If you enjoy endless stationary dribbling leading to contested mid-range jumpers with little to no ball movement, and a complete lack of understand of where to be on defense, boy does Magic Johnson have the player for you. According to Lance Stephenson, it was Johnson who convinced him to leave the Indiana Pacers for the Los Angeles Lakers.
”It was definitely difficult,” Stephenson told reporters after practice Wednesday afternoon. “My family lived there, and leaving my family, that was definitely tough. It was a big decision and I made the decision that I felt like was best for me, and I’m here now.”
When asked if it was LeBron James who helped sway him, Stephenson said it was someone else.
”I would say when Magic called, Magic explained to me what my role would be and that I could definitely help this team. I just went for it. I felt like with me being an addition on this team, I could be very helpful,” Stephenson said.
So what was it about Stephenson that caught Magic’s eye?
”The conversations (I have with Johnson) is just bring that winning mentality. Bring that defensive mindset, and that veteran experience I have. I think so far, so good,” Stephenson said. “I feel like I can get better, and we’re working towards that.”
Here’s the thing: Stephenson doesn’t offer a defensive mindset. On a couple occasions during the blowout at the hands of the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night, he hardly left the key defensively and still managed to give up multiple offensive rebounds right in front of him.
Stephenson mentions a “winning mentality.” Where does that kind of play I just described fit into any of what he’s talking about? If he was really about a winning mentality, he would maybe dribble less and display an even remotely decent shot selection. It’s all lip service until he consistently shows any of this.
This isn’t to say Stephenson is by any means whatsoever alone in offering consistent effort on either end. The Lakers collectively have displayed poor effort for decent chunks of the season. But when a winning mentality is something that Stephenson himself claims he brings to the table, he should be held to a higher standard and expected to set the tone, and he hasn’t.
Additionally, when everyone is healthy, Stephenson probably shouldn’t be in the rotation. 11 guys is just too many and that’s before you get to Walton randomly trying to find minutes for Michael Beasley at the expense of Josh Hart.
If you remove Stephenson and tinker with the starting lineup, you can have a starting group of Lonzo Ball, Hart, Brandon Ingram/Kyle Kuzma (flip a coin at this point), James and JaVale McGee with Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ingram/Kuzma and Tyson Chandler available off the bench.
Walton does prefer a 10-man rotation so he can stick with the hockey subs strategy — even if he’s been staggering more this year — but cutting it down to nine allows for even more seamless staggering of lineups. The issue with simply inserting Stephenson into that 10th spot is that he’d be playing the majority of his minutes alongside Rondo and, say, Ingram (who at this point needs his minutes staggered with LeBron anyway).
That would mean that of the five guys from that bench unit, only KCP would bring shooting, leaving almost zero space for ballhandlers like Rondo or Ingram to create.
So, the question becomes whether Johnson, who as Stephenson says was directly responsible for convincing him to sign, will acknowledge the Stephenson and Beasley mistakes and make some kind of move that alleviates some of the pressure on Walton to get veterans consistent opportunities.
The Lakers attempted a couple experiments this summer. First, they thought they would play small a ton and only needed one NBA-caliber center in the rotation. That failed spectacularly. The team acknowledged that, and subsequently landed Chandler.
Their second experiment was surrounding LeBron with ball-handlers rather than shooters, and that hasn’t looked great either. So now it’ll be interesting to see if they can once again fix an issue they created for the betterment of the team. If they can’t, Walton has some tough decisions and communication ahead of him.