TrueHoop: Lance Stephenson

Charlotte searching for something more

October, 21, 2014
10/21/14
10:22
AM ET
By Matthew Poindexter
Special to ESPN.com
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Lance StephensonJeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsLance Stephenson comes with some risks, but he'll be worth it if he can build buzz again in Charlotte.
Over the past few years, I rarely was able to convince anyone to watch Charlotte Bobcats basketball. But one evening last season, while visiting a friend who grew up attending Hornets games, I saw on my phone that the Bobcats were tied late in the fourth quarter. When we turned the television on, we watched only two late Charlotte possessions. First, a Bobcats bench player who was trapped along the sideline dribbled the ball off his own foot and out of bounds; the next trip down the floor, they were hit with a shot-clock violation. I’d seen it so often it barely fazed me, but my friend couldn’t take it. The game went to commercial and he changed the channel. “Watching that is masochism.”

He wasn’t wrong, either. Though successful overall, last season’s Bobcats were dreadful on offense, 24th in the NBA. A fan who watched them with any frequency could be easily convinced they were dead last. Charlotte’s slow-paced approach would be called methodical if its methods didn’t produce a team that was in the bottom third in 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage and offensive rebound percentage. Only a league-best turnover rate kept the offense afloat.

The Bobcats instead rode a stellar defense to a winning record and the playoffs, the franchise’s first in four seasons and the second in the Bobcats era. Local fans weren’t along for the ride, though: Time Warner Cable Arena showed almost no change in how many people showed up over the previous season, with the Bobcats coming in 25th in attendance. The Bobcats may have been moderately successful, but they were decidedly not sexy. They made opponents take difficult shots, they didn’t foul, they collected defensive rebounds … and that was about it. Fans apparently wanted something flashier.

This season, Charlotte should get just that. The team’s big offseason signing, Lance Stephenson, should space the floor and create shots like Charlotte hasn’t seen in over a decade. If that happens, expect fans to find their way to Charlotte basketball again. Sure, Stephenson has a well-earned reputation for questionable decisions. He has repeatedly demonstrated poor judgment on the court, in the locker room and perhaps most concerning, off the court. On multiple occasions, he thought it wise to goad the best player in basketball. Teammates reportedly took offense to his actions in Indianapolis. And if Stephenson’s domestic assault arrest had occurred in 2014 instead of 2010, who knows when he would see the court again.

But the 6-foot-5 New Yorker also may be the best guard to wear a Charlotte jersey since Baron Davis. He alone should help make the Hornets' offense easier on the eyes. As should P.J. Hairston, who is quite Stephensonian himself: A spotty off-court track record forced him out of college at North Carolina, but his shooting skills -- especially from behind the arc -- made him worth the risk at pick No. 26 for Charlotte, which ranked in the bottom third in the league in 3-point percentage last season.

Like any fan base, Charlotte will quickly overlook past indiscretions if Stephenson and Hairston make the team’s offense worth the price of admission. But that doesn’t mean the two will receive full pardons from Hornets fans, either. The trust that characterized the 1990s team/fan base relationship is gone, and there’s reason to think it won’t be back for years. Justified or not, local fans feel they have been betrayed more than once. The hurt and loss felt when George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans never totally went away, though the recent Hornets rebranding helps. When the Bobcats arrived, already-distrustful fans were paired with inept ownership and unexplainable front-office decisions. The result was bad basketball that only compounded fan skepticism. More recently, watching Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson use the threat of relocation to force Charlotte taxpayers to foot the bill for millions in unnecessary stadium renovations only furthered fan distrust.

Now, not even the best get adulation mixed with guarded skepticism. Michael Jordan, North Carolina’s basketball Jesus, was seen as a questionable presence even before he became majority owner. Cam Newton, the Panthers’ star quarterback with the perfect smile and otherworldly potential, is routinely blasted on local sports talk radio for perceived immaturity and inability. If Jordan and Newton can’t generate unqualified adulation in Charlotte, baggage-laden free agents like Stephenson have no chance to be welcomed with open arms.

Regardless of fan wariness, rolling the dice on players such as Stephenson and Hairston was the right decision. The only thing that can reasonably bring fans back to Hornets games, both at the arena and on television, is making Charlotte’s offense something worth watching again. Even if the fans never fall in love with Stephenson, he should at least make them show up and cheer. And after everything Charlotte fans have been through, that alone is a welcome change.

