Lance Stephenson hit his first shot of his first possession as a Clipper — a 3-pointer no less — as the shot clock wound down against the Kings. The much-maligned wing was acquired on the cheap by Los Angeles to inject youthful athleticism to a dusty roster, and maybe, just maybe, he’d regain some of the charm that he fostered in Indiana. Stephenson hit his second shot too — bouncing hard off a screen by Blake Griffin. The possibilities exist for Stephenson to be a fruitful penetrator around Griffin and DeAndre Jordan dunks, sparing regular season wear-and-tear on Chris Paul and adding a second dimension to the Clippers’ already league-high offense.
Alas, the Stephenson question marks have promptly sprouted up after four games. The swingman has made just seven of his last 20 shots, including 2-7 3PA total over four games. He’s attempted three foul shots, and he’s playing only 20.8 minutes per game. He’s averaging 5.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
The good news for Clipper fans is the team hasn’t seemed to be fazed at all. Los Angeles is 4-0 and its potent starting lineup is once again a two-way powerhouse — scoring 116.4 points per 100 possessions and posting a defensive rating of 90.8, per NBA.com. The starters have an assist percentage of 60.5 and assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.42 in 75 minutes. And this is with Paul off to a sluggish start for his illustrious standards.
Blake Griffin has jumped another rung. He’s averaging 29.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists; he’s sinking 62.2 percent of his shots with a 31.9 usage percentage. His jumper has looked unflappable — he’s graduated from purely a popper on the pick-and-roll to an agile attacker who can pull the trigger after multiple dribbles.
Having a play-maker at the 4 like Blake forces opponents into nightmare scenarios on defense. How do you address the constant ball threat of Paul, the offensive tapestry of prime-Griffin, and still persuade cutters and rollers like Jordan and Stephenson to steer clear of the lane? Answer: It’s borderline impossible. Watch Griffin/Stephenson/Jordan toy with the rookie Willie Cauley-Stein on his first game:
The Clippers have questions to answer before this season is all said and done — many of which involve Stephenson and whether or not he’s actually a difference-maker for a team with lofty postseason goals. What makes them a regular season titan, however, transcends Stephenson, and as long as he doesn’t get in the way of this historic offense, Stephenson will enjoy the ride.