News came out on Monday that the Memphis Grizzlies opted to decline their team option for Lance Stephenson's $9.4 million salary next season. This move gives Memphis a massive amount of cap room which they could potentially use to re-sign Mike Conley and add another key free agent. Whether the Grizzlies find a suitable target for that room or not, they could attempt to re-sign Lance for a lower amount than his $9.4 million option would have given him.
Lance, of course, was highly successful for the Indiana Pacers before leaving in free agency for the Charlotte Hornets, where he flopped and was traded to the Clippers after one season for a return package of Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. He had a troubled time in Los Angeles, where his inconsistent energy and production were disappointing despite his flashes of brilliance. The Clippers form of Lance was exactly the type of player that a contending team can use intermittently as an asset, but his often-distracting antics were exactly the type of behavior that didn't live up to his salary, which was fourth highest on the team.
Reports around the trade deadline indicated that Doc Rivers would still be interested in re-signing Lance this summer if the opportunity became available. Now, the Clippers are in that exact situation. Lance essentially has unlimited options as a free agent, and one of those could be to re-join the Clippers if there is mutual interest, which is essentially impossible to predict. Is Doc really as open to a Lance reunion as has been indicated by comments from him and Clippers players? Would Lance even pick up the phone after the Clippers traded him away mid-season?
A quick note here on the NBA's re-acquirement clause: if a player is traded, he can't be re-acquired by his old team until one year from the trade or the July 1st after he is released from his new team, whichever is earlier. In this case, the Clippers would have been ineligible from signing Lance for the remainder of the season had Memphis cut him immediately after the trade, but since July 1st will have passed, and a new season begun, they would hypothetically be able to sign him back.
There are seemingly endless questions around an undeniably talented player with solid numbers who shifts between detracting from his team's success and being the best player on the floor in a bipolar nature. His reputation as a bad locker room guy is well-circulated, though it hardly seems to be true given the extent to which people in the Clippers and Grizzlies organizations have gone to debunk it. Even the coaches in Charlotte recommended his character to Doc, even though the basketball side of things hadn't worked out.
Last year, Lance appeared in 43 games as a Clipper and averaged 4.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in under 16 minutes a night. Once he arrived on an injury-riddled Grizzlies roster, he had more freedom and minutes, seeing averages of 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 26.6 minutes.
What the hell does it all mean? Lance Stephenson can obviously contribute to an NBA basketball team, but he obviously needs the right situation in order to consistently maximize his contributions and minimize his chances of falling into his bad habits, which include poor body language and complaining, which in turn fuel disengaged defense and chucking. He'll also need to do a little bit of self-evaluation and work on his mental fortitude so that the definition of "right situation" can apply beyond a perfectly tailored situation in Indiana and a completely chaotic, anything-goes situation in Memphis.
Doc Rivers' comments immediately after the Clippers acquired Lance last summer pointed towards his future role being as a jack-of-all-trades off of the bench, not miscast as a three-and-D small forward with the starting unit. But, as the season got underway, it became clear that without a real option at starting small forward, Lance would get a shot there, and despite the numbers being good it wasn't always pretty and the fit was definitely questionable. When Lance was moved to the second unit, he struggled to consistently contribute without the ball in his hands, as established backup guards Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford dominated the ball handling duties.
Attempting to miscast Lance as the Clippers' starting small forward again this summer would likely bring about the same poor results as last year. Trying to fit Lance into the Clippers' second unit alongside Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers would also be duplicating last season's failures. However, if the Clippers end up moving on from one or both of those backup guards this summer (and they're both unrestricted free agents), then Lance might be worth a phone call as the jack-of-all-trades reserve that Doc had originally alluded to.
It's a long shot, and we have no idea what types of offers Lance will end up getting, but right now we know one thing: the two free agents that Doc Rivers has confirmed interest in this summer are Kevin Durant and Lance Stephenson. The rest is all speculation until the moratorium begins Thursday night.