On July 2, 2018, Lance Stephenson agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers and, naturally, the news set the internet on fire.
As if a team spending $4.5 million on Stephenson in 2018 wasn’t funny enough, the 28-year-old wing would be teaming up with his bitter rival, LeBron James, whose ear he famously blew into during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals. The jokes wrote themselves.
As it turns out, though, the dynamic between Stephenson and James was the least of the Lakers’ problems. In fact, Stephenson and James actually got along surprisingly well.
During Stephenson’s exit interview earlier this month, he said that he enjoyed his time playing with James and picked up a few things from him along the way.
“I actually learned a lot being his teammate. It helped my game a little bit, how he approaches it every day in practice and how he studies it. It’s definitely helpful for the young guys learning from him, because I learned a lot from him,” Stephenson said.
“(He’s) very humble, and he pushes us every day. He’s like a coach on the floor, and you need guys like that when you have a young team. It was definitely great,” Stephenson continued. “I learned a lot from him.”
Stephenson also had no complaints about his first season with the Lakers in general except, of course, the number of injuries the team sustained.
“I had an amazing time here. I had fun. This team was amazing. I learned a lot from the guys that was older than me, and had fun with the younger guys and the coaches. I built relationships here where I had a good time,” Stephenson said. “If you think about it, just the injuries messed us up. Even me, I never really got healthy. I’m gonna stick around here and work with the trainers (this summer).”
Had the Lakers not been bitten by the injury bug, Stephenson thinks they could have stayed competitive in the Western Conference.
”If you look at our roster when we was healthy, we was doing a great job. So there’s a lot of ‘what ifs.’ What if a lot of guys didn’t get hurt? What would we have had? I know for a fact that we would’ve been talked about,” Stephenson said.
However, because the Lakers underachieved, Stephenson worries that the “Meme Team” label will be difficult to shake off.
“It’s gonna be hard. The season was rough, and there wasn’t much success,” Stephenson said. “I don’t know that everyone liked the little ‘Meme Team’ (nickname), but I feel like we was a great group. We had fun and we learned a lot from each other.”
While that may be true, it won’t be the only reason they’re remembered in that light and that’s especially true for Stephenson. Not only was he a walking meme whenever he took the court because of his dancing and air guitar skills, but he didn’t exactly set the league on fire with his play this year, either.
Through 68 games with the Lakers, Stephenson posted a net rating of -4.7, which is the third-worst of anyone that appeared in at least 30 games for Los Angeles this season. Rookie Moe Wagner (-9.1) and Rajon Rondo (-8.4) were the two players on the team that finished with lower net ratings than him.
His reputation as an eccentric and unpredictable player certainly won’t make it easy for him to secure his next NBA contract this summer, but he hasn’t done himself any favors by living up to that reputation.
But then again, who doesn’t love a little air guitar?