After Failing in Charlotte, Lance Stephenson Is Just What the Clippers Need

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 16, 2015

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LOS ANGELES — The only right time to bring a knucklehead onto your team is when the knucklehead actually wants to make things right.

Knuckleheads will overstep bounds, take liberties and flout authority…unless they've previously failed to the point they arrive with actual humility and true intention to fit in.

That's why the Los Angeles Clippers' gamble with Lance Stephenson, which the team announced Monday night, makes sense now.

Stephenson failed by every anecdotal evaluation or advanced metric last season. Of course he did.

He had just gotten his free-agent jackpot that validated in his mind he was indeed better than the 40th overall slot he fell to in the 2010 draft.

So he thought he was better than he really was, felt empowered by the nice contract to act superior on a lesser roster and went freely about overdoing his individual agenda.

The Charlotte Hornets' signing of Stephenson a year ago was the classic mistake of indulging a knucklehead when he's riding high on himself.

Stephenson, then 23, had for the moment allowed his athletic, all-around play to build up and overshadow some of the minor worries about his on-court antics as well as the altogether more concerning allegations away from basketball. The Indiana Pacers were pleased with the 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and valuable wing defense in 2013-14, but they remained leery because they knew full well of his knuckleheaded-ness.

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The Hornets were likewise wary, but they ignored the warning signs after missing out on Gordon Hayward. Fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2009-10, they wanted to try something to get better.

Any parent of an insolent child could tell you the danger that lies in an immature person believing he has it made.

Dec 5, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson (1) gets fouled by New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8) during the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Hornets defeated the Knicks 103-102. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA
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That's when the ramifications of misbehavior have to be taught all over again.

And that's what predictably happened in Charlotte.

Stephenson was unfocused and unproductive, unwilling to figure out how best to fit in with the team. He will arrive in Los Angeles—coming at little cost, with the limited Spencer Hawes and inconsistent Matt Barnes going to Charlotte in the trade—with a far different mindset.   

After his disastrous 2014-15 campaign with the Hornets, he now walks into a situation not unlike the Indiana one, where he was able to conform and excel. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has a way of demanding adherence from players while casually befriending them, and the map is already on Rivers' wall for Stephenson to be foremost a demon on the wing, boosting the Clippers' soft defense while getting free reign on offense only at times.

Rivers just pulled that trick with DeAndre Jordan. Stephenson won't come in expecting to be the team's go-to guy after a flashy offseason signing. He will be expected to play a role for a winning cast.

People say Stephenson couldn't adjust to Kemba Walker dominating the ball in Charlotte and thus won't adjust to Chris Paul dominating the ball in Los Angeles. Those people are overlooking something: Chris Paul is Chris Paul, and Kemba Walker is Kemba Walker.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 31: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers passes the ball against the Golden State Warriors on March 31, 2015 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
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Even a knucklehead knows that.

Beyond the ideal timing of Stephenson's arrival, the Clippers have a number of other reasons to do this.

He only has one guaranteed year left on his contract, so he'll be motivated to do well to earn that team option or the chance to cash in on an open market loaded with new TV money.

The Clippers also had limited ways to retool a roster that required more depth and an infusion of fearlessness. L.A. already carried the NBA's fourth-highest payroll ($80.1 million) last season, per Sportrac.com, and now hopes to re-sign unrestricted free agent Jordan.

Stephenson's toughness can add something to the Clippers' whiny persona, but his game is an even better fit. The Clippers failed time and again to push pace in games, a symbol of their greater weakness in easing up rather than attacking opponents. Stephenson is a marvel at grabbing and going, sort of like a stocky Lamar Odom or a more svelte Charles Barkley in his ability to get a rebound and take it all the way to the other rack.

The Clippers, with their heavily systemized style, very much need to be off-script more. And for as often as Stephenson's historically bad 17.1 percent three-point shooting in Charlotte is cited, the Clippers simply do not need more jump shooters. If Stephenson winds up replacing Jamal Crawford as the main bench option, it should result in a refreshing variety of offensive attack options.

The move reflects the Clippers' efforts to get their house in order for free agency, and they know they are a desirable contending destination for a market deep in frontcourt players.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 28:  Head Coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers speaks to the media after Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the San Antonio Spurs during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 28, 2015 at Staples Center in Lo
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The only question here is why the Clippers didn't pull the trigger on this deal at the Feb. 19 trade deadline.

True, they already had a guard-heavy roster, and Blake Griffin was hurt at the time. On that very deadline night, Hawes logged 33 minutes against San Antonio as Rivers was still trying to develop the 7-footer into a reliable late-season option. By then, however, it was already obvious the Clippers' mix could benefit from a change.

Ultimately, the Clippers eased up against the Houston Rockets in a telltale Game 6 home collapse in the Western Conference semifinals, making this move for Stephenson all the more sensible.

Certainly, it's always better to get a guy whose determination never wavers. But that attitude comes at a discount only if he doesn't have much game.

Sometimes you have to gamble on a knucklehead who can really play.

This is one of those times, because the Clippers need to show Jordan there's enough talent for him to win a title if he stays.

Even more so, it's the right time because Stephenson will be looking to get on a bandwagon again.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.