It’s official. The New Orleans Pelicans announced on Wednesday that Lance Stephenson has been signed to a contract, guaranteeing him 100K of a league minimum $1.22 million. He will join the team in training camp and attempt to prove he deserves a chance to earn the entire sum, thus effectively force Dell Demps to move one of the already fifteen guaranteed contracts prior to the start of the regular season.
How likely is this scenario?
Well, it’s not all that rather complex as it will likely boil down to Alvin Gentry’s decision of whether he would be willing to adapt his schemes and strategies to allow Stephenson’s game to flourish. With Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans set to miss the start of this season, the Pelicans are very short on playmakers. In essence, the head coach would have to willingly hand over one set of keys of the offense to the oft-embattled yet extremely talented, 26-year-old player — something Gentry was none to keen to do for Evans last season.
As you’re probably aware, Stephenson’s career has been analogous to a rollercoaster. One minute he was a burgeoning shooting guard with the Indiana Pacers and the next he was benched by the Charlotte Hornet’s head coach for failing to mesh with any lineup just 26 games into the 2014-15 season. A year later Doc Rivers decided upon Stephenson to be the starting small forward for a Clippers squad with legitimate championship aspirations but was removed from that role just 10 games into last season. At the trade deadline, he was exchanged for Jeff Green, yet surprisingly exploded to post some of the best numbers of his career with the Grizzlies.
Why all the inconsistent play? Lucas from Clips Nation laid it out well:
What's most frustrating is that Lance seems to be mostly held back by himself. He's an average jumpshooter at best, but he limits his perimeter shots to maintain efficiency. The biggest issue comes from his attitude, and his attitude's effect on his effort. When Lance isn't getting the ball, he stops participating on both offense and defense. It's very easy for him to get out of the flow of the game, and once he's falls out it's very hard to get him engaged again. He turns demonstrably whiny at not getting the ball, and disengaged defensively. Furthermore, he stops moving off of the ball. One other issue is that he tends to not be a fan of making simple passes. Lance likes to dribble the ball into the ground, and his touches end in shots, assists, or turnovers, never a simple pass to move the ball.
Stephenson doesn’t react well to pigeon-holed roles because he needs the ball in his hands. Sound familiar? As a starter for the Clippers, he was forced to sit on a wing and watch the offense run through either Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. While with the Hornets, Steve Clifford ran the offense through Kemba Walker at the top of the key or Al Jefferson in the post.
On the other hand, Frank Vogel and Dave Joerger gave Stephenson a lot of room to maneuver within their offenses, and not coincidentally he enjoyed a lot of success for both the Pacers and Grizzlies.
In a season-ending interview, Stephenson stated his top priority was to, “Learn how to play without the ball in my hands.”
When Tyreke Evans joined the Pelicans rotation last December, the coaching staff wanted Evans to spend less time dribbling the basketball, yet the results were often mixed. As I had noted, there were incremental improvements, but they failed to show up in the win/loss column. Since leopards are not known for changing their spots, is it realistic to assume Lance Stephenson, a player who also needs to ball and loves to probe defenses, could succeed where Evans had supposedly failed?
The expectation should be no, but that isn’t the biggest issue facing the Pelicans at this point in time — they are in dire need of playmakers. I will further explain this concept in the next few days, but for now the organization must decide whether it’s more important to adhere to Gentry’s desired strategies or look to make allowances considering the dire circumstances at point guard.
One thing that needs to be laid to rest, though, is Stephenson’s checkered past. In both of his stops last season, his teammates in Los Angeles and Memphis supported him. I don’t doubt Lance will still be Lance — a fun-loving locker room presence — but I sense some maturity in his attitude. In the linked interview above, Stephenson stated that he just wants to find a home, a team that would make use of and appreciate his talents. He genuinely didn’t care about the money, at a time where many expected he’d soon land a solid contract in the new salary cap era.
“This team is so good, I could just come in and be a role player. Not how I was playing when everybody was hurt but just come in and be a role player — help defensive-wise.”
Stephenson sounded very much like he wanted to return to Memphis, regardless of role, but following the Chandler Parsons signing, he became expendable. If the Pelicans truly have doubts about Evans’ return from injury, Gentry faces a very important decision during the exhibition season. Does he amend his philosophy to include a much needed playmaker, or does he hold steadfast that either the existing roster will survive until Holiday returns or that perhaps a more suitable player becomes available?
The trio of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans sparkled against the competition, but the group failed to fully implement Gentry-style basketball, mainly due to Reke Havoc’s tendencies. Lance Stephenson could potentially step right into Evans’ shoes. The question is, will Alvin Gentry let him?