The Hornets are currently 1.5 games up on the ninth place Brooklyn Nets for the last spot in the Eastern conference playoffs. With Kemba Walker sidelined for at least six weeks and Jannero Pargo still out due to a back injury, the team finds itself without a backup point guard. Rather than sign a free agent, the team has instead turned the second unit ball handling duties over to a committee of Gary Neal and Lance Stephenson.
Enter "Lary Steal".
Prior to Saturday night's lopsided defeat of the Denver Nuggets, the team had played three games with this new personnel: at San Antonio (loss), versus New York (win), and versus Minnesota (win). The statistics from those games were quite telling. In addition to traditional metrics like assists and field goal percentage, with the help of NBA.com's SportsVU tracking stats, it is also possible to track assist opportunities (number of passes that lead to field goal attempts) and passes.
A few things jump out right away when analyzing these figures. First, Brian Roberts played pretty well in these three games. He protected the ball, looked to make plays for others and shot a very respectable 44 percent from the field.
Secondly, Gary Neal had a bad three game stretch as the team's true back up point guard (he only shared the floor with Roberts for a combined 30 seconds). Neal attempted a whopping 18 shots per 36 minutes, didn't average even one assist for every one turnover, and shot more than the number of assist opportunities he created.
Like Neal, Lance Stephenson struggled to find the basket for himself, however rather than trying to shoot himself out of a slump, Stephenson did everything he could to create opportunities for others. The 24 Assist Opportunities per 36 minutes is more than NBA leaders in Assist Opportunities per game John Wall, Rajon Rondo, and Ty Lawson, who all average about 20 per contest. His turnovers are still an issue, but relative to how much he's trying to create, it doesn't appear too detrimental.
Do the stats match the tape
Like all statistics, they never tell the whole story. However, reviewing the tape a few things are clear. The first is that coach Steve Clifford was letting Neal and Stephenson share the lead guard duties. Every other play there was a different player bringing it up the court and initiating the offense. In most cases, when Neal brought it up, he eventually dumped it off to Stephenson, which meant two things: Lance was really the point guard and the offense was wasting vital time getting set up.
Take this shot of Neal's versus San Antonio for example:
After wasting about 10 seconds of shot clock, Neal receives the ball on the sideline tightly guarded by Patty Mills. Rather than swinging back out to Stephenson, he takes it into the corner and fires up a fade away 3-pointer. Here's another play that likely had Al Jefferson a little upset afterwards:
The common theme from these three games for Neal is that he was too intent on finding his own shot.
Stephenson on the other hand was doing the opposite and trying everything he could do to get others involved first. However, if he isn't allowed to push the ball up the court, he isn't able to push the pace and establish a rhythm with his dribble. That's the common theme with Stephenson, he's at his best after he's had a few dribbles to survey the defense. He said as much in his post game interview Saturday: "I just gotta find a groove. Pushing the ball and getting others involved is my game and that's what I'm gonna do."
However, those dribbles hurt his chances of breaking down a defense that is already set. Also, unlike most NBA players, Stephenson is good for one or two questionable passes a game, like this one against Minnesota.
A turning point?
After three tough games trying to run the point guard by committee, Stephenson and Neal (or Larry Steal as I like to call them) finally combined for a great game Saturday against Denver. Gary Neal shot it just five times in 16 minutes and also dished out four assists to zero turnovers. Stephenson had 13 assists and just three turnovers in 30 minutes, but continued to shoot poorly going 2-for-10 from the field (although six of those shots came in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided).
What was different about this game was how the two shared the ball handling duties. In short, they didn't share them at all. Stephenson did almost all of the dribbling and Neal was relegated to spot up shooter. Coming off of pin down screens and receiving crisp passes from Stephenson, Neal made all of the right reads: shooting when open and passing when extra help shadowed his way. This play sums up his performance perfectly.
According to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, the Hornets would like to make it through Walker's injury without adding a new point guard to the roster. If the team wants to remain in the playoff race during that time, the play of
Larry Steal Neal and Stephenson is vital for their chances.