It’s hard to tell why exactly it all went wrong. I mean, the fit of Stephenson on the Hornets roster is bad, however, no one else but Lance should be responsible for joining the shortlist of possibly the nine worst NBA shooting seasons ever (you can tweak it many ways and I went the route of requiring 8 field goal attempts per game to ensure a considerable volume of pathetic shooting).
(Note how Larry Hughes and Chris Porter both represent the 2000-01 Warriors and challenge our duo of all-time horrible shooting of Lance Stephenson and Gary Neal.)
First off, Stephenson doesn’t fit in the same offense as Al Jefferson. The combination of Stephenson and Jefferson produced the worst offensive rating (94.3) out of all of the Jefferson two-man line-ups. A wanderer on the court of basketball by philosophy and a bad catch-and-shooter even in his better days (33.8% from the field his last season in Indiana), Stephenson isn’t suited for waiting around on the perimeter to space the court around Jefferson.
Lance much rather improvises on his own, either off the dribble or searching for cutting opportunities while Big Al goes to work in the post.
Stephenson would actually turn back with his face to Jefferson on this possession but long after the opportunity of a cut for the lay-up was available.
For better or for worse, he acknowledges his limitations as a three-point shooter and didn’t exactly use Jefferson’s post-ups to his advantage for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Unfortunately, these two were well known tendencies of Lance’s before we signed him. And it’s not me ridiculing the signing in hindsight. As I already said on the column dedicated to GM Rich Cho, I understood the signing at the time and I do understand it now. It was a decent bet to take, yet it hasn’t worked out, the bet being the possibility of talent figuring itself out.
You’d be right, however, to point out that it isn’t as simple as Stephenson not fitting in Alfense. He’s been an all-around net negative and we, in fact, play the best whenever Stephenson sits (99.8 – 100.4, yes, we’re bad enough for our best scenario to be a net rating of -0.6).
That’s where explanations from me would be pure speculation. The only thing I can do at this point is to show examples of how it isn’t working.
I mean, can there truly be any reasons for one to take more shots charted by nba.com as “open” (closest defender being 4-6 feet close) and “wide open” (more than 6 feet) than last season, yet suffer such a drop-off in percentages? Percentage on his “open” looks is down from 45.7% to 37.6%, while what has happened on “wide open” shots is mind-boggling – a drop-off from 40.5% to 22.1% (interestingly enough he’s been more precise both in Indiana and Charlotte when more closely guarded than with a ton of space, with the percentages on such shots, of course, being better for Indy Lance).
Lance bricking his way through a crusade of pull-up mid-range jumpers and recording a career-low in field goal attempts at the rim seem to support the logic of his groin injury bothering him. Perhaps, he indeed has to settle for mid-range looks because of his injury, which then in turn he can’t knock down because of discomfort.
Some quotes by Zach Lowe on Bill Simmons’s podcast, which I wish any other NBA journalist would have followed up, seemed to indicate that the groin indeed might be a significant problem.
Zach Lowe: “You know, look, he [Stephenson] had a groin injury in the pre-season and the people with the team say, you know, that just kind of really hampered both his jumper and his ability to find his place early on, you know, where I’m gonna get my shots and how I’m gonna play with this new bunch of guys […] But the bottom line is he can’t shoot, he’s not shooting, he can’t make shots. And if he can’t make shots, it makes harder for him to get to the rim and if he can’t get to the rim, he’s not really doing much.”
The interesting part though, the one I wish we had heard more reports on during the rest of the season, was Lowe saying that “his [Lance’s] demeanor has been awful. This is not like us from a thousand miles away saying this. I was there. People hate it there. It’s a real thing. The team is not thrilled with what they have got out of him, let’s put it that way.”
That’s something that might mean many things. For one, I wouldn’t expect anyone to particularly enjoy his signature arm waving in expectancy of receiving the ball or the temper tantrums he pulls off when team-mates don’t perform the way he pleases.
Stephenson going out on a one-man full-court press became a staple of his hissy fits. Usually they would end in unnecessary fouls in the other team’s back-court. That’s if coach Steve Clifford, a believer in giving up the offensive glass to ensure transition defense, didn’t yell out his lungs ordering Stephenson to get his behind back on defense.
Coach Clifford would definitely be the lead candidate for the position of being one “who is not thrilled with what we have got out of” Stephenson. A not-so-talked-about part of Lance’s bad fit is the difference between having Al Jefferson and Roy Hibbert as your last man back. Our starting wings Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson are accustomed to diligently closing down the middle, limiting opponent drives and playing as a part of a conservative system. Meanwhile Stephenson just might be used to a bit more of freedom on defense with Hibbert backing him up in Indiana. Just like on offense, he can be a free spirit who takes off on his own defensive journey before getting burnt by the assignment he left. His habits seem to be too outlandish to consistently be a part of a conservative defensive scheme.
