Lineup News: Lance Stephenson to Start at SF in Opener


Turns out the preseason is actually useful for something.

Had the NBA existed in a world where the preseason is no more, the Clippers likely open up the season with Paul Pierce or Wes Johnson starting at small forward, with Matt Barnes traded in the off-season.

But after six exhibition to test the waters with different matchups, Doc’s starting three will be someone less traditional than the small forwards of the past, going with the smaller, more versatile player in Lance Stephenson, the head coach confirmed today.

In the two games Stephenson started at small forward in the preseason, against the Warriors and Blazers, both wins, the team looked to have the perfect balance, adding a much-needed presence (mainly in theory but it showed some during the games) in the starting lineup, with Lance being a swiss-army knife of sorts with his abilities to score, defend, and pass, and on the bench, where the unit is down one player who needs the ball to make an impact, freeing things up for others to operate and a 3-and-D player to do all the little things that unit has shown to need.

The lone question in Lance’s transition to starter — which also existed when on the bench — is his ability to knock down threes. Last season in Charlotte, Stephenson shot 17% on 105 attempts, the lowest percentage by any player in NBA history when shooting at least 100 threes in a season. Before Charlotte, Stephenson was a reasonable shooter, knocking down 33% and 35% in back-to-back seasons as a starter, and most important giving where he’ll be majority times in the Clippers offense when playing off-ball, shot 36.7% (on 60 attempts) in 2012-13 and 50% (on 48 attempts) in 2013-14. Overall, history doesn’t make Lance out to be a great three-point shooter — or good, given the 32% mark pre-Charlotte, sans his rookie season where the NY product only shot five total threes — but it also says he’s not the abomination that couldn’t hit the Pacific ocean with a pebble last season; if Lance can revert toward his Indiana shooting, if mostly by relying on spot-up corner opportunities, he’ll be greater prepared to succeed in the role.

The most notable benefit of starting Stephenson is keeping Paul Pierce in a position where he isn’t put in a position nightly that plays against what he can provide a team in 2015. Offensively, Pierce fits the position the same, spacing the floor and being the seldom shot-creator the Clippers have lacked alongside Blake Griffin and Chris Paul at small forward since the two came together in 2012. But defensively, Pierce is just unable to keep up with today’s wings, having declined greatly in speed at the age 38.

The next biggest benefit, and this couple turn to being the greatest benefit of Lance starting, is having a defensive-capable wing to guard bigger point guards, allowing Chris Paul to rest. In years past, Matt Barnes, the go-to defensive wing, tended to small forward, leaving Paul to battle against the Stephen Curry‘s, Russell Westbrook‘s, and other elite guards, who are also bigger than Paul. Think of it as the same benefit Klay Thompson provides to Stephen Curry or Iman Shumpert to Kyrie Irving — in the end, Paul can better focus on his offensive duties, which may mean a more aggressive scorer come playoff time.

All-in-all, it’s the perfect situation for Stephenson, on paper. What that means in real life? We’ll see, on Oct. 28 when the Clippers take on DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings.

Next: Doc Rivers says Paul Pierce has always been underrated