East-leading Indy stays home for Christmas

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:44
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- When the NBA schedule came out last summer, the Indiana Pacers players first looked for their opener, then they looked at Christmas Day.

Surely they would've graduated to Christmas Day status -- a trademark sign of national respect in the league -- after going to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat last season.

But Dec. 25 was blank.

"No comment," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "I’m going to leave that one alone."

"We expect stuff like that," David West said. "It was the same reason that at the start of the season I saw us getting picked like fourth in the East."

"I wasn’t expecting to play that day, to be honest," Paul George said. "It’s just the way it’s been for us being here."

Ten teams were picked to play on Wednesday, generally the 10 teams the league expected to generate the most excitement on one of the season’s marquee days. The small-market Pacers didn't make the cut.

They will play in the featured game on Thursday night only once this season, in mid-January. They are not currently scheduled to play in a Sunday afternoon national-television game. Of the four games they play against the Heat this season, two were not initially scheduled to be on one of the league’s national broadcast partners.

Monday night they took apart the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets 103-86. The Nets are the inverse of the Pacers. After their offseason of flashy moves, they received a huge amount of attention and were given a full slot on the national platform, kicking off Christmas Day against the equally disappointing Chicago Bulls.

The Pacers’ payroll this season is a little less than $70 million. The Nets are paying $80 million … in luxury tax. After blowing a late lead in Miami last week put them on their first losing streak of the season, the Pacers have now come back to win three in a row to improve to 23-5.

"We let our play do the talking," West said. "We understand who we are. We’re still growing our names. Even Paul, he’s getting some attention, but people are just starting to get to know him."

The Pacers, who are about five years into a plan that has seen them build primarily through the draft, may get a taste of revenge when the All-Star Game arrives, though. They might as well book a block of rooms in New Orleans for President's Day weekend now.

With the win over the Nets, coach Frank Vogel suddenly has a magic number of 10 to clinch being the All-Star coach for the East. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is ineligible because he was the coach last season and the Pacers have an eight-game lead on the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Vogel could clinch the honor by the middle of January if the team keeps on this pace.

George appears headed to be voted in as a starter; he would be the first Pacer to get that honor since Jermaine O'Neal in 2003. Hibbert probably won’t get voted in -- the ballot no longer has a center designation -- but is nearly a lock to get there.

"LeBron can start at center," Hibbert said. "He can play all five positions."

West, a two-time All-Star, will get strong consideration, and even Lance Stephenson -- a player who would've drawn laughs when mentioned in All-Star talk a few months ago -- is gaining traction. Or at least the Pacers are trying to give it to him.

Indiana might not lead the league in attention, but it is among the leaders in confidence. Hibbert has been on his own campaign to win NBA defensive player of the year. Teammates have mentioned George as an MVP candidate. And now the vogue idea is to pitch Stephenson as an All-Star.

"He should be in the conversation," Vogel said. "He’s got to be in the conversation."

Stephenson had his third triple-double of the season Sunday against the Boston Celtics, then Monday he put on a show in his hometown in front of about 30 friends and family. He had a career-high 26 points with 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

With each basket, his buddies sitting above the Pacers bench would jump up and pump their fists. As the game got out of hand and Nets fans started leaving, the Stephenson section became more and more audible.

"I was pretty emotionally hyped for this game," Stephenson said. "I couldn't really sleep last night."

In the end, perhaps the Pacers ended up with the best deal in it all. The schedule has them off until Saturday, a break that allowed the team to give the players two days off over the holiday. Stephenson stayed in Brooklyn with family. The rest of the Pacers, at least according to Hibbert’s Twitter feed, spent their bus ride toward their Christmas vacation arguing over who has the better career: Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus.

Meanwhile, the Heat complained in a recent meeting with incoming commissioner Adam Silver that they had to travel to L.A. for Christmas when they’re the defending champs. Flying under the radar can, it seems, have its perks.

"Everything has played perfect for us. We didn’t get distracted with too much attention," said George, who had 26 points of his own in the win. "I feel like that’ll change in the future."

A few thoughts about Roy Hibbert

May, 23, 2013
5/23/13
12:29
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Mornings like these make the NBA so much fun, especially when the debate touches on concrete strategy rather than abstractions.

On the surface, whether Pacers coach Frank Vogel should have left Roy Hibbert on the floor during crucial, late-game defensive possessions is a binary decision, but several factors govern Vogel's strategy in that situation. Although I'm strongly with the majority opinion that says when defensive possessions matter most you have your best defenders on the floor, the doubts implicitly expressed by Vogel when he left his 7-foot-2 center on the sideline must also be addressed.

