When the New Orleans Pelicans signed Lance Stephenson, I was blown away like a puff of wind that cyclones through the grooves of the outer ear before slowing eddying its way to the ear drum.
See below for the confirmation of how a picture is worth a thousand words.
This has the air of something that could be good or bad, no in between. pic.twitter.com/1CTjadtnJo— Isaac Constans (@IsaacConstans) September 9, 2016
Before beginning this terse breakdown of one of the league's most intriguing figures, I must confess, I love Lance.
When he was a rookie, I was unaware that he existed.
When he was a sophomore, I laughed at him. I laughed because of his choking gesticulation towards LeBron James and because of LeBron's eloquent, "not even going to give him the time" retort.
When he was in his third year, I took notice. On a specific play against the Miami Heat, Stephenson steamrolled his way into the paint and lowered his shoulder into LeBron, dislodging him and converting the layup. I had rarely before seen the combination of strength, speed and brazenness from such a young player, and when stacked next to his defensive fire and all-around game, Stephenson quickly became one of my favorite players.
When he was in his contract year, I was out of ideas. Stephenson still had all of what endeared me to the bellicose Brooklyn bomber in the first place, but now the antics were mixed in. He led the league in triple-doubles, but also might have mentally corroded Roy Hibbert to a state of disrepair. His locker room talk was more astringent at times than Donald Trump's, and a potential max contract turned into a punt from the Indiana Pacers.
From there, he latched on with the Charlotte Hornets, setting a single-season worst in three-point percentage ever. That was fun.
Then, he played less for the Los Angeles Clippers than Austin Rivers and quickly found a new home in Memphis with the Grizzlies. And maybe the city of soul had a little rebirth in store for the one-time legend, and I again became a fan for a team leader in the face of endemic injury.
So here we stand, the New Orleans Pelicans with a chance to employ one of the most mercurial athletes on the market for the season ahead. Let's get started.
Stephenson seems to be locked in and leading the battle for the final roster spot, most likely a back-up small forward who would see significant time front-loaded at the start of the regular season. The primary rival for the position is most likely Alonzo Gee, although he looks increasingly marginalized on the team, having only played 6 minutes in Sunday's exhibition — Stephenson garnered 33 minutes.
It's worth noting that a relatively probable scenario could unfold that both men would wind up with spots. The injury hardship exception, as part of the NBA's injury protocol, could lend the Pelicans another spot on the floor, in which case Stephenson would be the likely beneficiary.
Stephenson currently has a one-year, $1.22 million contract with $100,000 of the sum guaranteed.
Okay, so picture a Tyreke Evans who is mobile defensively, not as insistent on drives — for better or worse — and slightly more erratic. It's not perfect, but there's your Lance Stephenson. As aforementioned, Stephenson is a jack of all trades: a point forward who possesses both uncanny strength and surprising court vision for a man seemingly strung in a line towards the basket.
Stephenson is not a great shooter, whatsoever, but his efficiency and discretion did improve under the coaching of Dave Joerger in Memphis, a coach who was complimentary of Stephenson upon his departure. Last year, he shot 38.5% from the perimeter and fine tuned his game in virtually all aspects following the Charlotte catastrophe.
Stephenson could still be better in the turnover department, as he enjoys pushing his abilities to sometimes a dangerous level. That's not always the best news in a fast-break offense. But Stephenson thrived in Memphis's half court, and he was surprisingly efficient. On drives last year, Stephenson had the 12th highest conversion rate of guards playing at least 40 games.
Defensively, Stephenson isn't where he used to be. He lacks the fire, and the more stringently called games do not suit his in-the-jersey style. However, with the right motivation, he still is a perfect irritant and agitator.
Talent-wise, it's not a matter of the potential or the capabilities. With Stephenson, it's a matter of what you'll actually get, yet another similarity to Evans.
Stephenson has flown under the radar since his dramatic starring in Indiana. Nothing perhaps spells that out like the details of his parsimonious contract.
Logic suggests that Stephenson has made a conscious effort, for better or worse, to extricate himself from the craziness. Stephenson has had less technical fouls in the last two seasons combined than he did in his final year with Larry Bird and the Pacers.
Stephenson is no longer noxious to locker rooms either, or at least so is the suggestion. Joerger, one of the nicest guys and most promising coaches in the association, said as much on multiple occasions.
It is worth wondering, however, if it's possible to get all of the good without all of the bad in the case of Stephenson. Otherwise, it might be the classic Tiger Woods analogue in which the distractions are necessary for the maximization of talent. It might not be the case, but it's a thought.
There has been nothing particularly eye-catching from Stephenson's preseason involvement thus far. He, as always, has shown the glimpses of a Bronx legend poised for NBA stardom, but a pattern of lapses does persist for the trouble-ridden swingman.
The fact is, however, the Pelicans aren't going to find better, certainly not for the deal. Evans is out for at least the start of the regular season, and NOLA is notorious for underselling the severity of injuries. Stephenson would be a perfect deputy starter until his return.
His competition, Gee, is also boring. He can dunk and run and cover an assignment adequately, but in no way is he a steal or anomaly on the market.
By all definitions of the word, Stephenson is an x-factor and could be the deciding component in a handful of games throughout the regular season. Even if the Pelicans don't get the Stephenson of old (they probably won't), they still own a valuable and versatile game-changer. Especially with this team's injury history, you want someone with leadership experience across the board and across the court; Stephenson has that.
If he's that bad at the start of the year, cut him for the cheap guaranteed price tag. Return to the Gee golly days and as you were. But while Anthony Davis and Gee seem to be good friends, you could pair The Brow with The Blow. And even though it doesn't rhyme, that's a good deal.
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