There are certain times during a team's offseason where you question just what the front office was thinking when it comes to free agent moves or trades. It goes without saying that this is one of them. Whether or not you agree with the move in general, you can't deny that this is, in fact, a high risk move for the Los Angeles Clippers – and that’s before Lance Stephenson has ever stepped foot on the court for them, or appeared in a jersey, or cashed a paycheck. It goes beyond just dollars and cents. It goes right to straightforward sense. And the Clippers are going to have to ask some pretty tenacious questions that they have to pray Stephenson has the answer(s) to.
There are statistical measures that show just how atrocious of a basketball player Lance Stephenson was last season, but those don’t need to be brought out just yet. The issue for the Clippers, as far as this trade is concerned, is mostly in the clubhouse. On just a roster construction basis, this trade depletes the team of two vital assets going forward. Firstly, they’re now without an actual starting caliber small forward due to sending Matt Barnes to the Charlotte Hornets. By doing this, it creates a void that the team hasn’t had in quite some time. Barnes has been a pivotal player for the past three seasons whether off the bench or as a starter. That comfort level is now gone. Before him, though, the Clippers had the capable Caron Butler. Now? No one knows.
Secondly, the trade has diminished the Clippers of a backup big man; namely, a center who would have been the de facto starter if DeAndre Jordan leaves in free agency. Without Spencer Hawes, the Clippers, at this moment in time, are left to hoping that a guy like Glen Davis could possibly step up for an even bigger role. This, of course, is the equivalent of flying blind. The Clippers know where they want to go but have no idea if they’re even in a plane with a functioning engine. Losing Hawes – which some will see as a positive, which it could be if you choose to look at it that way – opens up a can of worms that Stephenson himself cannot fill. Just like the starting small forward role.
So far, all of this strictly talks about lessening the roster of two players who were, by all appearances, going to play a major role in the upcoming season and replacing them with just one guy who has no viable starting spot on this team. Before anyone starts to get crazy and dreams up of more trade scenarios, presume that J.J. Redick doesn’t get traded. And he shouldn’t get traded. He’s one of the best non-ball dominant shooting guards in the league and works perfectly in harmony with Chris Paul. Because of this, Stephenson likely comes off the bench as a do-it-all type of hybrid guard. A little bit like he was two years ago with the Indiana Pacers, minus the starting gig.
The added caveat to all of this, however, is that Stephenson wasn’t even a league quality guard last season. You can probably chalk it up to quite a few things. It was his first big contract, the first time he stepped out of his comfort zone, he had to learn a whole new system with new players, and he had to do a little more than he was capable of doing. It’s not out of the realm of realism to say that Lance Stephenson was arguably the worst player in basketball last season among players who saw at least 1500 minutes. 186 players saw 1500 minutes. Lance Stephenson ranked dead last in True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage. It gets even worse. Among players with at least 100 three-point attempts in a season, Stephenson’s 17.1 percent mark from long range last season ranks as the worst in NBA history.
In this year’s playoffs, the Clippers got bounced out namely because they went ice cold from three. You can say what you want to say about Matt Barnes and how he’s not someone you trust taking a multitude of threes, but his three-point percentage this season (36.2 percent) ranks higher than any season in Lance Stephenson’s career. Barnes set a career high in threes made and taken this past season. Now, some of those shots will go towards Stephenson who saw his shooting nosedive off of a steep cliff. It goes beyond just shooting. It bleeds into his rebounding, his passing, his defense, and his attitude when things aren’t going well.
One of the things that teams looked at when gauging Stephenson’s value in the free agent market this past offseason was his ability to be a poor man’s Dwyane Wade in some ways. He could drive to the rim, he could handle the ball, he could rebound a little bit, and he could also set some teammates up while playing passable defense. But there was a lot of discontent from his teammates in Indiana during his final season there. Some accused him of stealing rebounds, some reports had him hunting for assists rather than playing within the flow of the offense, and playing defense only when he wanted to. Gregg Doyle’s article from last May speaks to a lot of this. Lance will do what Lance wants to do. And that’s not in the Clippers best interest with so much riding on this.
The Clippers are a team on the brink of greatness. They can reach out and nearly touch it. It’s a fingertip away from their grasp. Trading for Lance Stephenson can either be acquiring an extra two inches in your reach or having your arm gnawed off by the Indominus Rex. There’s no middle ground here. At least, not likely. Lance presents a ton of questions and very little answers right now. Perhaps the Clippers decide to move on from Jamal Crawford in the next several weeks in order to pave the way for Stephenson to take over as the main bench guy, alongside Austin Rivers. No one knows. It’s speculation at this point but it’s also all we have.
