We are only two games into it, but so far The Great Lance Stephenson Experiment has produced extremely uneven results. It’s not ready for prime time yet. On Saturday night, it was telling that Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford ditched the experiment during the most critical part of the game.
Stephenson, Charlotte’s major offseason acquisition, scored only two points in the Hornets’ 71-69 loss to Memphis Saturday night at home. And he was benched for the fourth quarter by a clearly frustrated Clifford.
“I went with the team that was playing the best,” a testy Clifford said in his postgame news conference, several times pounding the table with his right hand for emphasis. “I’m going to coach to win.”
Clifford said of Stephenson: “He just didn’t play very well. Look, he’s trying to find his rhythm. But we’ve got to be organized.”
Stephenson did not lash back at his coach after hearing some of the postgame comments. He has shot 4-for-18 in the Hornets’ first two games, after all, and knows he is struggling. I asked him if he was frustrated, too.
“I am frustrated, but that’s part of being a pro,” Stephenson said. “Just learning from your mistakes and getting better every time.”
Stephenson played 27 minutes in the first three quarters and zero in the fourth. Charlotte shot 30.3 percent in the first three quarters and 56.3 percent in the fourth, when the Hornets nearly pulled off another late comeback. They ultimately fell short when Charlotte couldn’t score in the last 68 seconds – Al Jefferson got a bloody nose on what should have been a foul but instead became a traveling call – and the Hornets made a couple of bad defensive errors.
Stephenson signed a three-year, $27.4-million contract in the offseason, with the Hornets luring him from Indiana and hoping he would be a key piece to a future championship run. And he has contributed. He leads the team in both rebounds (10.5 per game) and assists (6.0) after two games.
Stephenson isn’t the only player trying to find his shot, either. Kemba Walker shot 1-for-11 Saturday, missed the potential game-tying jumper at the end and is now 10 for 37 through two games.
But Clifford obviously isn’t happy with his team freelancing its way through a lot of offensive possessions. Stephenson – while not all of the problem – is a big part of that.
Clifford took pains to praise guard Gary Neal for being “smart,” “organized” and “great” during his news conference. It was Neal (10 points) who took Stephenson’s place for almost all of the fourth quarter.
Said Clifford: “What I saw in the fourth quarter was smart, inside-out basketball ... Fundamentally sound ... Before that it was laissez-faire, random basketball, which – against a team like (Memphis) – you got no shot.”
Stephenson made one of his six shot attempts on the night – a layup in the third quarter. He still hasn’t scored in the first half this season.
Immediately after making that layup, he went one on one on the next possession and missed a 19-foot stepback jumper.
“We’re learning each other,” Stephenson said of he and his teammates. “We’re trying to figure out each other and I’m learning the offense at the same time. So I’m just trying to get comfortable and learn the offense so I can get comfortable shots.”
So far, this has been an uncomfortable two games for Stephenson and the Hornets. There are 80 more to go, so it’s also important not to overreact. This is a very small sample size.
But Stephenson, who has the nickname Born Ready, certainly doesn’t seem to be ready at all in his coach’s eyes. And that is going to need to get fixed if these Hornets ever are going to make much of a buzz.