Such errors lead to coach Clifford benching Stephenson for the rest of the game back when he was a full-time starter. A great example of that is the Portland game where Lance left Wes Matthews for two consecutive three-pointers on some overly aggressive weak-side rotations.
The main reason for me saying that Stephenson might be just too used to playing with Hibbert is his on-ball defense. From time to time he’ll furiously pressure his man as if he were a dog with rabies. That just might explain why he was so much more successful on defense for the Pacers. Jefferson won’t bail you out like Hibbert could when he’s the second-line of defense on such plays. Roy’s presence just might have been responsible for the ability of Stephenson to be a better (and an aggressive) defender in Indiana.
Then there’s always the possibility that some guys, just like Hibbert last year, weren’t too thrilled about Stephenson stealing their rebounds. I’ll remind you that way back in October Lance started the season off averaging Darrell Walker-like numbers by collecting 10.7 rebounds per game.
The accusation that he’s usually grabbing rebounds which make little impact is there for a reason. Per SportVU data, he grabs the least meaningful rebounds in the league among all non-point guards who average at least four rebounds per game. Only 17.7% of his snatched up rebounds are contested (have an opponent within 3.5 feet of it).
And, hey, there isn’t necessarily shame in having uncontested rebounds. There are back-court players who mostly just scoop up the type of rebounds who bounce far away from the basket. Although, of course, it’s possible to have a rate like MKG does at 30.9% (or the little pest Patrick Beverley who’s miraculously at 31.2%).
Lance, however, is one to often swoop in among the bigs and snatch them up in the paint. Him forgetting about everything around him when searching for a board has a tendency to hurt our defense.
Lastly, I have to repeat something, which I’ve touched on before, about his offense. Despite his ability and willingness to facilitate, I’m not really fond of Stephenson as the primary ball handler after seeing him work as one for the better part of his stint with the second unit.
If this makes any sense, I feel like Stephenson wants to be the one who makes “THE play” way too often. The way he approaches the possession of the ball is one of a player who’s keen on ending the attack himself. Whether it’s him hot-dogging and attempting something spectacular, his moves taking way too much time or him threading the needle with his passes, they all are plays that have a large probability of being the last ones of the possession, that either being a turnover, an indeed open look for a team-mate or a situation where Lance has made up his mind that he will be the one who shoots the ball.
Lance tends to set his sights on a possible pass way too fast by seemingly deciding that this will be the play he’ll make. Per example, possibly his favorite pass, trying to split the pick-n-roll with a bounce pass, frequently ends in a turnover.
Stephenson will also force passes in less understandable situations (and trying to make “the play”). His body language and reaction after the supposed turnover by a team-mate leaves much to be desired.
Moreover, it’s hard for me to determine who should I blame more for the following point. Stephenson relied too heavy on Jason Maxiell and Bismack Biyombo in the pick-n-roll. Or you can turn it around and say that he likes to play the pick-n-roll, yet some of his partners aren’t exactly masters of it.
Per the fantastic nbawowy.com, both Maxiell’s (from 12.4% to 14.6%) and Biyombo’s (from 11.8% to 15.6%) usage rate rises whenever they play with Lance thus backing my feeling that they do get involved more with Stephenson on the court.
I might sound hypocritical bringing this up as I praised Stephenson for connecting with Biyombo (in the column dedicated to him) on alley-oops but, hey, overall Biz is not a particularly good target. Stephenson feeding him more heavily than others do and Biz having a one-track mind once he catches the ball will sometimes have ugly results.
Both Biz and Max are poor pick-n-roll options as Biyombo ranks in the 45.5 percentile, while Maxiell is at 39.6.
All of that results in Stephenson ranking 59th out of 66 regular ball handlers in the pick-n-roll (ones who have ran at least 200 pick-n-rolls) in points per possession (0.67). Meanwhile his offensive rating has been the worst in the league among non-tanking heavy-rotation players (ones who average at least 25 minutes per game).
Only a bunch of Philly guys (Luc Mbah a Moute, Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson and Tony Wroten) and Andrea Bargnani rank lower than him and rightfully so. If you’re over 20% in usage rate and finish possessions with either a jump-shot, worthy for one of the worst shooting seasons ever, a pass to a mediocre pick-n-roll target or a turnover, you aren’t likely to rank as a good offensive player.
It’s hard to see a realistic way out of the Lance Stephenson experience. His value is at an all-time low so the best course of action would be to let this season play out and decline our team option next summer if Lance repeats with a bad performance.
I have to admit though that if I were a part of the coaching staff I would have no idea what to do with him. I guess you just hand him the back-up 2-guard role and see whether he’s ready to play at a higher level. Hopefully, Gerald Henderson or a worthy replacement will be there to fill out the primary shooting guard position.