It is time for the Charlotte Hornets to cut their losses on the Great Lance Stephenson Experiment.
Dealing Stephenson won’t be easy, for everyone in the NBA has seen how disjointed the Hornets have become since he arrived. But it’s something the Hornets need to do.
The Hornets took a chance on Lance. It failed. Time to bail.
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Charlotte is a worse team with Stephenson on the court than without him, which is bizarre but absolutely true in the Hornets’ current incarnation.
The primary problem is Stephenson needs the ball on offense – a lot – to get into a rhythm. But Kemba Walker is a “score-first” point guard who also needs the ball to be effective. And Al Jefferson needs the ball down low. And there’s only one ball. And when Stephenson doesn’t have it, he seems somewhat lost.
Jefferson and Walker are the best players on this Hornets team, which fell to 6-18 after losing 97-88 to Cleveland Monday night. Stephenson was supposed to be the third Musketeer, but instead he has careened from one extreme to another on the court. League sources say the Hornets are actively shopping Stephenson – with Indiana and Brooklyn the most likely landing places – but nothing is imminent. It might stay that way for a while, for Charlotte is negotiating from a position of severe weakness.
If you looked at Stephenson’s individual statistics, you wouldn’t know how badly the experiment has gone. Although he can’t shoot a lick from 3-point range – Stephenson was 8-for-48 for a horrid 16.7 percent entering the Cleveland game – he averages 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and five assists. Those are all respectable numbers.
But the key number is the Hornets’ record. They went 43-39 last season and made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. Now they are so far below .500 it will be miraculous if they can find their way to another winning record this season.
When Stephenson is in the game, it looks awkward. He can’t stretch the floor as a shooter, which means Jefferson still draws double-teams. No one makes the other team consistently pay for that by making 3-pointers (Marvin Williams was supposed to help more with that than he has).
Often, coach Steve Clifford has benched Stephenson for entire fourth quarters, going instead with a better shooter such as Brian Roberts or Gary Neal. This, as you can imagine, has not gone over well with Stephenson, who is 24 and did not get the nickname “Born Ready” for picking up splinters on the bench.
Before the Hornets signed Stephenson in July, I wrote a column that began: “Not Lance Stephenson. Let’s start there, shall we?”
Then the Hornets ignored me, much like my kids do when I tell them it’s time for bed, and signed Stephenson to a three-year, $27.4 million contract. The third year of that deal is at the club’s option, so Stephenson’s contract is somewhat tradeable.
But the Hornets are going to have to take somebody else’s bad contract in return and quite possibly throw in a future first-round draft pick, too, to get any deal done. They shouldn’t be in “deal-at-any-cost” mode, and they shouldn’t release him outright. But they need to accept that this is a mess, and untangling it is going to require some work and some pain.
I’m not going to say, “I told you so,” because I haven’t been certain my original opinion was correct all this time. It certainly didn’t look that way during November when Stephenson banked in a 33-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Atlanta in double overtime.
But that lucky shot – and it was lucky, for no one banks a 33-footer on purpose – has not repeated itself. What has repeated itself, over and over, has been the Hornets losing and looking disorganized with Stephenson on the floor.
Listen, it’s not all Stephenson’s fault. Far from it. Losing Josh McRoberts during the offseason was a huge blow from which Charlotte has yet to recover. Stephenson and Williams combined have not had as much positive impact on the Hornets as McRoberts did last season.
I also understand that some people will say, “No, it’s too early. The Hornets haven’t even played a third of the season yet. Give it time.”
Maybe this relationship will improve with age. But I don’t see it. I see it as more likely that Stephenson becomes another Tyrus Thomas or Adam Morrison, buried on the end of the bench – another “seemed like a good idea at the time” player who didn’t help the win-loss record.
The difference is Stephenson is more talented than Morrison and has a less onerous contract than Thomas. So Stephenson could go somewhere else and play well again, like he did with Indiana last season when he had a more deferential point guard, played on a better team and led the NBA in triple-doubles.
But the chemistry between Charlotte and Stephenson is just not right. It’s like when two people go on a date and sort of admire each other from afar, but that’s it. The spark isn’t there. Best to let it go.
To make the chemistry work, Stephenson would need some new teammates and a new coach. And we’re not talking about Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant here. Stephenson is not a good enough player to reshape an entire franchise to suit his needs.
Eventually, Stephenson is going to have to go. Might as well be sooner rather than later.