Change that last name from Henriksen to Stephenson and you might have the exact synopsis for how Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is feeling right now.
The Hornets beat the Knicks last Friday night for just their 5th win in 20 games this season. That puts them on pace for around 20 wins, which for a team who returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010, is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
Charlotte were the 6th best defensive team last season when measured by defensive rating, but have fallen to an abysmal 25th this season, despite adding a proven wing defender in Born Ready.
Many onlookers have labelled Stephenson the problem and some are calling for Lance’s head already.
The Starters recently debated whether Lance should be traded when first eligible to be moved on December 15. Zach Lowe said it’s a possibility that the Hornets would look to move him because it’s clearly not working out. One site is even reporting that MJ might panic enough to deal him in a package for Kobe Bryant, bringing the Mamba back to the city that originally drafted him.
Clearly we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. After all, we are only just over a month into the season and most GMs and owners are loath to admit they made a mistake so soon.
So is Lance Stephenson really the problem with the Hornets right now?
Stephenson signed a two-year deal with a team option in the third year at $9 million per year this past off-season. It shocked many who thought the Pacers would do whatever they could to keep the talented young wing.
The logic for the Hornets was simple; they made the playoffs last season with a defensive mind-set but were weak on the wings. Gerald Henderson was not the answer and Stephenson would make a splash and was willing to join a team headed in the right direction where he hoped he could take on a bigger role and continue to blossom.
“We are extremely excited to add Lance to our team,” Hornets GM Rich Cho said at the time. “He is a great up-and-coming player with an incredibly high ceiling. He is an exceptional athlete who has the versatility and skill to play multiple positions on both offense and defense. We believe he will be an outstanding addition to our roster.”
Cho also believed it cemented Charlotte as a destination where free agents were willing to sign after they landed Al Jefferson in free agency the year before.
Stephenson was coming off a great season in which he led the NBA in triple doubles, was second in Most Improved Player voting, and was one of only four players to average at least 13 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists.
Most importantly though, he had proven playoff experience, was a willing and very able defender and seemingly knew how to win. The Hornets were built around defense and needed players who could lead by example come playoff time, even if that example was somewhat curious at times.
One thing Stephenson was not going to bring to Charlotte was consistent perimeter shooting though, as he was just a .325 3FG% career shooter. He improved that mark to .352 last season; making 1.1 3FGs per game, but is not someone you would call a knock-down shooter by any stretch of the imagination.
Since joining Charlotte, it’s no secret that Stephenson has struggled offensively.Through the end of November, he was averaging just 9.6 points on just .367 FG%, including 7-38 from downtown (.184 3FG%). His contributions in other areas were still strong though as he added 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 0.8 steals per contest, while keeping his turnovers fairly consistent from last season at 2.4 per game (2.7 last season). However, the lack of offense has been concerning.
What’s been more concerning though is his on-court demeanour or body language if you will. As written about by Zach Lowe on Grantland; “His body language has been horrible, and that degrades morale. He pouts when he doesn’t get the ball on the weak side, flapping his wings and looking skyward as if his teammates have wronged him.”
If you’ve watched any Hornets games this season you would have also noticed Stephenson shaking his head when a team-mate blows a defensive assignment and struggling to have any kind of fun on the court. Granted, losing is no fun, and there’s been a lot of losing, but even in the wins, Stephenson seems like an outsider.
There have been rumblings that Stephenson was responsible for Roy Hibbert’s second-half struggles last season.
Fox Sports NBA Insider Bill Reiter tweeted late last month:
Was told a few weeks ago Lance Stephenson, not Paul George or anyone else, impacted Hibbert so negatively last season. Looking accurate.
— Bill Reiter (@foxsportsreiter) November 27, 2014
Reiter then sent a follow up tweet saying:
Also told me that, from the start, folks in Charlotte started to realize in Lance they’d bitten off more than they’d planned on chewing.
