After making a convincing yet failed push for Carmelo Anthony, it appears the Los Angeles Lakers’ premier free-agent pickups will be Nick Young, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill after offering them a combined $42.75 million in total money.
All three are limited players unlikely to propel the Lakers to the playoffs, which raises the question: Why instead did the team not offer a three-year, $27 million deal with a team option—the exact deal consummated by the Charlotte Hornets—to shooting guard Lance Stephenson?
Whereas Young brings scoring and little else, Stephenson offers scoring in addition to strong defense and playmaking. Whereas Hill provides solid energy and rebounding, the former Pacer brings elite rebounding for his position and an aggressiveness matched by few in the NBA.
Whether the Lakers could have brought in the mercurial yet immensely talented 23-year-old is unclear, but what is clear is that L.A. has done little to turn things around after a season that saw it miss the playoffs for just the sixth time in its history.
The Lakers appear to be trying to bring in talented players that will help them compete this season. After all, there will be no reward for losing this year, as their first-round pick lies in the hands of the Phoenix Suns due to the failed Steve Nash trade. At the same time, they want to maintain financial flexibility with short-term deals to chase future free-agent stars.
Adding Stephenson to L.A.’s roster with the same short-term deal he reached with the Hornets would have been the perfect balance of these two goals. In fact, he may even develop into the type of superstar the team has desperately been hoping to land in free agency.
There is no denying that the Lakers needed to bring in some serious talent to surround Kobe Bryant. Stephenson may not be a superstar at the moment, and admittedly he may never end up becoming one, but his potential has been far from reached.
During each season of his young NBA career, Stephenson has demonstrated major improvements in virtually every aspect of his game. In fact, Pacers team president Larry Bird recently proclaimed that Stephenson was the most talented player on the Pacers’ roster.
“When I’d go to practices, when he was on, he was by far our best player. And he worked. If you work as hard as he does, you're going to get better,” Bird said.
In many ways, he was the Pacers’ best player. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game last season, leading the Pacers in rebounds and assists last year. Despite finishing third in points, he was arguably Indiana’s best passer and playmaker.
One of the Lakers’ biggest needs was a player who can make plays for others. Acquiring Stephenson would have achieved this end, as he is a very capable ball-handler and facilitator who could have reduced the table-setting burden on Bryant. In fact, Stephenson led the NBA in triple-doubles last year with five, and he showed a consistent ability to create plays.
He can create shots for himself and his teammates with his aggressive, attacking style, despite having mainly played in lineups that struggled to space the floor. Indeed, Indiana’s driving lanes were often tight because the team lacked a power forward with consistent range beyond 18 feet.
Even with limited space, he showed that he can be a real freight train—a strong and dynamic finisher at the rim. He was able to weave his way inside often, taking the same percentage of shots within the restricted area as LeBron James, and he connected on nearly 70 percent of them.
Stephenson not only makes explosive, highlight reel-worthy plays, but he is also a very gritty player who has shown a clear willingness to rebound and defend.
He corralled 18.1 percent of available defensive rebounds and 11.4 percent of total rebounds while on the court last year, the best rebounding rate among NBA 2-guards last season.
He is also a standout defender, and he has learned good habits in Indiana’s defensive system that likely would have translated to Byron’s Scott system. He smothers ball-handlers, only cheats off of shooters who deserve such neglect and generally sticks to the scheme.
He also bothers opponents with his superior length, possessing a wingspan over 6’10”. He is also tenacious, plays with an edge and competes hard, which counts for a lot in the NBA.
Yet despite his incredible youth, strong work ethic and superb level of skill, Stephenson has garnered a number of criticisms, many of which are unfounded.
At first glance, he might look the part of a scorer who needs the ball in his hands, but he actually used just 19 percent of Indiana’s possessions while on the floor last season, a usage rate very low for a borderline All-Star. In other words, he is not the ball-dominant scorer he seems, a quality that would have fit well on a Lakers team still aiming to run its offense through Bryant.
Fans might also think that Stephenson is selfish, but he is actually far from it. In fact, he was the Pacers’ best passer last season. He can read the floor from the perimeter, understanding when cutters will come open, and he can also dump the ball off to his big men while attacking the rim.
From antics such as blowing in LeBron’s ear and joining opponent huddles, Stephenson might also resemble somewhat of a misfit. But this type of behavior also demonstrates that he did not accept losing to James’ Miami Heat, unlike his teammates who were unable to pull themselves up out of the apathetic abyss for much of the second half of the season and the playoffs.
That said, Stephenson is not without flaws. But the warts in Stephenson’s game—the occasional immaturity and wild behavior, the aimless over-dribbling, and the inconsistent shooting—are rough spots that young players often learn to improve upon and minimize.
In the coming years, it is likely he will continue to improve by developing a more consistent mid-range jumper in addition to learning how to take advantage of his bullying post-up game. In L.A., he would have had an ideal learning situation playing alongside Bryant.
Besides, with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and higher salary cap looming in two years, Lance has a carrot in front of him—a reason to continue growing and improving.
Unfortunately for L.A. and its front office, he will be doing so in Charlotte instead of L.A.