch the play unfold.

After the ball rotates away from Stephenson’s side of the court, Lance just watches it for the most part instead of helping pinch down onto Jokic. When Josh Smith rotates over to help on the roll by Chandler, Stephenson completely forgets his responsibility as a help defender here. You have to help the helper. He has to absolutely duck down into the passing lane and make a play on this pass. We saw Paul Pierce do this earlier on a play that ignited a fast break. On this one, Stephenson forgets to do that and Denver scores two points because of it. The defense elsewhere on this play was fine. They did their job for the most part, but that one breakdown by Stephenson cost them all as a unit. This is something Lance will have to pay attention to going forward.

On a Clippers possession shortly after that, Austin Rivers passes up to Wesley Johnson and Johnson hits C.J. Wilcox. Stephenson, on the far corner to start the play, ducks along the baseline and into the nearside corner between Wilcox and Johnson. The ball rotates up to Josh Smith at the top of the arc and he executes a screen handoff with Austin Rivers. For a brief second, Rivers loses control of the ball, but he gathers it back and finds Stephenson wide open in the corner after the little broken play. Stephenson is helped out by a screen from Johnson on Will Barton and Lance fires up the corner three. It clangs off the rim and the Clippers see another empty possession.

Let’s be honest here for a second. You’re absolutely fine with Lance Stephenson taking this shot in this situation. The shot clock was at 8 seconds when he released the ball for a wide open corner three and he shot 37.3 percent on uncontested threes just two years ago with the Indiana Pacers. This isn’t exactly a poor shot for him. Unfortunately for the Clippers, the ball doesn’t go through the hoop and the team is left to scramble to get back on defense. One of the best things about this play is the awareness by Johnson to set Stephenson that screen and the wherewithal of Stephenson to take that particular shot.

A minute later, we see Josh Smith set Stephenson a ball screen as Lance is running downhill from halfcourt. Stephenson absolutely flies by any help defense the Nuggets could throw at him in the form of Will Barton and he tries to make a tough right-handed scoop layup over Nikola Jokic. Unluckily, the shot smacks off the backboard and back iron before being rebounded by Barton. Despite this being a miss, it’s awesome to see Stephenson going downhill at a big and trying to finish around him. Perhaps Lance could have tried to draw a foul here, but his decision was fine. There’s also a passing opportunity to Austin Rivers in the corner, but it’s hard to say how that pass goes since Emmanuel Mudiay is right there. This is a play where you can say Lance Stephenson shows a glimmer of hope.

This play picks up where the other one left off. Stephenson just missed that layup attempt and Barton has the ball going down the other way. Stephenson hounds Barton the entire way until Jokic sets him a pick and Barton is forced to give the ball up when he can’t beat Lance to the corner. Unfortunately for Stephenson and the Clippers, it doesn’t end well. The second Stephenson turns his head to look at the ball in Jokic’s hands, Barton gives a quick right-to-left shimmy shake move and gets a half-step on Stephenson. Jokic recognizes this and throws a dime to Barton over the top of Stephenson. The pass sails into the left hand of Barton and he gathers with his right hand for a shot attempt that gets blocked by Josh Smith. However, he is fouled by Stephenson here.

As good of a hounding defender as Lance Stephenson can be, his off ball defense is clearly not up to the level of his on-ball defense. That goes for a lot of guys, but Stephenson has to bring the effort no matter what considering the type of reputation he’s trying to build around the league. He wants to be a lockdown defender. Well, lockdown defenders aren’t supposed to get beat backdoor a split second after their man gives the ball up in a tough spot. Stephenson has the tools, but he needs to be committed all the time. This is one of those instances where he fell asleep at the worst time.

Roughly a minute later, Austin Rivers brings the ball up and receives a screen from Josh Smith at the top of the arc. There’s no passing lane to Smith on the roll so Rivers passes to Wesley Johnson at the top of the arc for a possible three-point attempt, but Will Barton closes out well on it. Due to that, Johnson swings it to Stephenson on the near wing and they get a switch by having Johnson set a screen and bail. This forces the primary defender to go from Gary Harris to Will Barton. It’s perceived to be an easier matchup for Stephenson since he was having trouble with Harris all night long. Instead, it’s still a tough one for him.

