Scott Fowler

Lance Stephenson’s relationship with Hornets hits low point

Lance Stephenson didn’t play Monday in the Charlotte Hornets’ 116-104 loss to the Boston Celtics. The look on his face from this game in November probably appeared at some point Monday night at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Lance Stephenson didn’t play Monday in the Charlotte Hornets’ 116-104 loss to the Boston Celtics. The look on his face from this game in November probably appeared at some point Monday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. GETTY

This is how messed up the Charlotte Hornets are.

Injuries have knocked out two of their starters and forced a third (Al Jefferson) to basically play on one leg. They are a few days from falling out of the playoff race entirely. They had a huge game looming Monday night against Boston.

And Lance Stephenson – the player the Hornets gave a three-year, $27.4 million contract to this past offseason to be a difference-maker – was healthy but did not play for one second.

On the positive side, he had no turnovers.

Charlotte lost anyway 116-104.

Stephenson’s star has fallen so far with coach Steve Clifford that his usual 26 minutes per game went to a combination of Jeffery Taylor, P.J. Hairston and Brian Roberts. NBA players dread the label “DNP-CD” – it stands for “Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision” – and this was Stephenson’s first with the Hornets.

Was the DNP-CD a good decision by Clifford?

Well, given that the Hornets couldn’t guard anybody all night and lost handily at home to one of the teams they are battling with for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, I’d have to say it was not. The combined efforts of Taylor, Hairston and Roberts could be described in one word: unimpressive.

But would Stephenson have made a significant difference? I doubt it. These Hornets (31-42) are so far afield now that, with nine games left, the completion of this lost season is only two weeks away. No way they make the playoffs.

And what to do with Stephenson after that?

Since December, I have advocated a trade. But now he has become virtually untradable. So somehow, in the offseason, Stephenson’s game must be rehabbed. There is still potential to be mined. He and the Hornets are, for the time being, stuck with each other.

This is how Clifford explained the decision to bench Stephenson on Monday: “I’m just obviously searching without Mike (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is out with an injury). … I explained to (Stephenson) that I’m not saying it’s his fault at all.

“But we have struggled to find a group that has played well off the bench in these last few games. Jeff (Taylor) has to play with Mike out. We need a defender and an energy guy out there and he’s the best guy, the guy most like Mike. And we need shooting. … Lance was disappointed and wants to play. I give him credit. He said, ‘I know I can help the team,’ and he handled it well.”

When I asked Stephenson after the game if the decision had upset him, he replied: “Of course. I feel like I could have helped our team. I feel like I could have helped tonight. But it’s not in my hands. I just come out every day and try to get ready for each game and stay in shape.”

Stephenson said nothing controversial. He tries hard to be professional during interviews, which is smart. But on the court his body language is awful, his passes are suspect and his jump shot never made the move from Indiana with him.

It has been a bad marriage all season, speckled with a couple of golden moments that remind you how much talent Stephenson has hidden somewhere in that body.

Monday night was another low point for the marriage – maybe the lowest, really.

The Hornets were hurting. And their coach decided that no matter how much Stephenson is costing the team, he simply couldn’t help.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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