LeBron James thinks the Cleveland Cavaliers need “a f***ing playmaker.” But is he ready for it to be Lance f***ing Stephenson?
The slumping Cavs continuing to reel, suffering a Monday loss to an “underrated s*** team” in the Dallas Mavericks to fall to 4-7 in their last 11 outings, and 32-15 on the season as a whole. While James vents his frustration at attention-seeking ex-players with national TV commentary gigs, the Cavs are turning their attention to trying to find somebody to fill their open roster spot who can handle the rock and who, ideally, won’t cost all that much. From Chris Haynes of ESPN.com:
Veteran point guards Mario Chalmers and Kirk Hinrich and wing Lance Stephenson are scheduled to work out for the Cavaliers on Wednesday, league sources informed ESPN.
A few other free-agent prospects are expected to attend the session, sources say. Depending on how well the participants perform, sources with knowledge of the Cavaliers’ thinking believe one could be signed prior to the All-Star break.
Tom Withers of the Associated Press also reported Tuesday that the Cavs will take a look at Hinrich, who turned 36 earlier this month and who has remained unsigned this season after splitting last year between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. The 13-year veteran shot well from 3-point land in Chicago before being flipped to Georgia in the three-team trade deadline deal that landed Shelvin Mack in Utah, but played sparingly and without much distinction for a Hawks team that already had Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder at the point.
Hinrich might be the steadiest option of the bunch, one who can capably get the Cavs’ offense into sets and who will compete defensively, but at 36 and without the burst or athleticism to create much off the bounce, he’s also likely the one with the lowest ceiling. Chalmers has already proven he can slot in alongside James, playing the point for the Miami Heat squads that went to four straight NBA Finals between 2010 and 2014, and he shined in sort of an on- and off-ball super-sub role for the Memphis Grizzlies last year … before suffering a season-ending tear of his right Achilles tendon.
Haynes says the 30-year-old is now fully recovered from that devastating injury. But as Cavs general manager David Griffin looks to upgrade on rookie Kay Felder and provide some additional punch on the wing after the All-Star break, he might be reluctant to bet on Chalmers instantly hitting his old stride in his first on-court action since the rupture.
Speaking of stuff you’d be reluctant to bet on, though …
Stephenson rose to fame with the Indiana Pacers, going from a lightly regarded second-round pick to the starting two-guard on the East’s No. 1 seed, becoming a near-All-Star performer capable of tossing up triple-doubles and impacting the game on both ends of the floor. His erratic on- and off-court behavior, though, also made him notorious, and raised questions as to how much the Pacers, and team president Larry Bird, wanted to keep him around. Stephenson eventually left to join the Charlotte Hornets in free agency, and things fell apart. He struggled through perhaps the worst shooting season in NBA history while not exactly burnishing his bona fides as a locker room presence before being flipped to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he quickly fell out of Doc Rivers’ favor and once again found himself on the move … and that’s where things got interesting.
On a Grizzlies team decimated by injuries last season that had no choice but to unleash him, Stephenson often looked somewhat stunningly like the fire of old, averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 26.6 minutes per game as an off-the-bench firestarter. He started this season in similarly catalytic fashion for the short-handed New Orleans Pelicans, averaging just 9.7 points, 4.8 assists and three rebounds in 27 minutes per contests while shooting 47.3 percent from the floor. Just six games into the campaign, though, he went down with a groin injury, prompting a Pelicans club desperate for healthy bodies to waive him while he recovered … which, according to Haynes, he has.
On paper, then, Stephenson would seem like a tailor-made fit for the needs of a Cavs team that has become overwhelmingly reliant on James and Kyrie Irving to serve as its offensive engine. He’s a bull off the bounce who can beat defenders one-on-one, get downhill in the pick-and-roll, compromise coverages, get into the paint to draw traffic, kick out to open teammates and finish in traffic. He can come off the bench to wreak havoc and make plays for others, and he’s long enough and strong enough defensively to hold up in a variety of matchups depending on opponents’ personnel.
In practice, though, it’s impossible to avoid the history here. Stephenson became a household NBA name due in large part to his insistence on antagonizing James during the postseason matchups between the Heat and Pacers:
LeBron, as you might expect, has never gotten much of a kick out of Lance’s act. With the Cavs wobbling, though — and with J.R. Smith still on the shelf, Kevin Love dealing with back spasms, and the 32-year-old James averaging a league-leading 37.5 minutes per game while clearly straining under the burden of carrying Cleveland night in and night out — would James be willing to let bygones be bygones in search of an easier path to getting through the regular season and being in full form come the playoffs?
Stranger things have happened … although, the more we think about “LeBron James and Lance Stephenson are teammates,” maybe not too many, if we’re being honest.
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