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NBA PM: Making Sense of the Lance Stephenson Trade

The Los Angeles Clippers acquired Lance Stephenson on Monday. Is the potential risk worth the potential reward?

Jesse Blancarte

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On Monday, the Los Angeles Clippers agreed to trade Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Lance Stephenson. It was a trade that included two of the more disappointing free agent signings from last summer.

After playing at a borderline All-Star level in 2013-14 with the Indiana Pacers, Stephenson signed with the Charlotte Hornets to help them take the next step in their development. In Stephenson, the Hornets were adding a 24-year-old swingman who could handle the ball and play stingy defense. The biggest concern with Stephenson is the fact that he is a hard personality to deal with. He has been described as “temperamental” and has had numerous on-court issues in the past. It was a worthwhile gamble at the time for the Hornets, even though the relationship ultimately didn’t work out.

For the Clippers, in trading for Stephenson they are taking the same sort of gamble that the Hornets took last offseason, only this time there are even more concerns. In his final season with the Indiana Pacers, Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 4.5 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 35.2 percent beyond-the-arc. He was a versatile two-way player that showed a developing game. However, in his one season with the Hornets, Stephenson averaged just 8.2 points, 3.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds, while shooting 37.6 percent from the field and 17.1 percent from three-point range.

There were a lot of factors that went into Stephenson’s drop-off. Entering the season he injured his groin, and never fit within the Hornet’s offensive schemes. He couldn’t knock down three-pointers* and his inability to consistently hit shots off the dribble made it difficult to play him heavy minutes.

*Stephenson went 18-105 from beyond-the-arc, setting a new record for worst three-point percentage in a season with a minimum of 100 three-point attempts.

So why would Doc Rivers, the Clippers head coach and team president, swing a trade for Stephenson after his steep decline?

First, the Clippers have been looking for young, athletic and productive wing players for several years now. Relying on J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Matt Barnes was not a tenable situation if the Clippers want to make a deeper playoff run next season. Los Angeles has gotten by with Matt Barnes as their starting small forward for three years now, but he is now 35 years old and could see a major decline moving forward.

However, it should be noted that the Clippers didn’t give up nothing for Stephenson. As bad as Hawes was in his one and only season with the Clippers, there was reason to believe he could bounce back next season. At his best, Hawes could have been the Clippers’ third big (assuming they successfully re-sign DeAndre Jordan this offseason), and could provide spacing as a stretch-4 with his shooting. And as much criticism as Barnes received, he was in many ways exactly what the Clippers needed at small forward in the starting lineup.

Consider that last season, the Clippers’ starting lineup was one of the best in the NBA:

Starting Unit

Chart Courtesy of NBA.com/stats

As we can see in this chart, the Clippers’ starting unit was the most efficient offensive lineup in the NBA and had a top three net differential (among all lineups that played 300 minutes or more together throughout the regular season). The Clippers couldn’t have managed this if Barnes was a complete stiff, as some people have characterized him. Barnes was able to do this with above average perimeter defense, timely cuts to the basket, easy baskets in transition and by knocking down catch and shoot three-pointers.

Matt Barnes 2014-15 Shooting Chart

As we can see from the chart above, Barnes made a living with three-pointers and shots at the basket. While it’s not particularly easy to find a competent 3-and-D wing player to fill this role, it still is a role that can be addressed with minimal financial flexibility.

The Clippers have reportedly shown interest in Wesley Johnson, who played with the Los Angeles Lakers this past season. Johnson has never lived up to the expectations that came with being selected fourth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft (one pick ahead of DeMarcus Cousins), but at the league-minimum, he has value. He may not be a lock-down defender, but he has the size, length and athleticism to be competitive. And on offense, he has shown that he could potentially take over Barnes’ role on offense.

Wesley Johnson 2014-15 Shooting Chart

Shot Charts Courtesy of www.austinclemens.com/shotcharts/

As we see here, Johnson shot pretty well from three-point range this last season, almost as good as Barnes. The difference is that in Byron Scott’s offense (which features a heavy dose of mid-range jumpers), Johnson was shooting the ball from all over the court. This is contrary to the modern approach with players like Johnson, who are often positioned to take open, set jumpers, and attack the rim against rotating defenses.

Put Johnson in Barnes’ role, and we could see his shooting percentages climb and overall efficiency increase. If that happened, suddenly that potent offensive unit the Clippers had with Barnes could remain somewhat intact. Another positive in adding Johnson is the fact that he’s still just 27 years old, so there is room for him to continue improving. That, and he would move from an offense that was being run by Jeremy Lin, Jordan Clarkson and Ronnie Price, to an offense run by Paul and Griffin, who are both able to consistently generate open looks for teammates. The fact that Johnson had a 52.7 effective field goal percentage* on spot up jumpers last season (74.6 percentile), whereas Barnes had a 51.5 effective field goal percentage (64.8 percentile) provides more reason to believe he could be a competent replacement for Barnes.

*Among players that took two or more spot up jumpers per game.

