Lance Stephenson, good, bad, or otherwise, is whatever he is in the moment largely because of those who are around him. Two seasons ago, the erratic wing was the benefactor of a budding star's gravitational pull, a veteran's highly efficient pick-and-pop shooting, a malleable guard's willingness to wait in the corner, a center's ability to erase his mistakes at the rim, and his coach's abundantly generous leeway. Within the bounds of this highly favorable environment, Stephenson's defensive miscues were minimized while the full-force of his dynamic driving was maximized, as his 13 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game on 49 percent shooting nearly earned him an All-Star selection.
None of this ever managed to carry over to his short one-season stint in Charlotte, where the mercurial player opted to take an ill-advised chance on himself rather than stay put in the place where he had come into his own. Without deferential shooters creating space for him to turn the corner or hit the screener, the ball dominant swingman transformed from a strong, athletic driver into an inconsistent pull-up shooter and historically bad long-range marksman (17.1%).
Exchanging Charlotte's league-worst accuracy from behind the arc (31.8%) for the comforts of LA's pick-and-roll heavy offense and third-best three-point conversion rate, boosted by the talents of J.J. Redick (47.5%), Chris Paul (37.1%), and Jamal Crawford (34.0%), should have made it easier for Lance to rediscover the best parts of himself. Instead, bad habits quickly re-emerged, as Lucas Hann over at Clips Nation highlights:
The biggest issue comes from his attitude, and his attitude's effect on his effort. When Lance isn't getting the ball, he stops participating on both offense and defense. It's very easy for him to get out of the flow of the game, and once he's falls out it's very hard to get him engaged again. He turns demonstrably whiny at not getting the ball, and disengaged defensively. Furthermore, he stops moving off of the ball. One other issue is that he tends to not be a fan of making simple passes. Lance likes to dribble the ball into the ground, and his touches end in shots, assists, or turnovers, never a simple pass to move the ball.
As for Head Coach Doc Rivers, he pinpoints Stephenson's inability to play within the team's defensive system as the reason why things didn't work out for the former Pacer with the Clippers.
"He wasn't a great fit for us," Rivers told ESPN's Zach Lowe. "Defensively -- that's where I was more disappointed, and shocked. I look at that body, and that athleticism, and I think: That's a prototypical great defender. And he's not that."
The end result was him being shipped to the Memphis Grizzlies, where he averaged a career-high 14.2 points to go with 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists over a small sample size of 26 games.
Yet, even this brief resurgence should bring with it reason for pause. Due to the staggering number of injuries sustained by Memphis' roster last season, Stephenson was routinely surrounded by D-League call-ups and players on 10-day contracts, neither of which exactly categorize the sort of teammates who would be apt to complain about lack of involvement. Minimum 20 games played, Lance Stephenson used a team-high and career-high 25.3 percent of Memphis' offensive possessions last season, which certainly would not continue if he were to rejoin the Indiana Pacers.
Of course, that may in part be because it is difficult to envision how the prodigal point wing would go about finding his niche alongside the rest of Indiana's new roster, even if the team opts to unload either Monta Ellis or Rodney Stuckey's contract.
Barring the addition of an extra basketball, playing Stephenson in the starting lineup next to Jeff Teague would likely only neuter each player's ability to thrive in the pick-and-roll. Granted, Lance's three-point field-goal percentage bounced back in Memphis (35.5%) after his disastrous season in Charlotte, but he only attempted slightly over one shot from behind the arc per game in 2015-16 which may partially account for the percentage increase. In turn, having the 25-year-old take up residence in the corners previously inhabited by George Hill in order to pry defenders from Paul George and open the driving lanes for Teague seems like it would be a losing proposition, especially given that Thaddeus Young is better utilized around the rim than out of the pick-and-pop.
It is equally easy to anticipate spacing issues arising if he were to be used as the primary ball handler off the bench, where old teammate Al Jefferson is expected to backup Myles Turner. Big Al, even in a reserve role last season, only placed in the 63rd percentile on post-ups and his conversion rate on hook shots has declined over the last few seasons. Putting a plodder, who derives 60 percent of his offense within 10-feet of the basket, on the floor with someone who needs the lane to be unclogged to be most effective already proved out to be a problematic combination.
In fact, during the 2014-15 season, Stephenson and Jefferson posted the worst net rating (-7.9) of any two-man lineup that played at least 900 minutes for the Charlotte Hornets, scoring a woeful 94.3 points per 100 possessions.
Making matters worse, having Lavoy Allen take up space on the opposite low block and parking Rodney Stuckey's J-challenged game behind the three-point line would likely only act as an incentive for opponents to pack the paint and double Jefferson.
All of which brings to question why the Pacers would ever discuss the possibility of bringing Lance back on a multi-year contract when the team's brass could instead opt to invest their remaining cap space on a much needed floor spacer. Stephenson is younger than Ellis and perhaps more durable than Stuckey, but his fit in Indiana, whether as a starter or as a reserve, isn't particularly clean even without those two's redundancy.
Outside of Paul George and C.J. Miles (inconsistently),the shooters he needed to open up his game in Charlotte will again be absent. With Jeff Teague at the point, he won't have the command of the basketball he thirsted after to the point of disengagement in Los Angeles, and without a significant roster shakeup he won't be using the same percentage of possessions that allowed him to increase his productivity in Memphis ahead of free agency.
David West's knockdown shooting from mid-range, George Hill's deference, and Frank Vogel's leniency aren't here anymore, so why should the assumption be that Lance will revert to being who he once was when every step in his career has been defined by who's around him?