Last summer, Lance Stephenson was regarded as one of the most sought-after talents on the free agent market, coming off a season in which he led the NBA in triple-doubles as a two-way playmaker for an Indiana Pacers club that made its second straight Eastern Conference finals. This summer, the Charlotte Hornets — the team that happily gave Stephenson a three-year, $27.4 million contract early in free agency — was equally happy to take on the remaining three years and $17.4 million of Spencer Hawes' contract just to send Lance packing.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
That turnabout helps paints a picture of Stephenson about as unflattering as his 2014-15 shooting percentages. The 24-year-old swingman knows this, and he said Thursday during his introductory press conference as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers that he's as eager to turn around the perception that he's a malcontent as he is to revive his live-wire all-around game. From Arash Markazi of ESPN.com:
"I'm going to work hard this season to get those rumors out," Stephenson said as he was formally introduced as a Clipper at a news conference at the team's training facility on Thursday. "That's not the issue. I'm very good in the locker room. You can ask all the players that I've played with. You can ask the coaches. I'm very good in the locker room.
"When I'm on the court I got that type of energy where it looks like I'm yelling at somebody. But when I talk to my teammates it amps them and makes them work harder. I want to take that [negative] title off my name because that's not me. I'm a good locker room guy." [...]
"I'm here to win basketball games, whatever it takes to win," Stephenson said. "If I have to come off the bench, if I have to start, I'm here to do whatever it takes to win and I trust [head coach and team president of basketball operations Doc Rivers'] decisions and I'm just happy to be here."
It's fair to say that things didn't work out quite the way Stephenson or the Hornets planned last season, as Lance turned in arguably the worst shooting season in NBA history and struggled through both injury and inept play for a Hornets club that finished 16 games under .500. After trading Stephenson for Hawes and small forward Matt Barnes, whom Charlotte's expected to waive rather than retain, Hornets general manager Rich Cho said Stephenson "never fit in great" with the Hornets ... which is the kind of thing you can read a couple of ways.
There's the issue of on-court fit, which clearly never developed. Opponents outscored Charlotte by a dismal 7.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephenson on the court, with the Hornets scoring at a rate (94.3 points-per-100) that would've been the second-worst in the NBA over the course of the full season, ahead of only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers; head coach Steve Clifford said late in the season that he "simply [couldn't] find a group that plays well when he’s out there.”
And then, there's off the court.
While Lance by all accounts handled his fourth-quarter benchings and role reduction as the season continued like a professional, Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer still wrote that he "changed the dynamics of the [Hornets'] locker room for the worse." His colleague, stalwart beat reporter Rick Bonnell, wrote that the ongoing Stephenson situation "was sucking the energy out of that locker room."
That, combined with a final season in Indiana that was marked by multiple reports of discord related to Stephenson in the Pacers locker room, helps foster the perception that, for all his talents, Lance might not be the kind of guy you want to keep around a team with designs on serious contention ... especially if, y'know, he shoots 37.6 percent from the field and 17.1 percent from 3-point range.
Stephenson knows he has to rehabilitate his image this season, both on and off the court, to avoid finding himself in an unenviable position. If he struggles to perform in L.A. — where Rivers says he'll be "a utility player" who sees time at both guard spots and small forward rather than the starting small forward on a team that just traded away its starting small forward — the Clippers can decline the $9.4 million 2016-17 team option on his contract, and send him into unrestricted free agency in the summer of '17.
When Stephenson signed his two-years-and-out deal with the Hornets last summer, it looked like that would be the best-case scenario. He'd be able to continue the development he'd shown over his four years in Indiana, then dip back into the free-agent market as a 26-year-old in the prime of his career with the NBA awash in cash and the salary cap skyrocketing thanks to the league's new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal. If things go south this season, though, and the Clips decide to move on rather than pay his $9.4 million freight, Stephenson will hit the market coming off two unsuccessful campaigns that saw two consecutive suitors admit having lost their gambles on him. Not exactly the ideal way to enter a situation in which you're trying to convince someone to pay you as much money as possible for as long as possible.
The onus, then, is on Stephenson to make it work this season, and to make his disappointing turn with the Hornets look like an unfortunate aberration rather than proof that he'll struggle to succeed outside the support structure created by Larry Bird during his time in Indiana. With Chris Paul at the controls, Blake Griffin starring on the front line, J.J. Redick spacing the floor and, provided they can retain him, DeAndre Jordan screening and rolling, he'll be surrounded by significantly more offensive talent than he played with in Charlotte. With the paucity of positive options on the Clipper bench, he should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact at multiple positions on both ends of the floor.
If Stephenson can bounce back and help the Clippers advance past the second round of the playoffs, he could leave all the grumblings behind. If he can't, though, "those rumors" could continue to dog him and perhaps take a significant bite out of his perceived value on the market.
- - - - - - -