Of course, we never know how effective a player will be with a new team in a new system until the players take the court. It’s also unclear whether a player like Johnson (who will certainly be looking for a multi-year deal) would be open to a veteran’s minimum contract at this point in his career. But Johnson is simply representative of the sort of player the Clippers could target to take over for Barnes.

Another such option, as discussed by our Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton on Tuesday’s Insider Sports Podcast, could be adding Paul Pierce with the mini mid-level exception (if he opts out of his deal with the Washington Wizards). In that scenario, the small forward role would need to be redefined in the Clippers’ offense since Pierce is more than a spot up three-point shooter.

The main point here is that the starting small forward position can be filled with a competent player, which allows Stephenson to take a lead role in the second unit, which Rivers alluded to in his interview on Tuesday with Fred Roggin on the Beast 980 AM in Los Angeles.

In the playoffs, the Clippers relied on Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford to be the primary ball-handlers off the bench. While Rivers had impressive spurts throughout the postseason, it is less than ideal to peg him as the lead guard off the bench moving forward. This is where Stephenson comes in.

Part of Stephenson’s struggles last season came from the fact that he was sharing the court with Kemba Walker, a ball-dominant, scoring point guard. In the Clippers’ second unit, he won’t have to share the ball with Chris Paul and can facilitate the offense as the primary playmaker.

How Stephenson fits is anyone’s guess since Rivers said he will play anything from point guard, to shooting guard, to small forward for the Clippers. But considering how successful Stephenson was with a playmaking role in Indiana, how ineffective he was playing off the ball with Walker, and his spotty three-point shooting, the smart money is on Stephenson running the offense a lot when Paul is resting. His creativity off the dribble and large frame gives the Clippers an offensive weapon that was missing this last season, which in part explains why the Clippers’ bench was so ineffective.

In addition to being the lead guard off the bench, Stephenson also gives the Clippers a viable defensive option against the league’s best perimeter scorers. Barnes has been the Clippers best and only option against players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, which is less than ideal to say the least.

“We needed to get tougher and we needed to get more athleticism and we needed to improve defensively,” Rivers told Roggin. “Lance has shown he can do that for us. … He’s a tough kid, very competitive kid and that has gotten him in trouble at times, but the one thing he has shown in major playoff games is that he can be a top-tier defender.”

Barnes was scrappy and always put up a good effort, but he has lost a step in recent seasons and couldn’t offer the defensive presence that guys like Leonard, Butler and Stephenson can. This is one of the main reasons Hornets owner Michael Jordan signed Stephenson last offseason.

“One of the reasons why I admire his game is he takes on challenges,” Jordan said last October. “For us to get any place in the East, we need someone to challenge LeBron. He challenged LeBron.”

If the Clippers plan on making it to the NBA Finals next season, having someone like Stephenson, who isn’t afraid of going toe-to-toe with an opponent as dominant as James, could be key. No one really stops a player like James, but standing 6’5 with a 6’10 wingspan, Stephenson has as good of a chance as some of the better defenders in the league and certainly a better chance than Barnes.

Also, the Clippers simply need more talent. The Western Conference doesn’t figure to be any easier next season, so the chance to add a player as versatile as Stephenson on a team-friendly contract was a unique opportunity that Rivers couldn’t pass up.

“The team that gets the best player in the trade gets the best trade,” Rivers said. “And in this case, I think Lance is the best player in this trade.”

Stephenson was so bad in his one season in Charlotte that we forget just how good he can be when he is focused and in the right environment.

Triple Doubles Over Last Five Seasons

Graph Courtesy of www.statmuse.com/nba

As illustrated in the graph above, over the last five seasons, Stephenson is in a four-way tie for the sixth most regular season triple doubles, all of which came in 2013-14. To add a player capable of that, before he enters his prime, is a pretty solid addition (albeit risky in the case of Stephenson because of chemistry concerns), especially when you consider his contract.

“If Lance works out, great,” Rivers said. “If he doesn’t, it’s a one-year deal. I just like contractually where it went for us.”

In making this trade, the Clippers get out from under Hawes’ contract, which has him earning roughly $18.5 million over the next three seasons. With Stephenson, the Clippers have a team option for 2015-16, which they can decline if he doesn’t fit well with the team. And by having that option, the Clippers can also move Stephenson mid-season to a team that is looking to offload more salary heading into the 2016 free agency season.

Rivers is certainly responsible for putting the Clippers’ in a position where this sort of high-risk, high-reward move is their only real option for improving. However, this deal is certainly a creative improvement over sending away a competent wing player and a first-round draft pick just to offload salary and avoid the apron (which is what Rivers did with Jared Dudley). In this move, Rivers lands a player that fills a big need, while adding financial flexibility. There is reason to be skeptical, or flat out critical of this trade, but this is a step in the right direction for Rivers as a general manager.

This deal wouldn’t have been made if Rivers wasn’t confident he can help Stephenson find his old game. Rivers has been an expert at managing personalities throughout his coaching career (see Rajon Rondo), though Stephenson may be his biggest challenge yet.

In eight months, we may be looking at this deal as a coup or a disaster for the Clippers. But at this moment, with little financial flexibility, an aging Chris Paul and a roster in need of more talent, it is the sort of high-upside deal the Clippers needed to make.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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