LA Clippers Desperately Need Lance Stephenson Rebirth for Trade to Pay Off

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2015

Sam Sharpe/USA Today

After almost a year of trade rumors, Lance Stephenson is finally leaving the Charlotte Hornets

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, he's heading to the Los Angeles Clippers:

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

The Clippers have acquired Lance Stephenson in a trade that sends Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes to Charlotte, league sources tell Yahoo.

So, have the Clippers finally received the wing defender they've been jonesing for over the past two seasons? Considering the 24-year-old Stephenson's polarizing history, the answer is unclear. 

The Clippers had alleged chemistry issues this past season, some more public than others. None were more prominent than the rumored relationship issues between DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul that surfaced at the end of the year. Even Dahntay Jones—an end-of-the-bench, midseason addition brought in to help the locker room jell—has alluded to the problems.

"I came to a team that was—the morale was down a little bit when I got here, guys weren't really cheering for each other," Jones told Bleacher Report in late March.  

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Enter Stephenson, an abrasive personality whose character concerns forced the Hornets to shop him almost immediately upon signing him to a three-year deal last summer. With the pact, the Hornets actually take on money (three more years of Spencer Hawes, who's coming off a dreadful season in L.A.) and get older (Hawes is 27, Matt Barnes is 35).

It seems nonsensical, but it shows exactly how toxic Stephenson was during his short time playing for the Hornets.

The basketball side of the deal makes too much sense for L.A. The Clips have a dire need for athleticism on the wing, and they gained some here. 

L.A. needed a defender who can guard explosive 2s and 3s. Stephenson can and will.

It needs a primary ball-handler to run the reserve unit. And no, Austin Rivers, who is a free agent this offseason, isn't fit for that role just because he is ball-dominant. The Clips need a facilitator to play that part, something even Austin's dad, Doc, doesn't think he is, considering L.A. was still cycling in backup point guards after acquiring Rivers midseason.

Lance filled that role with the Pacers. Even if he was a starter during his later years in Indiana, his patterns within Frank Vogel's substitution rotations more resembled that of a reserve. It appears the early plan for the Clippers is to use him similarly, as Wojnarowski wrote:

The Clippers are considering the idea of using Stephenson as the primary ballhandler when All-Star Chris Paul is out of the game, league sources said. Stephenson struggled with the way Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker dominated the ball on offense, and will assuredly find a similar situation with Paul in Los Angeles.

From every perspective you can view it, Stephenson wasn't ready for what 2014-15 brought him. He looked confused and misappropriated playing next to the ball-dominant Kemba Walker, which makes you wonder how he might execute next to Paul. Of course, it's plausible Lance would come off the bench with J.J. Redick remaining in the starting lineup alongside a small forward to be named later.

Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Still, Stephenson shot an atrocious 17 percent from beyond the arc last season, the worst single-season three-point accuracy ever for a player with as many long-range attempts as him. With that, his three-point confidence died, and he posted the lowest three-point rate since his first season when he attempted only five threes all year.

But maybe this was all an anomaly.

The Progression of Lance Stephenson

Young players can fall off a cliff and somehow survive even after plummeting to the rubble. Some of them even end up climbing back to the top of the mountain. Think Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward or Mike Dunleavy Jr.

In every sense of the term, this is a gamble for the Clippers. But it also might be one worth taking for a team that wouldn't have cap flexibility if it re-signed free-agent-to-be DeAndre Jordan and doesn't own a draft pick this season. How else are the Clips supposed to acquire young talent if they can't take risks? And how are they supposed to improve on a roster that used only six playable rotation guys during their postseason run if they can't acquire any semblance of talent?

Doc Rivers has taken deserved criticism for his hasty, cap-killing, pick-spraying deals in the past, but he's actually unloading money here. And he's not giving up a draft pick, though that's not really an option anyway. He's already traded most of them for the foreseeable future. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 3:  Lance Stephenson #1 of the Charlotte Hornets stands on the court during a game against the Indiana Pacers on April 3, 2015 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Rivers has hurt the Clippers' long-term viability with deals in the past, each trade trying to fill a hole he created with a previous one. Knowing that, it's hard to grade the worth of this deal definitively. 

There are still loads of questions we have to answer before we can put the trade in its proper context:

  1. Who could be the odd man out at shooting guard? 
  2. What does this mean for Jamal Crawford, whose contract expires after this season?
  3. Was this deal intentionally rushed before July 1 (the date when Crawford's contract becomes fully guaranteed for 2015-16—it's only partially guaranteed for $1.5 million before then), making him both more expendable and tradable for the next couple of weeks?
  4. How will the Clips go about finding a starting small forward to replace Barnes, assuming Stephenson comes off the bench?
  5. What's the plan to bring in a third big man to replace the little actual production but essential expected production Hawes provided? Is that where L.A. would use its probable mini mid-level exception, worth about $3.7 million for next season?
  6. Can the Clippers restore Stephenson to what he was in Indiana?
  7. And mostly, can they keep him under control?

At this point, it's in the team's best interest to prioritize chemistry. So many caustic personalities in one room isn't always going to breed success.

Maybe L.A.'s small-time move should be signing the seemingly inconsequential Rasual Butler, a former Clipper who earned loads of credit for keeping Stephenson in check during his final year as a Pacer. If you're bringing in someone who's labeled as a malcontent, a scalpel who's already been accused of amputating locker room limbs, you'd be wise to hedge bets.

Why couldn't Butler just be next year's Dahntay Jones?

Rasual Butler
Rasual ButlerAlex Brandon/Associated Press

Stephenson can help a team jump to contender status, as we saw when the Pacers won an Eastern Conference-best 56 games with him in the starting lineup two seasons ago.

If it doesn't work out, if Stephenson is that much of a toxin, the Clippers would have the option of waiving him midseason given the final year of his three-year deal is actually a $9.4 million team option. If that were to occur, the Clips would basically be giving up Barnes and $9 million for a fraction of a year of Lance and the right to get out of the final three seasons of the Hawes deal. It's not backbreaking, even if it's not preferable.

Still, the upside might be worth it. If the Clippers wanted to get younger, if they put a premium on finding a high-ceiling aerialist who can help them with their biggest flaws, then this was a deal they had to make.

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of June 15 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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