If Vogel decides to not match down to the Heat's smaller lineup, here are a few fun counterfactual strategies to consider -- some more sensible than others.
  • With 2.2 seconds left, an NBA defense is immune from a defensive 3-second call and can effectively zone up against any play. A zone defense is vulnerable to all kinds of hazards, open shots most prominent among them, because the goal is to guard space rather than individuals. Not having a specific guy tasked with defending specific scorers is risky, especially if one of those scorers is named LeBron James. But the Pacers are uniquely equipped to run a matchup zone for 2.2 seconds. Place Hibbert inside the circle, match up Paul George on James and zone the back side of the floor. The Pacers have some of the most capable, long-armed gap defenders in basketball and close space on shooters better than any team in the league. Zoning up would take away just about anything at the rim, though it would leave the Pacers vulnerable to a potential midrange shot from Chris Bosh -- a pretty reasonable trade-off, if not an ideal one.
  • Too dangerous, especially since the most prolific long-distance shooter in history is licking his chops on the weak side? Then how about not guarding the inbounder, Shane Battier, leaving Hibbert underneath and going with a man-to-man defense on the other four Miami players? It's a tough call, because ball pressure is essential and, as every coach at every level preaches, somebody must account for the inbounder once the ball is put in play. But let's replay the possession with Battier passing the ball in to James as he did Wednesday night. James is a willing passer and could conceivably return the ball to Battier, who stands 30 feet from the basket, with 1-point-whatever seconds remaining on the clock. It's safe to say that's a shot the Pacers can live with.
  • If you're not feeling the zone strategy and you also believe, as Vogel did, that Hibbert's lack of mobility was too much of a liability against a fast-moving, screen-heavy set with multiple shooters on the floor, then consider assigning Hibbert to cover the inbound pass. Approximately 2.5 million people were in Miami-Dade last night. If you asked Battier to list in descending order those he'd least like to see standing in front of him as he prepared to throw the ball inbounds to a Heat teammate, it's a good bet Hibbert would have been at the top of that list. The best use of Hibbert is still near the basket, but if he makes you nervous at the top of the circle when you know a back screen for Bosh is on the way, why not put him to some use by allowing him to disrupt an inbound pass then race after the ball for a possible block from behind?
  • Let Hibbert sink or swim. Those defending Vogel's decision have a point -- a down screen for Bosh is a tough switch for Hibbert. But there are creative ways to play it: (1) Have Lance Stephenson switch on to Bosh, as he did. (2) Have Hibbert drop immediately to the paint. (3) Have David West, who was guarding the inbounds pass, switch on to Allen as he sprinted to the sideline since he was effectively there. Again, Battier would be the open man, but at 30 feet or so.

The Pacers outlasted their rivals in the East because they brought length, speed and versatility to the defensive end and had the rim protection provided by Hibbert. For nearly 100 games, Vogel has stayed true to that formula, but he had a crisis of faith when it mattered most. On Wednesday night, perfect defense was the enemy of the good defense.

It didn't help that his best man defender, George, got annihilated so quickly and absolutely. Had Hibbert been standing at the rim, it's easy to imagine James shuttling a pass to Bosh for the duck-in or kicking the ball out to another shooter. Credit James for presenting that kind of challenge. For years, critics have killed him for not wanting to take the last shot, but ask yourself this:

If James were an I'm-shooting-at-all-cost player, would Vogel have been so concerned about the supporting cast that he would leave his rim protector on the bench out of fear of an open shooter?

Pacers trio makes significant impact on 'd'

May, 5, 2013
5/05/13
9:19
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Paul George was one of the big keys to the Pacers win in Game 1.

The Indiana Pacers won Game 1 against the New York Knicks with defense and did so thanks to three players in particular- Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson.

Here’s a thorough breakdown of the numbers that best illustrate that.

George’s impact
George led the NBA in Defensive Win Shares and showed why with his Game 1 work against Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.

The shot chart above shows how both of those Knicks fared when George was their primary defender. That duo was 9-for-19 against the Pacers other defenders, but only 5-for-24 combined against George.

Hibbert’s impact
The Knicks were held to 43 percent shooting from inside five feet with Hibbert on the court on Sunday (league average on such shots: 59 percent).

