If one player symbolized the 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets, it was Lance Stephenson. Entering the season, Charlotte was a team on the rise while Stephenson was viewed as on the cusp of realizing All-Star potential. Charlotte's offense needed a dynamic offensive player to play alongside Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, and Stephenson was brought in to fill that role. Thanks to a number of factors however, both Charlotte and Stephenson regressed, and the high hopes of the franchise, along with Stephenson's personal growth, crashed and burned not long into the season. As Charlotte enters the offseason with many hard questions to answer, so too does Stephenson and his future, not only with the team but in the NBA.
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Stephenson struggled this season (and that can't be emphasized enough), but it was clear that his fit with the Hornets didn't work. An early season groin injury made it even more difficult, as Stephenson was missing time and not playing at 100 percent when he was on the floor. While it could be debated whether or not he could have turned his season around with another team, it became virtually impossible because of how poorly his skill set worked with the rest of the team, particularly with Jefferson and Walker.
Both Stephenson and Walker are ball dominant guards, which proved disastrous since both players needed the ball in their hands to be effective. This, along with neither player being able to shoot well from the perimeter, led to an offense with limited ball movement and poor spacing. Add in Jefferson's need to hold the ball for long stretches in the post, and his tendency to clog the lane, and Stephenson rarely saw clear driving lanes and found himself forcing shots or passes when he did get the ball.
The bad roster fit essentially took away the strengths of Stephenson's offensive game. He scores best at the rim, but this season he did not do that as effectively or as much as he did with the Indiana Pacers a year ago. Last season, he took a higher percentage of shots within three feet (37.1) than he did from anywhere else on the floor. This season, that percentage went down to 29.1. Stephenson is a streaky scorer, and scoring a few high percentage shots (aka, shots at the rim) forces defenders to respect the drive and thus opens up outside scoring opportunities. Because he did not get to the rim as much (nor score as well) he resorted to taking contested jump shots, which only worsened things.
This then leads to his 3-point shooting, which by the end of the season had gone down as the worst single season mark in NBA history. Stephenson's 17.1 percent from beyond the arc epitomized how little confidence he had with his shot. A horrid November, in which he shot 19.4 percent in 17 games, set the tone for the rest of the season, and Stephenson wouldn't even shoot above 20 percent until March. Dubbed by many in preseason as the solution to Charlotte's outside shooting woes, he was the exact opposite.
If there was one area Stephenson excelled at most of the time, it was his play-making ability. Stephenson had a knack for reading the game and picking out passes that led to high percentage scoring opportunities. He found an early season connection with Cody Zeller that translated into easy scoring opportunities for Zeller. Later on, Stephenson developed a similar understanding with Bismack Biyombo, and created scoring opportunities, particularly alley-opp attempts, that left Biyomob with the easiest scoring opportunities of his career. It could be argued Stephenson excelled at creating high percentage scoring opportunities for post players better than anyone else on the team. This doesn't cancel out the parts of the game he struggled at, but it's commendable that he recognized ways to get Biyombo easy scoring chances where others rarely gave it a second thought.
There's no way to sugar coat this -- Stephenson regressed. Before the season, he was viewed as a potential All-Star. Now, it's unclear what his future role in the NBA is. He wasn't good as the starting shooting guard or as a reserve, and while he hasn't eliminated himself as a starting shooting guard in the league down the line, he can't be viewed as one the main scoring options at this time.
Sure, there was his banked game winner early in the season, but that play was so ridiculously stupid and lucky. Steve Clifford's out of bounds plays were rightfully criticized this season, but there's no way he called a timeout and told Stephenson to take a hand off from Marvin Williams and shoot from 30 feet.
Stephenson's top play this season is undoubtedly his no-look pass to Cody Zeller:
The play showcased Stephenson's one consistent positive, his play making, and was a quick glimpse into the type of player the Hornets thought they had signed -- one that created plays out of seemingly nothing and knew how to celebrate it too. It was fun, and came during a stretch when many still believed the Hornets had a shot to make the playoffs.
Perceived as a potential problem in the locker room, both players and Clifford came to his defense throughout the season, saying he wasn't a problem in the locker room, and had worked hard all season. Early in the season, he did drop the single "Hot N***a Freestyle," a remix of the song by Bobby Shmunda. The song isn't very good, but it, along with the music video, showcased Stephenson's excitement of signing with the Hornets.
He's entering year two of his three-year, $27 million contract, but the last year is a team option meaning he's guaranteed to play for the Hornets for at least one more season. At this point it's unlikely the team would bring him back for that final year unless he was able to completely turn things around next season. Stephenson will likely be subject of trade rumors, but his stock is so low right now that the Hornets would likely have to take back a bad contract in order to move him. For this reason, trading him at that expense isn't worth it. His contract favors the team, and worst case scenario is he doesn't improve and finds himself not in the rotation. That alone would be better than taking on a bad contract player that also wouldn't be in the rotation and limits the team's cap flexibility in the the 2016-17 offseason.
At this point it's easy to be skeptical of Stephenson's future with the Hornets, but there's no question any improvements he can make would help the team. This will be the most important off-season of his career, and his future with the Hornets and in the NBA will depend on making the 2014-15 season an anomaly.