Last season was such a shock to the system of Lance Stephenson that it went down as one of the worst shooting seasons in the history of the NBA. He’s one of just six players ever to log at least 1500 minutes in a season, attempt 100 threes, and still finish with an Effective Field Goal Percentage of under 40 percent. Out of those six, he’s the only guy to ever have a True Shooting Percentage under 42 percent, as well. However, despite all of that, Stephenson can still be a positive contributor to a team if he can get back to doing the things that he excels at. In this edition of the Film Room, we’re going to examine some of those very things.
To say that Lance Stephenson’s time with the Charlotte Hornets went poorly would not only be a gross understatement, but it would not even do the entire ordeal justice. Two months ago on this very site, there was an article about whether Stephenson was a question or an answer. It's now two months later and we still don’t know; but that’s expected seeing as how the season has yet to start and all that the Los Angeles Clippers have received from Stephenson so far are great quotes about how he’s in the gym training hard and wants to redeem himself.
If Stephenson were to redeem himself this upcoming season then step one on that path would be to say all the right things. He’s presently doing that. Step two would be understanding his value and sticking to what he does best. Much in the same way that Josh Smith has to stay within himself as a player, the same is true for Lance Stephenson. Doing too much can be a problem and last year, because of a tad of redundancy between himself and Kemba Walker, Stephenson struggled and could never get proper footing in Charlotte. Perhaps a change of scenery is what’s best for him. Especially if that change coincides with a team who will preach to Stephenson about his value on the court if he continues to do what he exceeds at.
Despite the down year last year, Stephenson still did produce some quality plays here and there. It’s always best to remember that he’s still just 24 years old – he’ll turn 25 in September – and still possesses quite a bit of talent. Last year could possibly be a complete aberration. It also could not be. On the first few plays that go under the microscope, we will see one of the things that Stephenson can do extremely well; be a nuisance on defense.
This is a crucial early fourth quarter possession in a tight ballgame. Shane Larkin of the New York Knicks dribbles into the frontcourt where he passes off to Lance Thomas. Thomas then tries to hit Langston Galloway with a pass just beyond the three point line but the issue with that is the fact that Stephenson reads this play perfectly and darts in to steal the pass. That’s only half the play, though. After the deflection and steal, Lance gets his head up and reads how poorly the transition defense happens to be. He then weaves his way between Galloway, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Travis Wear before executing a perfect dump pass to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist when Stephenson sees Thomas caught between a rock and a hard place. Because of the rolling Jason Maxiell, Thomas can’t just step up on Stephenson or move to cover the roll. He’s just stuck there. Stephenson passes to Kidd-Gilchrist and the Hornets get two points at a critical juncture of the game.
Sometimes when sifting through film, you find plays where a player impacts both ends in a short span of time. This happens to be one of those plays. Stephenson correctly diagnosed when to jump the passing lane, hustled to steal the deflected ball, got his head up and located how poorly the defense was reacting since no one stopped the ball, and then penetrated into the paint well enough to find a baseline cutter of sorts. If Stephenson can make plays like this, then perhaps there’s still hope he can be a valuable contributor off the bench.
Yet again we have a pivotal play down the stretch of this very same game. It starts out with Langston Galloway dribbling into the frontcourt before passing off to Jason Smith between the elbow and three point line. As the play develops, watch how Stephenson’s man, who is Tim Hardaway Jr here, tries to sneak backdoor but can’t shake Stephenson loose. Due to this, Smith has to pass the ball back to Galloway after finding no passing angle. The Knicks go into their secondary action which is to run Hardaway off of a double screen in an attempt to free him up for a look. Instead, Stephenson simply bounces off of Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas en route to stealing the pass. This is where Lance’s body can help him defensively. He was pesky enough to stay with Galloway but strong enough to skirt by the two screens and jump the passing lane.
Stephenson steals the ball, motors into the frontcourt, and lays it up and in for a five point Charlotte lead with just over four minutes to go. Here’s the thing about that game. Stephenson finished with only six points but his two steals led to two buckets for his own team and helped Charlotte win this game by five points. Even when he shoots poorly, Stephenson can provide some quality plays that help your team if he stays within himself and commits to doing the little stuff. Yes, these plays were against the Knicks but they still highlight what he is capable of doing.
On this play, we get to see the tenacity and grit of Stephenson. So much happens on this play that it’d take too long to go over every aspect with a fine-toothed comb. Instead, let’s simplify it. Stephen Curry takes a three with Kemba Walker in his face, the rebound is contested for between Lance Stephenson and Andrew Bogut. Unfortunately for Charlotte, the ball takes a bounce into the hands of Harrison Barnes, who misses his mid-range jumper after Stephenson fell to the ground after colliding. Bogut gets the ensuing offensive rebound and tries to execute a simple pass to a cutting Barnes at the hoop but Stephenson is there to steal it. In the end, Lance Stephenson gets a steal. Before that, though, he was fighting for a rebound, on the floor, and then hustling.