Two things are for certain with this move; the Clippers will get younger and they will most certainly get wackier. If things are going well, Lance Stephenson makes sense. It’s when things don’t go well, however, that you start to see the true character of a person. When things weren’t going well for Lance, he was practically acting like a petulant child and forcing Roy Hibbert to drag him up the court. This is what the Clippers will have to deal with. Everything. From his bad shooting to his bad play to his bad mouth to his bad attitude to his bad common sense; all for just a taste of that Born Ready who popped up every now and then. It’ll all be on full display. The Clippers are playing Russian roulette with a loaded Uzi in the hope that it jams for 82 games in the regular season and then however long in the postseason.
And that’s just in the locker room. On the floor, it’s a jumbled mess if the Clippers want to throw Stephenson out there with the likes of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. They’re trying to create space in an offensive system that has the likes of Jordan and, now, Stephenson out there together at times. It’s almost as if the team is trying to reinvent offense by using the Chinese finger trap technique; the closer you push everything together, the looser it becomes. That’s not the way it’ll work. At least not in theory. And theories are all we got right now. In theory, it means less space for Griffin and Jordan to operate and more help defense to come off of the wing if that’s where Stephenson is playing at that time.
Defensively, the Clippers are clinging to the lost hope that this next guy they bring in can actually defend at a high enough level. We’ve seen the failures in recent history. But for as much credit as Lance gets for being a good (or even great) defender, he’s still got a lot of hiccups on that end. He only plays defense when he feels the drive to do so and he still gets beat quite a bit. He’s not a stopper. Here’s more of a nuisance; getting into the heads of players with antics and physicality that might not fly all the time. And the Clippers cannot afford this guy that they just traded for – this guy that they just invested so much into as a reclamation projection – doing idiotic things to scuttle the team’s chances.
It’ll be up to Doc Rivers and Chris Paul to reign Stephenson in early on. It’ll be up to Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J.Redick to provide him with support after that. Paul and Stephenson will clash. A lot. They’re bound to. If Lance can’t shape up with Chris, though, then his career might be irremediable. In some ways, this is a move to save both entities. For Lance, if he can rekindle his 2013-14 wizardry, it’ll do wonders for him and his career. If not, and his mischievousness and play gets worse, then he’s a lost cause. For Los Angeles, if he can give them life then it’ll help them go deeper in the playoffs than they ever have. However, if not, they’ll be looking at themselves in the mirror in a complete “what if?” scenario. 2013-14 Lance is in there somewhere. It’s up to him, and them, to bring him out once more.
But let’s face facts here for a moment, if you will. This upcoming 2015-16 season might be the last hurrah for this current core in their “prime,” so to speak. After this, the Clippers are flying into the next several years with nary a clue as to what might or might not happen. Take the financials out of the equation. Look just at the player(s) in this deal. Stephenson is volatile. A rumbling volcano set to blow at any moment. The Clippers are a team on the brink with a core intact that needs to win now. Dealing two vital pieces for this one malcontent is a dangerous game to be playing. If he is on, though, Stephenson could, in theory, provide the spark that ignites their postseason run. However, if he is not, then he could provide the spark that eventually spills magma all over the city.
This one move is a huge gamble. The Clippers are Edward Norton in “Rounders.” They’re constantly trying to fix their luck and never can. The problem is that the Clippers think they’re Matt Damon’s character. They’re not Mike. They’re Worm. They’re constantly getting in their own way rather than letting the game come to them. And, sooner or later, it’s going to catch up to them. For their sake, they better hope they don’t go bust. Stephenson can certainly be the all-in gamble that pays off or he can be the all-in gamble that has you having to pay up to Teddy KGB. Either way, someone is getting paid their money. Clippers need to pray they’re on the receiving end and not on the paying end.
There are vast questions that the Clippers have floating around them at this juncture. Is Stephenson good enough? Does he fit? How will he play? Honestly, no one knows. No one does. Based on last season, Stephenson isn’t worth the time. Two years ago, though, he was worth time because he was putting in the effort. He needs to find that again. Otherwise, both he and the Clippers will look like laughingstocks. That can’t happen with Chris Paul and company so close to what has eluded them for so long. Stephenson has to pay off. He must. Only Lance knows how Lance will play. The Clippers just hope he can be the answer to the questions they’ve been asking about their own ceiling and their own problems. We won’t know for a while. We won’t know until the answers are given. We won’t know until it’s too late.