The Charlotte Bobcats were one of the most surprising teams of the 2013-2014 season. Broadly questioned when they signed Al Jefferson to an outsized contract of three years and $40 million last summer, the Bobcats rode his low-post supremacy and team-wide defensive improvement to 43 wins and the seven seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They were swept by the Miami Heat in the first round, of course, but that belies the big-picture development in Charlotte: The Bobcats weren’t only successful, but figured to be even more so in the future.
That optimism was gleaned from Jefferson, internal improvement by players like Kemba Walker, and an offseason that owner Michael Jordan promised would bring additional talent to North Carolina. But what loomed larger than the individual influence of Jefferson, Walker, or anything else last season was the presence of head coach Steve Clifford.
An NBA assistant since 2000 that’s long been held in high-esteem, Clifford turned the Bobcats into something close to a defensive juggernaut in his first season as a head coach. By implementing a conservative, consistent, and unyielding system that played to the strengths of his roster, Clifford guided Charlotte to the sixth best defensive efficiency in the league last season. It was the other end that ultimately doomed the Bobcats – they ranked 24th in offensive efficiency.
But Jordan’s assurance that the achievements of his team during the 2012-2013 season – coupled with a name-change back to the beloved “Hornets” – would yield a big fish in free agency proved true. After signing Gordon Hayward to a max-level contract that the Utah Jazz ultimately matched, the Hornets decided to take a chance on Lance Stephenson that no other team felt comfortable taking. Charlotte signed the undeniably mercurial but undeniably talented Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million deal that flies in the face of his current two-way worth and room to grow as a primary playmaker.
Clifford, obviously, agrees with that assessment. In an exclusive interview with Eye On Basketball’s James Herbert, the Hornets’ coach spoke glowingly of Stephenson’s offensive abilities.
“Offensively, he really has the ability to do everything,” Clifford said.
That sentiment clashes with Lance’s raw numbers. The 23 year-old averaged a solid 13.8 points and 4.6 assists per game last season while registering an average player efficiency rating of 14.72. Analysis gleaned from simple box scores actually make Stephenson’s bargain contract seem appropriate. As always, though, context is crucial.
Stephenson played an ancillary role for the Indiana Pacers in 2012-2013, often serving as the team’s fourth option on offense. And it’s because his talent level so dwarfs that circumstance that Stephenson became a locker room headache as the season wore on and it became clear he merited more responsibility. But Indy wasn’t built that way, and was also ill-equipped to make the necessary in-season adjustments to placate Stephenson’s growing game.
That won’t be a problem for the Hornets. Charlotte’s biggest problem last season was an obvious lack of off-dribble dynamism opposite Walker’s burgeoning playmaking prowess, a hole Stephenson is uniquely capable of filling. Lance is a gifted pick-and-roll passer, very good finisher, and a developing shooter from mid-range and beyond the arc. His brutish post-game offers the Hornets yet another wrinkle they didn’t have last season, too.
When it comes to offensive versatility, Clifford is right about Stephenson, basically – there just isn’t much he’s not capable of doing on that end of the floor. And while some might say the “jack of all trades, master of none” trope applies to Lance, that’s ignoring the incredible strides he has made since being a second-round pick four years ago. There’s every reason to believe that Stephenson will continue to improve if he’s committed to doing so, and that mostly means keeping his head on straight and nose to the ground.
Whether or not he can do so is a big question – it’s why the Hornets were able to sign him for relative pennies on the dollar. But there’s certainly a chance Stephenson makes good of Clifford’s praise if he does. And should that prove the case, Charlotte could be an even bigger surprise in 2014-2015 than it was last season.
What do you think?
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