The Pacers have outscored opponents by 50 points inside five feet with Hibbert on the floor this postseason and have been outscored by 22 with Hibbert on the bench.

You can see a more detailed breakdown in the cHart on the right.

Stephenson’s impact
Stephenson provided an unexpected spark Sunday, scoring 11 points and grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds.

The Pacers defense has been better with Stephenson on the court throughout the playoffs, allowing 90.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 112.0 with him off the floor.

On Sunday, they outscored the Knicks by 17 and held them to 38 percent shooting in Stephenson’s 39 minutes.

In the nine minutes Stephenson was out, the Knicks outscored the Pacers by 10, and shot 69 percent, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range.

Looking ahead: Something has to give
The Knicks are 0-5 all-time in playoff series’ after losing Game 1 at home, including 0-3 in best-of-7s.

Sunday marked their first such loss since the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals, when they lost Game 1 on Reggie Miller’s eight-point late-game outburst.

The Pacers have actually lost the last three playoff series in which they’ve won Game 1 on the road since that 1995 series.

Killer Lineup: The Pacers' stingy starters

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
12:30
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
George Hill | Lance Stephenson | Paul George | David West | Roy Hibbert
Minutes Played: 877
Offensive Rating: 107.7 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 93.6 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Pacers coach Frank Vogel is a man who appreciates uniformity. Last season, his team’s primary lineup logged 1,000 minutes. No other unit in the NBA topped 750 minutes. This season, the Pacers’ starters once again lead all five-man units in minutes played -- only this time it’s George Hill and Lance Stephenson in place of Darren Collison (traded during the offseason) and Danny Granger (made his debut Saturday after missing the first 55 games of the season because of patellar tendinosis).

When newly assembled units struggle to find themselves offensively, coaches often will preach patience and time. In the case of the Pacers this season, that largely has worked. With each passing month in Granger’s absence, Indiana’s starting five have grown more comfortable as an offense, and they’ve been impressively efficient in the past 20 games or so.

For one, they get into their stuff more quickly. That swing sequence at the top of the floor that opens many of their half-court possessions -- wing-to-big-to-wing -- happens promptly and crisply. From here, the Pacers generally go one of a few different ways.

First, there’s George, who’s the unit’s most effective (and only true) creator off the bounce. The Pacers might isolate him inside the arc on the left side and let him work over a smaller defender. They’ll also use Hibbert to pin down for George to pop out to the perimeter. With enough separation, George will take the shot, but if his defender is close, he’ll put the ball on the floor.

Comparatively few of George’s possessions originate from high pick-and-rolls. Every once in a while in early offense, West will set a little step-up screen, but George clearly prefers to rub his guy off West or Hibbert at the foul-line extended area about 15 feet from the basket. Overall, George is a player who likes a layer of space around him while he’s working on offense (it’s not unusual to see George politely wave off a pick). Given that tendency, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine him playing alongside some guys who can actually shoot the ball from distance.

With West and Hibbert on the floor, the Pacers look inside a fair amount. There’s a certain obligation to feed Hibbert if his defender ends up on the high side. He’ll also see the ball if the matchup advantage is wildly in his favor. Despite Hibbert’s struggles to find his hook shot, there’s been no detectable fall-off in his touches.

West at the elbow is a higher-grade option. Big men with the ability to control a possession from the high post are becoming a less common breed. From that spot, West can turn around and fire a jumper, but more often than not he surveys the scene. As West watches the defense, he’s patient, scanning the perimeter. Who’s cheating? Who’s inclined to cheat if I get into my move? If West finds something, he’ll kick the ball out. If not, he might unleash a ball fake or just return it to the top of the floor.

The Pacers do a nice job of using West on the weakside elbow as a sensible release option. When teams load up on George on one side of the floor, the Pacers have increasingly looked West’s way as the logical counter. George is getting better and better at reading the court for his next best option, in large part because he’s learned that looking to West at that spot is generally the answer.

The ball doesn’t spend a great amount of time in the hands of Hill, who’s far more of a cutter than an initiator in the half court. Defenses have universally run under any ball screen set for Hill, and he’s become considerably more willing to shoot the 3-ball if given sufficient space. A couple of times a game, Hill will dribble left of one of those picks, then launch a shot from distance. Overall, he’s 36.9 percent from beyond the arc.