Safe to say that Stephenson could have given up on this play once Barnes got the ball and went up with his jumper. Except he didn’t. He still got back into the play and saved an easy bucket by just not giving up. As soon as he saw Barnes start to gather towards the hoop, he darted in to steal the pass from Bogut. Little things matter. Even stuff so little as to just get back into the play after something doesn’t go your way. Plays like this do not happen often but broken plays do happen. It doesn’t hurt to have someone who competes like a junkyard dog on those plays. While Stephenson is a capable defender, his "want to" on that end of the floor is what could really help the Clippers this season.
Another aspect of Stephenson’s game that will be a nice little addition to the Clippers bench is his playmaking. On this play, we see Stephenson get the ball just beyond the three point line and run right around a flat-footed Randy Foye. This means that JaVale McGee has to step up and attempt to help. But, in doing so, McGee leaves his feet and his man when going for the block. Stephenson jump passes to Cody Zeller for an easy dunk and it increases Charlotte’s lead. This is just a really nice play all-around by Stephenson and Zeller. The second Stephenson sees McGee step up and jump, he passes to Zeller. The second Zeller saw what McGee did, he filled the gap under the hoop that McGee vacated. It was picture perfect.
One of the things that Lance Stephenson can do quite well is get downhill and be a playmaker, as shown by this play. That hasn’t gone away despite the poor season he had last year in Charlotte. His ability to get into the paint, draw defenders, and dish the ball really is a welcomed addition. While the Clippers have guys who can sort of do that in Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, the bench now possesses another two players who can do that in Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith. The more the merrier. It never hurts to have guys who can just make things happen by being adept playmakers. That’s what Stephenson can be for this team.
Use your imagination here for a second if you will. Look at Cody Zeller and imagine that it’s Blake Griffin in his place. Got it? Good. Lance Stephenson gets the ball after a rebound by Jason Maxiell and pushes in transition. He weasels his way through the defense with an array of moves, including a little stutter step hesitation crossover. Stephenson goes between Alonzo Gee and Ty Lawson before finding Blake Griffin (read: Cody Zeller) deep inside the paint. The big has a little – in this case, it’s Randy Foye – on him and takes the mouse in the house all the way to the mouse trap for the easy deuce. What does Blake Griffin do a lot of? He makes rim runs with deep seals in transition. What did Lance Stephenson do here? Located the big man who had a deep seal against a way smaller defender. You could definitely see this happening a few times next season.
"Bully Ball" is part of Stephenson’s game. It’s part of how he grew up in Brooklyn and it’s what allowed him to stay on the court against the stronger, older kids. He grew up fast and he plays hard and physical. This play is no different. He has the ball in transition, dribbles into the frontcourt, gets Jimmy Butler to switch off of him and instead winds up being guarded by former Defensive Player of the Year winner Joakim Noah. Stephenson realizes that a big is on him, doesn’t settle for a jumper, and instead takes the ball right to the rack by lowering his shoulder into Noah’s gut and pushing him backwards. It’s quite impressive. Stephenson gets the bucket and Noah is left standing on the baseline wondering what just happened.
There’s no elaborate set here; no complicated motion offense. It’s straight bully stuff by Stephenson against a center renowned for his defense. Yes, Noah declined last season but he’s still a quality defender. Stephenson moved him out of the way like Noah was a bug on the windshield and Stephenson was the windshield wiper. Since he’s going to see some action off the bench this season, as well as play with starters, this kind of play by Stephenson could be something we see out of him going forward. It’s one of the things he does well. Going downhill is never a bad thing for him and he showcases on this play why he’s dangerous when doing so.
First things first on this play, the Charlotte Hornets are getting obliterated by the Utah Jazz. Let’s get that out of the way. They’re losing by 37 on the road and the fourth quarter just began. While some might see that as a reason to dismiss this play entirely, you have to pay attention to what happens here. It’s really quite amazing. Stephenson gets the ball far away from the hoop and just beyond the three point line. He’s being defended one-on-one by Elijah Millsap, who is actually a really good defender. The Hornets attempt to set him a screen but it just brings Rudy Gobert right on over and Gobert helps to trap Stephenson and it allows Millsap to recover. Stephenson probes for a second then gives a quick right-to-left crossover to get by Millsap and get into the paint. Unfortunately, that usually means bad things against the Jazz; except not on this play. Trevor Booker steps up to show on a contest but bails. However, that still leaves Gobert to contest the shot and he does. It didn’t matter, though. Stephenson still scored a floating right-handed layup over him.
Let’s break this play down a little bit more to understand just how impressive this was. Elijah Millsap is a quality defender who hounds opposing ball-handlers. Rudy Gobert is most likely the top defensive big man in the game today. Gobert impacts nearly every possession just by being on the court. He traps Stephenson extremely well, recovers to protect the roll, and contested the living hell out of the layup attempt. Yet, despite all of that, Stephenson still scored. It shows a glimmer of hope for Stephenson as a downhill threat when he gets time on the floor this season. Perhaps, just perhaps, Stephenson can give the Clippers a certain quality they’ve lacked recently; a bench guard who actually likes to get to the rim and make good things happen when doing so. (Paging Eric Bledsoe.)
