Last night, Lance Stephenson had one of his best games as a Clipper--16 points on 6-7 shooting, a perfect 2-2 from three-point range, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a block in 22 minutes of playing time. In a less meaningful performance, Lance shot 4-4 from the field and scored 10 points in garbage time against Toronto last weekend, his last appearance for the Clippers.
Nevertheless, Doc Rivers remarked after the game that one standout performance from Lance wouldn't be enough to guarantee him minutes when Paul Pierce returns Sunday against the Bulls. However, one would hope that encouraging showings from Lance such as this one would at least encourage Doc to be slightly more willing to view Lance as a suitable alternative to the Clippers' other reserves in certain situations. Lance began the season as a starter, and despite the Clippers' starting lineup performing relatively well with him, he certainly didn't look great at times--getting lost on both offense and defense. He certainly showed signs--aggressive drives to the rim off of a ball reversal, energetic on-ball defense against premier players, but he was also responsible for turnovers and blown coverages, ultimately leading to Doc Rivers benching him for the then-hot-shooting Wesley Johnson, who proved his own defensive insufficiency and was subsequently benched for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who has served as a starter for the last 31 games.
It's somewhat of a digression, but I'll briefly address the Clippers' overall small forward situation, if only because it provides necessary context through which to view Lance's situation. Currently, the team starts Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and they're facing the same dilemma that Luc has posed to each of his teams throughout his career--he's a stellar defender at both forward positions, but he's so completely ineffective offensively that it's hard to justify playing him. It's what Clippers fans have long called the "Quentin Ross dilemma" (referring to a time when former coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. had to choose between the high-scoring Corey Maggette or the LRMaM-like Ross). Luc is clearly a drag on the team's offense, but he's managed to find his place in Blake Griffin's absence since he's playing alongside three-point shooters in Wesley Johnson and Paul Pierce. This way, he's able to avoid spotting up and stick to dirty work--little cuts around the basket (which he still isn't all that great at). But, in the long-term, when Griffin returns, Luc will be pushed back to spotting up in the corner and killing possessions by not taking open shots late in the clock when the defense abandons him and the ball finds its way to him. In the longer-term, when the Clippers are dead-locked in a playoff series with an opponent who puts together advanced scouting and game-planning, Luc will likely be abandoned completely, forcing the Clippers' core 4, talented as they are, to play 4-on-5 offensively.
That said, the alternatives haven't been much better, which is why Luc has taken and held the starting spot. Johnson and Stephenson both struggled mightily defensively, with Lance showing inconsistent spurts of on-ball effort paired with apathetic plays and missed rotations. Johnson has progressed within the defensive scheme, but still remains frustratingly challenged on the ball to the point where he's not a tenable option against starting-caliber wings. Furthermore, neither Johnson or Stephenson has shown enough offensively to make up for it--Lance for the reasons outlined at the start of the article, and Johnson due to the fact that even as a "shooter", he's been merely average from beyond the arc (33.7%). For a more consistent offensive threat, or a highly efficient shooter, the Clippers might make the trade-off for a worse defender, but to downgrade to a below-average defender merely for an average offensive return? It's not quite an enticing choice, but Doc's opted to go with the better defender.
Here's my issue with the LRMaM-Johnson combination at SF--Luc doesn't have the offensive potential to be the guy the Clippers need. If he can start shooting 36% from deep on open corner shots, and stop passing them up, when Blake comes back, then he's golden. But he's not going to do that. Wes doesn't have the defensive potential to be the guy the Clippers need. If he morphed in to a Matt Barnes-type gritty above-average defender to pair with his volume shooting, then he's golden. But he's not going to do that. It's far more realistic for Stephenson to grow into what the Clippers need on both ends, or for the Clippers to find someone outside of the present roster, than it is for either of these two players to have a magical mid-season development.
Does Lance have the potential to be the guy the Clippers need? Objectively speaking, yes. Was Lance, in the version of him that we saw in his prior appearances, that guy? Objectively speaking, no. But as he said last night in his halftime interview, he's been coming to meetings and practices early and leaving late, spending extra time with the coaches to learn plays and become comfortable in the system. He's been patient, he's been quiet, and he's worked his ass off--which is quite a thing to say about a player that's long been viewed as troubled and immature. In fact, Lance has been nothing but mature and professional in his time with the Clippers--and it's probably a disservice to Lance that he's constantly grouped with Josh Smith, who was causing locker room issues while in the rotation while Lance continues to plug away (with no issues that I've heard of) while sitting on the bench. Is it unrealistic, all things considered, to think that Lance could have grown and improved in his month away from the rotation? I don't think so.
Can we be sure that Lance has grown and improved? Of course not. We can't be sure that he's going to be the two-way small forward that the Clippers need come playoff time, and to act as though last night's game moved the needle on that likelihood would be a severe overreaction to a clearly unsustainable performance. But we can say that he's most likely to be that guy out of the current options, if only because Luc and Wes surely aren't getting there, despite having higher floors. And, seeing as how most trade targets either look unattainable (Rudy Gay) or underwhelming (P.J. Tucker), Lance might be the best shot the Clippers have at not starting a severely flawed small forward in the playoffs.
This isn't a call for Lance Stephenson to return to the starting lineup, or even for him to play minutes on Sunday. I can't say for certain that he's done anything close to earning the starting SF spot. But, I can say that, for the Clippers' sake, I sure as hell hope he can put it together and do what it takes to earn that spot, because for this team to be their best come playoff time, they'll need better than Mbah a Moute and Johnson can give them.