The first move Doc Rivers made this past offseason in an attempt to overhaul his paper-thin roster was trading Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes to Charlotte in exchange for Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was coming off a miserable first season with the Hornets during which he shot just 37% from the field and a putrid 17% from three-point range. He looked nothing like the player that had blossomed the season prior with the Pacers, and it was clear that he was never going to be a fit with the Hornets.
Hawes had undergone a similarly poor inaugural campaign with the Clippers. He was signed to a four-year, $23 million deal in the summer of 2014, but was never able to find his groove. He was supposed to be a stretch-five, but it's hard to be a stretch-anything when you're hitting just 31% of your triples. He also failed to provide any spark defensively, and eventually found himself benched in favor of the likes of Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu. Not a good look, especially considering neither of those guys is even in the league right now.
Essentially, the Clippers and Hornets agreed to swap bad contracts with the hopes that each player would regain their old form. Neither Lance nor Hawes had a whole lot of value on the trade market, so it was worth a shot for each team to roll the dice. Matt Barnes was thrown into the deal to make the money work, and was almost immediately traded by Charlotte to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Hawes isn't playing a huge role with the Hornets (about 16 minutes a night), but has shot a respectable 37% from three in a crowded frontcourt. Barnes has been his typically-solid self with Memphis and was recently moved into the starting lineup.
Stephenson's role, on the other hand, has been all over the map. We're only 25 games into the season, but Lance has already started, been moved to the bench, been DNP'd, moved back into the starting lineup, been benched again, and then drew another DNP-CD in L.A.'s overtime win in Detroit Monday night. As described by our own Davey Bales here, Doc gave no good reason for Lance's benching. Rivers also reportedly floated Lance's name in trade discussions last month, a claim Rivers subsequently denied. Considering Lance's role these days, though, it's not tough to fathom those talks actually having taken place.
So, in exchange for a couple of decent role players, Rivers acquired a guy he has no idea how to use. What was the point, then? Stephenson thrived with the Pacers as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker, but he's rarely gotten the chance to do that through his first couple of months with the Clippers.
Lance's best game this season came against his former team when he was actually afforded the chance to run the offense with the second unit. Stephenson finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor and was the reason the Pacers didn't run them out of the gym in the first half that night. His reward? No more than 18 minutes of action in any of the next six games, culminating with the aforementioned DNP against the Pistons.
Perhaps the most insane thing about Lance's demotion and mishandling is the fact that this is a team with absolutely zero capable point guards outside of Chris Paul. Austin Rivers has provided a boost on the wing defensively, but he's a shooting guard (that can't shoot) all the way. Jamal Crawford is a capable distributor, but we know he's no point guard, either. Pablo Prigioni is washed. Stephenson is a high-energy player that has shown he can fit with the starters and can also help keep the team afloat during the time CP3 spends on the bench. Giving Lance some possessions as a ball-handler can also take some weight off of Paul's shoulders, which should prove beneficial to the Clippers come playoff time.
In a recent ESPN article, Zach Lowe said it best:
The lineup of DeAndre Jordan-Blake Griffin-Lance Stephenson-J.J. Redick-Chris Paul remains the Clippers' most potent based on point differential, per NBA.com. Doc cited a "lack of spacing" as the reason for pulling the plug on the Stephenson starting experiment, but replaced him with Luc Mbah a Moute. LMAM has hit a grand total of three three-pointers since being moved into the starting lineup nine games ago. Spacing, huh?
The idea of spacing is predicated on movement without the ball coupled with the presence of a three-point shooting threat. If Doc thinks Lance doesn't provide spacing because teams won't respect his three-point shot, then why not give him the ball and let the team's dangerous shooters (Redick, Paul, Crawford, Wesley Johnson) do the floor-spacing around him? We've gotten a glimpse of the kinds of passes Lance is capable of making. With two of the most lethal pick-and-roll rollers in the league (Blake and D.J.) at his disposal and plenty of shooters on the outside, what's the harm in giving Lance the chance? Doc doesn't seem to trust him, which means the majority of Stephenson's actual time on the floor is spent milling aimlessly around the perimeter.
It's not been a great season for Doc, to say the least. Questionable rotations have been a theme for the Clippers, and Doc's admittance that he doesn't look at statistics doesn't provide much reason to think he's going to eventually figure it out. He says he goes by what he sees, which is fine to a degree. However, he's played his best lineup a grand total of two minutes since the game in Minnesota last week, including neither of the last two contests. Putting your players in positions to succeed is objective No. 1 for a coach. Doc just hasn't done that consistently so far this year.
Trading for Stephenson was always going to be a risk, but mishandling him has completely undermined the possibility that this trade could've worked out for the Clips. It's a shame, because we've seen flashes of what Stephenson can do in the right role. Instead of that, though, he's been relegated to this:
LANCEEEEE https://t.co/IOuWIwVowW— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) December 15, 2015
There's no doubt Lance is capable of providing some top-notch bench celebration comedy, but he can provide something of substance for the Clippers on the court, too. At this point, it just feels like a matter of the coach actually realizing it. Does Lance have faults? He has plenty. But as Lowe said, this team doesn't have a chance of dethroning Golden State if they don't maximize the capabilities of the roster. That'll require risk, which doesn't seem like something Doc Rivers is interested in at the moment.
It's not even about minutes. Lance doesn't need to play 35 minutes to make a positive impact. He can give the Clippers what they need in around 20 minutes of action if used correctly. He was a menace as a pick-and-roll ball-handler with the Pacers, and is clearly a willing passer. Just give him the ball and let him do his thing. It's the only way this trade can wind up working for the Clippers. The team has been winning games of late, but with both Austin Rivers and Paul Pierce struggling tremendously, hopefully Stephenson is given another chance before too long.
Otherwise, this is going to prove to be a massive missed opportunity for LAC. Doc will have traded two useful pieces for absolutely nothing.