This is yet another instance of Stephenson performing quite well against a great defensive player. He’s originally matched up against Klay Thompson, who is a damn good defender in his own right, but the Hornets set a screen with Marvin Williams that sees the end result being Draymond Green getting thrown onto Stephenson. Green finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this past season and was voted to the All-Defensive First Team. Stephenson clearly didn’t care about any of that. He throws a few probe and crossover moves at Green before getting Draymond off-balance enough to get by him and finish with his left hand. It’s really something else. Andrew Bogut couldn’t leave Al Jefferson for fear of a dump off pass and dunk. Instead, the Golden State Warriors gambled and left Draymond Green on an island – which is the right play here – against Lance Stephenson. Unfortunately for the Warriors, and fortunately for Stephenson, it didn’t go quite as planned for Golden State.
Think about the last three plays in this Film Room. We’re only focusing on the good qualities of Stephenson since that’s what you obviously hope to get out of him but just look at the last three plays. On the first one, he bullied former DPoY Joakim Noah. On the second one, he crossed over Elijah Millsap and finished over probable future DPoY Rudy Gobert. On this last one, he shimmied around runner-up DPoY Draymond Green and finished a left-handed layup against him. These are bright spots in an otherwise dismal campaign for Lance Stephenson. But they’re also things that he can do next season off the bench or in spot minutes with starters. These skills do translate. He does miss jumpers and he does go one-on-one too much sometimes but rein him in can be done; especially if these are the kinds of decisions and plays a "rein in" Stephenson can make.
Lance Stephenson shot so poorly from three this past year that he was actually the worst three point shooter in NBA history with a minimum of 100 attempts in any season. You don’t shoot 17.1 percent from three with over 100 attempts by being good. You can’t be worse than Micheal Ray Richardson at shooting from deep. You just can’t. The good news for Lance is that he was trending upwards prior to this past season. He shot 33.0 percent from three in 2012-13 and shot 35.2 percent from three in 2013-14. One of the things Stephenson did well the two seasons prior to last year was shoot corner threes. According to Basketball Reference, Stephenson shot 42.5 percent on corner threes over his last two seasons with the Indiana Pacers. That number was a woeful 11.1 percent last season. However, just 9 of his 105 three point attempts from last season even came from corners. 108 of his 432 three point attempts the previous two seasons were from corner spots. Essentially, if Stephenson can get back to shooting threes from the corners then he could be fine.
The reason for the three point talk is this play right here. This isn’t a corner three or some fancy look after great ball movement. This is just a three point attempt after an offensive rebound and two passes. Nothing crazy, nothing flashy, just effective. Cody Zeller gets the rebound, kicks it real quick to Kemba Walker who delivers a little ball fake and passes to Lance Stephenson just to the right of straightaway from three. Klay Thompson gives a half-hearted contest but it doesn’t matter as Stephenson makes the trey. These were few and far between for Stephenson last year. He did have a double overtime buzzer-beating three that he banked in against the Atlanta Hawks on November 7th. It put the Hornets at .500 while putting the Hawks at 1-3. Let’s just say their seasons went in opposite directions after that.
With the Clippers this upcoming season, Stephenson is going to get super wide open looks from three because, well, he shot poorly from deep last season and the Clippers possess the offensive talent – namely J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan – to space the floor whenever Stephenson is in the game. Obviously you can’t play six guys at once but four of those five listed will be on the floor at times this year and it will help Stephenson generate open looks from three, especially from corner spots. Same thing if Josh Smith is out there instead of one of the big men. With Smith’s playmaking and Stephenson’s possible rebound year, the Clippers could do great things. The bench lacked playmakers and athletic defenders who could push the ball in transition. They have that now. Stephenson is a vital cog in the 2015-16 machine.
Speaking of athletic defenders who could push the ball in transition, here’s that very thing from Lance Stephenson during the 2013 NBA Playoffs. This is a game that the Pacers eventually win and they end up ousting the New York Knicks from the playoffs by doing so. On this play, Stephenson skies up for the rebound after a Raymond Felton miss and beats Tyson Chandler to the ball. He then zooms the length of the court by shocking the Knicks defense, who refuse to stop the ball here, and getting into the paint for a layup. J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, and Carmelo Anthony are basically mere traffic cones to Stephenson on this play. Smith lollygags, Carmelo doesn’t even do much, and Felton just gets blasted under the hoop by a hard-charging Stephenson.
Plays like these shape games, series, and seasons. They seem inconsequential at the time because it’s just a guy going coast-to-coast for a layup; but it can energize the crowd at home games, demoralize crowds at away games, and ultimately sets the tone for the team that they’re going to steamroll whoever is in front of them. This is the Lance Stephenson that the Clippers hope they get; the one who can bully defenders as well as annoy offensive players with his grit, determination, and hardwork. If the Clippers get the Lance Stephenson from his last two seasons in Indiana, then there’s no telling what the team is capable of accomplishing. However, if they get the Lance who couldn’t buy a bucket from outside ten feet in Charlotte then times will be tough. Still, you have to be excited to see what Lance can bring to the team. He’s an enigma wrapped inside of a Rubik’s Cube. When unleashed, look out.