The unit generally plays together in six-, eight-, sometimes even 10-minute stints, and at some point, Stephenson will get a chance to initiate in the half court. Stephenson probably will never be a guy with whom you can create beautiful basketball, but playing with this unit has refined him as a player. It’s not just the shooting percentages, which are way up. Stephenson is a better decision-maker, a better mover and still a beast on the break. Sometimes when a player goes from a bench mob to the junior member of a five-man unit, all of the manual labor and errand-running that come with that job make him value his time with the ball more.

How it works defensively
Exceptionally well, which is an affirmation of some traditional truths about basketball. Even as the NBA undergoes a radical sea change with respect to size and position, being big is still an asset. Virtually every single night they take the floor, the Pacers’ starters have an enormous advantage -- literally. With the 6-foot-2 Hill replacing the 6-0 Collison in the first unit, the Pacers have legitimate length at all five positions and tower over opponents. Logically enough, this group works its strength.

It’s tough to move downhill against the Pacers in the half court because everywhere an offensive player turns, there are limbs blocking his path. For similar reasons, it’s also difficult to shoot over the top, move off the ball and more generally, find open parking spots anywhere on the floor. As a result, defenses have to work hard to get clean looks against the Pacers’ first unit.

Strong defenses tend to rotate well, but the elite ones don’t have to rotate at all. We can confidently place the Pacers’ starters in that group. Individually, each perimeter player contains his man at the point of attack, while West and Hibbert can handle just about any one-on-one matchup they’re assigned. Hill, Stephenson and George don’t have to worry about finding shooters because they’re already on top of them anytime they’re within a couple of feet. Opponents get fewer than 15 3-point attempts per 48 minutes against this unit (among the most frequently used lineups, only Chicago’s top two units do better), and converting only 31.3 percent of them.

George is a useful case study in why opponents can’t access normally reliable second and third options after the Pacers stop the ball on the first. It’s fun to watch George defend on the weakside. When he’s off the ball covering a stationary player on the perimeter, George will confidently run through a sequence of motions -- move toward the action on the ball side, dance back a couple of steps when a passing lane to his man opens up, cheat again once that window closes but not without a quick look back to make sure his guy hasn’t moved to a different spot where he could hurt the Pacers.

There’s no science to measure off-ball defense, but when you observe a player make every step toward and away from the action with so much purpose, when bad gambles and iffy decision occur so rarely, it becomes easy to understand how a unit is surrendering only 93.6 points per 100 possessions.

Now, is this a case of a wing player like George having the luxury of playing alongside two big men who can handle the pick-and-roll? Or do the big guys excel because they play with a point guard like Hill who can corral opposing point guards and fight over screens when necessary, and wings like George (6-8) and Stephenson (6-5) who can hold their own against attackers who might post up or drive against lesser defenders?

In the case of Indiana’s featured lineup, the answer is both. There’s a mutual benefit between big and small that carries over from the perimeter to the basket area. Guys remain in their area, but Hibbert has a lot to do with that. He rarely leaves the paint, and why should he, because at 7-2 he’s far more effective playing goalie than he would be commuting from the top of the floor off a hard show or jamming a screener.

If a guard is able to beat Hill or Stephenson, Hibbert lies in wait and can contain him with his outstretched arms, all the while shading his man, which allows West or a weakside defender to stay at home. With few open targets surrounding him, the guard now has to find a way to magically deliver the ball to the hoop against a deceptively quick-footed, lurching giant -- and if he gets close enough, probably a second long-armed defender.

West might be even be a worse candidate for exploitation in the pick-and-roll for an offense. West meets the ball handler way up at the top of the floor, then chases down his original matchup (or other big man if Hibbert picks up West’s guy, sometimes the case when it’s a power forward with some skills). This is an exhausting anaerobic workout for a big guy, but the 6-9 West never stops moving for a second. His gift is knowing how to time his departures and arrivals. West can launch an all-out blitz on a point guard if Jason Maxiell is his man. But if he’s guarding someone who could potentially cause some trouble, especially as a popper, West will temper his attack.

Sometimes, a frustrated offense will all but abandon a pick-and-roll attack against the Pacers, which is why you see opponents stagnate. If you can’t get anything against the pick-and-roll, can’t capably penetrate by isolating your perimeter guys, and if Hibbert is going to confront anyone who gets within 8 feet of the basket, then what do you have?

Finally, with Granger active again, does Vogel take minutes away from this unit to accommodate Granger's return? The more difficult question to answer for Vogel is whether he can afford to.

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