Stephenson takes a moment before dribbling, but then dribbles to his right with a stutter-step move and bullies Barton towards the rim. Despite being presented with the opportunity to go up stronger, Stephenson chose to finish with a right-handed floating bank shot that misses and is rebounded by Denver. Perhaps he got scared off by the rotating Nikola Jokic. Perhaps he was already too deep into what he was doing. No one knows. This was just a bad choice by Stephenson and one he’ll have to avoid in the long run. Never drive without a plan. Stephenson looked like he didn’t have one.

After a Josh Smith rebound, he kicks the ball up ahead to Wesley Johnson so the team can start a possible break. Due to Will Barton retreating well and stopping it, Johnson passes back to C.J. Wilcox who then dribbles to his left and hands off to Lance Stephenson. This causes a switch where Erick Green becomes the primary defender. This is to Stephenson’s benefit as he’s stronger than Green. Stephenson hesitation dribbles once and then accelerates to his right before sort of shoving Green to the wayside like a windshield wiper does to a bug. This allows Stephenson to penetrate into the paint and take a really makeable right-handed floater/layup that bounces off the back iron and out. It’s a tough break for Stephenson after a great move and setup. This is a solid display of what Stephenson can do against a mismatch and when going downhill. More of this. Process over result.

With two minutes to go and the Clippers clinging to a two point lead, Stephenson has the ball inbounded to him and brings it up the court in a sort of trot. Josh Smith sets a screen on Gary Harris to free Stephenson up and Lance uses it to get downhill after a right-to-left crossover move. He then throws a little in-and-out dribble at Nikola Jokic and crosses him over due to that. Stephenson gets on Jokic’s left hip and extends with a left-handed layup off of his left foot, which seems like it catches Jokic off-guard a little bit. Stephenson doesn’t make the basket, but he was fouled on the play and went to the free throw line. He made both free throws and extended the lead to five. Once again, Lance Stephenson downhill against a mismatch is a thing of beauty. And, once again, it was out of a pick-and-roll set designed to do so. That’s the ticket with him.

The final play that you’re going to see came with 75 seconds to go and the Clippers nursing a six point lead. Stephenson is walking the ball up the court and gets a switch due to Josh Smith luring Gary Harris away from him. This puts Stephenson one-on-one against Joffrey Lauvergne. Stephenson tries to throw a myriad of crossovers and fakes at Lauvergne, but they absolutely do not work one bit. Lauvergne stays with Stephenson the whole way, even after Lance throws a nice little stutter-step crossover stepback move near the left elbow. This forces Stephenson to try another crossover that ends in a one-legged fadeaway. Predictably, the ball finds nothing but iron. It’s a completely wasted possession.

This is one of those possessions that could effectively ice the game. A basket here puts the team up by eight or nine points with just over a minute to go. That’s a vice grip on the game. Stephenson opted to go to the one-on-one stuff and it didn’t pay off in the slightest because he didn’t fool anyone. The right play here is to pull the ball back out once he didn’t get where he wanted the first time. There’s no reason to settle for a bad mid-range jumper there; especially one off of one leg and fading away. Of all the Lance Stephenson shots that were ill-advised, this might have been the worst one of them all.

All in all, this game was not as bad as the 2-for-10 might make it out to be. There was some good from Lance Stephenson. Offensively, whenever Stephenson was able to get downhill out of the pick-and-roll, good things happened for both himself and the team. Defensively, whenever he was locked in as an on-ball defender, Stephenson could hold his own against pretty much anyone. The issue with him, though, is consistency, ego, and awareness. Those are the things that he’ll have to correct if he wants to make a major impact on this basketball team.

It’s never good when you can get beat off the ball just because you fall asleep for a split second. It’s never good when your ego gets the best of you in one-on-one situations and you think Lance can make ‘em dance. And, lastly, it’s never good when you show a lack of awareness on the court when it comes to shot selection, spacing, and overall defense. These are the things Lance Stephenson needs to clean up. However, despite all of that, perhaps there is some good to find in his play. It wasn’t all bad. There were bright spots. He just needs to build from this. Will he? I guess we’ll find out in the next edition of the Lance Stephenson Exemplum. Part Two will take a look at the game against the Toronto Raptors. For now, the jury is still out.