— Bill Reiter (@foxsportsreiter) November 27, 2014
To me, in all the criticism of Stephenson’s game so far in Charlotte, there seems to be a disconnect between the skill-set Born Ready brings and the needs of this team. The biggest need is perimeter shooting, something Stephenson has never been known for.
They were already a strong defensive team last season, they had an improved Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an above average wing defender, but ranked 23rd in 3-point percentage, 25th in overall field-goal percentage and 24th in true-shooting percentage and offensive-rating.
Wouldn’t their free-agent priorities therefore have been to add some perimeter shooting or improved offensive players?
They let Josh McRoberts walk in free-agency after drafting Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston (who are not yet ready to contribute on a consistent basis). Veterans Luke Ridnour and Ben Gordon are both in Orlando, Chris Douglas-Roberts is with the Clippers, while Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts were added along with Lance. No run at Jodie Meeks or Anthony Morrow or even our own Patty Mills?
Williams was a career .334 3FG% shooter before this season, while Roberts was a little better at .372 but had only played 2 years in the NBA.
Curiously, both Ridnour and Gordon had down years from beyond the arc under Coach Clifford last season. Gordon shot below .300 3FG% for the first time in his career and Ridnour had his lowest percentage from deep since leaving Seattle.
Fast forward to this season and new additions Roberts and of course the struggling Stephenson, are both shooting a lot poorer on threes than they did previously. Even Kemba Walker is hitting at an alarmingly low clip from downtown this season (.268 3FG%) as compared to his career mark (.322 3FG% his first 3 seasons).
The team is 29th overall in 3-point percentage, hitting at a 4.5% worse mark than last season. Does that tell you more about those guys as players, or more about Steve Clifford’s offense?
And what, if anything does it tell us about Lance Stephenson’s impact?
I’m not saying he’s not to blame at all for the Hornets’ struggles. I’m not saying his poor body language and hot-dogging on offense aren’t counter-productive. I’m not even saying that his offensive decline is not in some ways his own responsibility to address. What I am saying, though, is that there appear to be bigger problems at play here than just Lance Stephenson.Steve Clifford realises he’s not getting the best out of his team. He called out Stephenson recently in what was seemingly an attempt to get him focused on how to best help the team and avoid external expectations.
“To be fair, one of the things that’s made it more difficult for him is that he came here and people proclaimed him as the next superstar,” Clifford said. “He’s not a star. He’s a guy that has talent to become a star. To be a star in this league, you have to do it over years.”
He’s right. Stephenson has the talent to do all of that, but was busy trying to prove he was deserving of his new contract, rather than focusing on helping his team win. In other words, he was trying too hard. His usage was higher than last year, yet both his offensive and defensive ratings were poorer.
Clifford recognised that and started reducing his minutes. 27 minutes against the Clippers, 22 minutes versus Portland, but the Hornets continued to lose. They needed Stephenson’s contributions to be able to win.
Moving into December, it seems as if Stephenson has turned a corner. In a tough loss versus Chicago, Stephenson had his best game of the season to date scoring 20 points while adding 8 rebounds and 4 assists in 40 minutes. Two nights later in the team’s first win in 11 games, facing a familiar foe in the Knicks, Lance had 16 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and just 2 turnovers in 38 minutes. That equates to averages of 18, 7 and 5 on .485 FG% this month; a BIG step in the right direction.
If you were watching that Knicks game closely, you’d also have noticed Michael Jordan talking with Stephenson on the bench during the game in a mentoring kind of way. Maybe he’s becoming his new Larry Bird? You couldn’t pick two better mentors as an emerging star if you tried. The Basketball Jesus and the GOAT!
Stephenson seems to be figuring it out and what’s more impressive is that the Hornets blew a huge lead in that game, but amongst all the scrutiny, they stuck together to get the win. Is that a sign of chemistry starting to develop?
Former NY Yankees and LA Dodgers Manager Joe Torre once said “Winning creates chemistry more than the other way around.” In other words, if Stephenson continues his improved play and the Hornets start winning a few games, then everyone will stop talking about him being an issue.
However, until that happens, they’ll still be calling for his head.
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