Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 14, Lance Stephenson, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.
After going at each other’s throats (and ears) for the greater half of this decade, LeBron James and Lance Stephenson will both be suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. Off the court, it might make for a fun story, but on the court, Stephenson’s fit with the team is questionable at best.
The general rationale behind the Lakers bringing Stephenson on board is the idea that he brings a fiery, defensive toughness, but while there’s no denying that Stephenson has a reputation for being an irritant on the defensive end, his abilities as an actual stopper have been overstated tremendously.
According to ESPN, Stephenson posted a defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) of -3.01 last season. To put into context just how bad that is, out of 521 players, only ten had a worse DRPM than Stephenson. Unfortunately, this isn’t a recent trend, either.
In each of the last three seasons, Stephenson has been a negative defender. Even Marcelo “The Catalyst” Huertas posted a better DRPM when he was in a Lakers uniform during the 2015-16 season. Stephenson hasn’t been an above average defender since the 2013-14 season, when he finished the season ranked No. 6 in the NBA in defensive win shares (4.8).
That’s not to say that players that aren’t positive defenders can’t contribute to a contending team. For example, Kyrie Irving was one of the worst defenders at the point guard position the year the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Finals in 2016, but he made up for it by posting an offensive real plus-minus (ORPM) of +4.29, which ranked No. 6 in the league that season. Stephenson, on the other hand, hasn’t had an positive ORPM since the 2013-14 season (+0.90).
However, Stephenson has shown he has the tools to be a valuable offensive player, he just has a problem with consistently putting all of it together. As Indiana Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard put it last month, “Sometimes he was the best player on our team and sometimes he was the best player on the other team.”
Through 82 games with the Indiana Pacers last season, the 27-year-old averaged 9.2 points, on 42.7 percent shooting from the field and a lowly 28.9 percent shooting from behind the arc, which was among the worst of any players to attempt at least two 3-pointers per game.
Luckily, Stephenson does most of his work from inside the three-point line, with 65.8 percent of his field goal attempts coming from two-point territory and 34 percent coming from within 10 feet of the basket last season, according to NBA.com. On shots within 10 feet of the basket, he shot an efficient 62.2 percent.
Part of the reason Stephenson is so effective at getting to the basket is because of his how creative, and some would argue over-ambitious, he is with the ball. Just look at the way he cooks New York Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina in this clip:
Because of his ability to create his own shot, 65.7 percent (199-of-303) of Stephenson’s baskets were unassisted last season, meaning he made unassisted shots at a higher rate than Kyrie Irving, Lou Williams and Victor Oladipo. However, those are just the shots me made.
More often than not, Stephenson’s sporadic shot selection is detrimental to the offense, as evidenced by his ORPM of -0.32. Irving, Williams and Oladipo were all in the top-20 ORPM despite being heavy isolation scorers.
During games where the offense isn’t flowing and they need to buy a basket, Stephenson’s shot creation could be valuable. Otherwise, Stephenson’s best role with the team will be as a playmaker, something the Lakers arguably need more than another shot creator off the bench.
Last season, Stephenson dished 235 assists with an 18.6 percent assist percentage. With a 19.9 percent career assist percentage, Stephenson is a more reliable playmaker than renowned playmaking wings like Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nicolas Batum and Andre Iguodala, according to basketball-reference.com.
He’ll be especially helpful in transition because of his knack for grabbing rebounds as a wing. Stephenson posted a career-high 23 percent defensive rebound percentage last season, which was higher than both Julius Randle (22.7 percent) and LeBron James (22.5 percent).
The Lakers will have no shortage of playmakers on the roster next season with Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and James, but adding another playmaker on the wing will allow players like Ingram and James to play off ball more in lineups with non-shooters like Rondo and Ball, and Stephenson himself.
Stephenson can provide meaningful minutes off the bench for the Lakers, but ideally, he won’t be heavily featured as a scorer. If Walton decides the second unit is in need of a shooting win, he’d be better of deferring to Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart or even Svi Mykhailiuk, who could sneak up and take Stephenson’s playing time with a big performance in training camp.
The uncertainty of Stephenson’s role (in spite of his big name) is what makes him the No. 14 most interesting Laker in our countdown, and while he could end up ranking lower if he just doesn’t play and is a good soldier, his boom or bust potential leaves him worth watching.
The countdown so far:
14. Lance Stephenson
15. Luol Deng
16. Alex Caruso
17. Travis Wear