With Lance Stephenson, the L.A. Clippers’ growth begins


Mar 8, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson (1) reacts to a basket in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Charlotte won 108-101. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the lack of depth that is still present on the Los Angeles Clippers’ bench, it hardly seems like the acquisition of Lance Stephenson has saved their future. Especially when he’s coming off a terrible season with the Charlotte Hornets. However, what the arrival of Stephenson does show is how the Clippers have begun their rebuilding process: with a worthwhile risk and immediate action.

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The risk being taken is whether or not Stephenson will return to the form he had in his last year with the Indiana Pacers. They were a tough, gritty, physical team that suited his style perfectly. He rebounded exceptionally well for a 6’5″ guard and when necessary he could take control of the ball and attack the rim through contact. The 2013-14 Lance averaged 13.8 points, 49.1 shooting, 35.2 three point shooting, 4.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game. And on top of all that, he led the league with five triple doubles.

So how did 2014-15 Lance do?

Well, to say that he was a shell of himself would probably be an understatement.

As well as the fact that the Hornets went from 43 wins in 2013-14 to just 33 wins this year (which countless critics and fans blamed solely on Stephenson) he hardly continued the form he began with the Pacers. Stephenson didn’t suit a situation where he had to be a top offensive option, and his production fell to just 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with 37.6 percent shooting from the field and 17.1 percent from three point range (a decline of 18 percent from the previous season).

Essentially, Stephenson’s career wasn’t meant to continue in Charlotte. But it’s not as though his athleticism, versatility and defensive abilities have suddenly disappeared.

He may be a risk, but he’s a risk that’s highly worth taking.

Jan 28, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Charlotte Hornets shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

If the risk with Stephenson does pay off, though, and he fits in with the Clippers and Doc Rivers can harness his personality, then L.A. have landed the ideal wing player to fit their system. He offers rebounding and defense, which is exactly what they need. And with Stephenson ready and determined to improve his reputation — and the detrimental backup center that is Spencer Hawes out the way — the Clippers only need to make some minimal moves to fine-tune themselves for contention.

The primary free agent target that has been associated with the Clippers all offseason so far has been Paul Pierce of the Washington Wizards. He proved once again that The Truth is still potent in the NBA, and he made more than his fare share of clutch buckets and game winners in the playoffs this year (especially against the Atlanta Hawks). Even at 37 years old, Pierce’s ability to rise to fourth quarter situations could take a great deal of pressure off Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and offer L.A. more diversity when a game is on the line.

If the Clippers want to bring in Pierce, they’ll either be able to offer him anything from a veteran’s minimum contract of approximately $1.5 million to around $3.7 million. Although, after ditching the combined salary of Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes (which equalled just over $8.6 million), the $27 million deal that the Clippers offered Stephenson — that will be spaced out over three years — will make little difference.

Pierce’s veteran leadership and championship winning know-how is exactly what the Clippers need, and if they can find any way to bring him onboard, Doc Rivers will have an extremely tough and talented combination of wing players.

May 9, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce (34) celebrates while leaving the court after making the game-winning basket against the Atlanta Hawks as time expired in the fourth quarter in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 103-101. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Yet there’s more we can takeaway from the Clippers’ quick action this offseason, though. What we’ve learned so far is that they’re willing to make the adjustments that will transform them from a franchise who rely too heavily on star power, to a collective team.

The Clippers need players who can offer some toughness, defense and a mental edge. And with the acquisition of Stephenson, this process has got off to a successful start.

In order to complete their transition to a tougher future, though, it’s going to take more than just Lance Stephenson and the hopeful signing of Paul Pierce to take the Clippers to new levels of playoff success. And now that their only backup big man who received any sort of notable playing time this year is Glen Davis (the man with a +/- of -14.8), L.A. must address their lacking frontcourt. Because as we saw from their shortcomings against the Rockets, Griffin and Jordan can’t do it alone.

So, whether or not the Clippers look to sign a big man to a cheap veteran’s contract in free agency, or target someone in (or after) the 2015 NBA draft, there are certainly options available. From rookies such as Branden Dawson and Joshua Smith, who are commonly predicted to go undrafted, to veterans such as Tyler Hansbrough or Tayshaun Prince, the Clippers have plenty of potential targets.

And what we’ve seen from their interest in the draft with constant workouts, and the immediate action to add rebounding and defense with Stephenson, is that L.A. are willing to improve their entire team.

They haven’t panicked by saying they want to carry out a blockbuster trade by dealing any of their superstars, Doc Rivers has remained focussed on resigning Jordan, and they’ve proven they’re willing to take a timely risk with Stephenson.

The Clippers are at a point where they can’t just lean on the strength of their stairs and hope that they can make things work next season. Or that everything will magically come together and they’ll be a better team by making minimal changes. Now, it’s time for them to try and bring talented players like Stephenson back to form, to sign experienced leaders like Pierce, and to go after some young talent in the draft — even if they don’t have a pick yet.

They need to take the same kind of aggression they used to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in round one and apply it to their rebuilding process. Because after another second round defeat and blowing a 3-1 series lead against Houston, it’s not the time to be timid.

Doc Rivers and the Clippers are taking actions to complete a full team now. And considering how fast they were to land Stephenson, it looks like this is just the beginning.

It’s time to for them to grow. And so far, they’re taking the decisive actions necessary to shape their future.

Next: Lance Stephenson can be the next Josh Smith