Labor Day has come and gone, and Lance Stephenson has finally found a home. Now, assuming Stephenson is able to make the New Orleans Pelicans’ regular season roster, the question becomes one of fit and opportunity.
And unfortunately, from the surface, it’s easy to not like the Stephenson acquisition. But it is one that could pay dividends for a franchise that has failed in its attempt to take flight.
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It seemed only yesterday that the Pelicans were considered the team that was poised to break out. Anthony Davis, in his second season, kicked down the door to the superstar club and put together an MVP-caliber season, leading his team to a 45-win season. With 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.9 blocks per game, he was a rare sophomore who had already proven to be capable of dominating his upperclassmen.
The arrival of Alvin Gentry brought renewed optimism that the Pelicans would take a significant stride forward, but health simply wouldn’t let them be great. Clearly, the Pelicans will go only as far as Davis will allow them to, and quietly, after four full seasons in the NBA, he is yet to play in as many as 70 games in a regular season.
With the 2016-17 season upon us, things have already seemingly gotten off to a worrisome start, with Jrue Holiday scheduled to miss an indeterminate amount of time following his wife, Lauren, undergoing brain surgery to remove a tumor.
In all likelihood, general manager Dell Demps looked at his roster and realized that without Holiday, head coach Gentry would be depending on the triad of Tyreke Evans, newly signed Langston Galloway and rookie Buddy Hield for the bulk of his playmaking duties. That’s not ideal.
As it relates to Evans, he is coming off of a season in which he appeared in just 25 games. He has had three surgeries on his right knee within the past 18 months and has proven to not be reliably durable.
Galloway is a rags to riches story. After coming onto the NBA radar during his collegiate career at St. Joseph’s University, the New Orleans native proved himself in the D-League and had an impressive stint with the New York Knicks. He is certainly a viable rotation guard in the NBA. His first step is better than advertised and he has the ability to make big shots both on a catch-and-shoot and off the dribble. Galloway, however, will face a bit of a learning curve in New Orleans. There are plenty of new faces, a new coach and a new system. In the Western Conference, and in what is one of the tougher divisions in basketball, it’s obvious that the Pelicans will need help with playmaking, especially at the lead guard spot.
Hield is a player I have come to know quite well. There is little doubt in my mind that he will turn into a serviceable scoring guard in the NBA. He has a good combination of speed and strength and has made substantial strides as a three-point shooter. It is quite coincidental that he will effectively replace Eric Gordon in the Pelicans rotation because, as a younger player, Gordon exhibited some of the same qualities. It is even more coincidental that Hield and Gordon share Bahamian roots. Hield was born and raised there, while Gordon is a first-generation American by way of a Bahamian mother who emigrated to the United States to attend college.
With Hield and Davis together, the Hornets seemingly have a one-two punch that can help bring the franchise some of its prior success. Still, the backcourt was incredibly thin in New Orleans.
Now, enter Lance Stephenson.
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With the big money all but dried up, Stephenson could have opted to take his talents into any number of NBA cities. His talent is obvious. When under control, he can be an effective two-way player whose contributions can be felt across the stat sheet. As an on-ball defender, Stephenson is superb and offensively, he has remarkable vision. Over the course of history, there have been several NBA players who have found themselves perfectly cast—the right teammates, the right situation. In a prior lifetime, Stephenson was challenged, harnessed and allowed to roam free by head coach Frank Vogel, bullied and slapped around by the wise old David West and protected by the budding superstar in Paul George.
In Indianapolis, Stephenson, after being drafted with the 40th overall pick in the 2010 draft, waited three years before becoming a full-time starter. Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy Brandon Rush, T.J. Ford, James Posey, Dahntay Jones, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa are amongst the players he had to observe prior to getting his own opportunity to become a starter. He was able to ease his way into the situation and ripen on his own time.
Expectations, though, are a helluva thing.
By this point, it has been well chronicled that Stephenson effectively turned down a five-year, $44 million from the Pacers in exchange for $18 million. He left Indiana for Charlotte, where he was expected to assume the void at shooting guard and star alongside the budding Kemba Walker. Since then, things haven’t been the same for Stephenson. Expectations have followed him, the regret of leaving the confines of Indianapolis have haunted him and, now, he is simply trying to pick up the pieces.
Next stop: New Orleans.
When Stephenson and his representatives look at their options, they probably realized that the biggest opportunity would be playing alongside Anthony Davis. As a member of the New York Knicks, Stephenson would have struggled to find reps playing alongside Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Brandon Jennings, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. In Brooklyn, he may have excelled, but his numbers would have been considered hollow since the Nets are not likely to come close to contending for a playoff spot this year.
In New Orleans, however, if Anthony Davis can stay healthy and Jrue Holiday is able to return to the team without too deep of a hole having been dug, they may have an opportunity to challenge for a low playoff seed. The Pelicans still seem to be a few pieces away from accomplishing something substantial, especially with the departure of Ryan Anderson, but for Stephenson, the decision to join the team seems to have been one that was both well-thought out and quite prudent.
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Most NBA players would tell you that they don’t have regrets. We are taught to try our best to not concern ourselves with things that have transpired in the past. Stephenson, publicly, would probably say those very things if asked. Deep down inside, though, as he attempts to resume his career and remain a viable rotation player in the NBA, he has to know that he is likely finding his last, best opportunity to make an impact in “The Big Easy,” even if it will be quite difficult.
With the reputation of being a knucklehead and someone who has struggled to find his identity on the basketball court, it is easy to not like the Stephenson acquisition from afar. But in a situation where a player and a franchise are both gambling on each other, often, things tend to work out for the better.
Nicknamed “Born Ready” long before he became an NBA player, Stephenson has proven that to be a farce. Few are born ready and fewer are able to reinvent themselves and rejuvenate their careers after they have been cast aside.
Without question, Lance hopes to be an exception to the rule, and it’s easy to see why Dell Demps was willing to give him that opportunity.
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