Not all problems are bad.
In fact, some can be very good, depending on the situation you find yourself in.
The predicament of the Memphis Grizzlies is not one to be envious about. The sad state of the roster's health is sobering, and the team looks vastly different than it did just a month ago. Gone, for the moment at least, are Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Brandan Wright. Here, for the moment at least, are Briante Weber, Ray McCallum, Alex Stepheson, and Xavier Munford.
But a face who came to the Memphis Grizzlies at the last possible moment as the trade deadline ended has taken the brass ring of opportunity and made the most of it so far. The injuries to key players have opened up lanes of success, and Lance Stephenson hasn't just driven those lanes. He has dominated them. A lot of the success that the Grizzlies have had, although it has been limited as of late (8-8 since the acquisition of Stephenson, but 1-5 in their last six), can be attributed to Lance and the ability he has brought to the decimated Grizzlies.
He is aggressive offensively at a time where no one else has the skill set necessary to be. He is versatile enough defensively on a roster so depleted currently that he can be multiple things on that end at once...and he has to be. He has injected energy in a fan base that could easily have gone dormant after the best Grizzlies' players went down with a variety of ailments.
So...what exactly is the problem?
He is Playing Better than He Did in Indiana
Numbers don't lie...Lance's best season in Indiana with the Pacers was good, but in key areas he is doing just as well, if not better, in Memphis so far. And that is a problem for Grizzlies opponents.
|Lance Stephenson||2016 Memphis Grizzlies (14 games)||2013-2014 (Pacers, 78 Games)|
|Free Throw Rate||.279||.226|
|Win Shares Per 48 Minutes||.127||.130|
|Free Throw %||83.3||71.1|
|Points Per 36 Minutes||20.5||14.1|
It isn't all sunshine and rainbows; his three-point shooting is significantly worse (35.2% in his Indy best overall season, 18.8% right now), as is his defensive efficiency (107 in Memphis, 101 in Indiana), through his first fourteen games as a Grizzly than it was as a Pacer. But the numbers above point to several keys, as does his shot chart from this season below...
...as compared to his chart from his best season in Indiana...
The common thread? Attacking the basket consistently. This leads to easy opportunities in more than one way. Lance is getting to the free throw line at a career high clip, and is converting at a career high rate. The extra shot at the charity stripe per game (2.5 in 2013-2014 and 3.4 as a Grizzly) shows a commitment to getting to the rim, which is what every Grizzly should be committed to trying to do, not just Lance. His ability with the ball in his hands with his handle (which he LOVES to display- he really, really likes dribbling) gives Memphis a wing who can create chaos offensively.
An offensive Tony Allen? What's not to love?
Lance is also protecting the basketball remarkably well for someone who in his time in Memphis sports a 26.1% usage rate. The fact that he is on pace for the Grizzlies to have a career high in usage and a career low in turnover percentage by almost four percentage points is staggering. The Grizzlies' offense needs all of the opportunities to score it can get, and Lance not only creates them for himself off the dribble, he protects them for himself and others as well.
The most impressive part of all of this comes back to his usage. In his best season in Indy, he sported a 19.4% usage rate. Among players who had played at least 1,000 minutes for the Pacers that season, that would be good for fourth on their team behind Paul George (NBA Superstar), David West (NBA All-Star), and Luis Scola (solid NBA veteran). Lance is performing this well in Memphis playing most of his minutes recently with Tony Allen, JaMychal Green, and Matt Barnes.
A downgrade in cast mates, but an upgrade in performance.
This May Well Complicate Memphis' Future
As strange as it may sound, this perhaps clouds what the Grizzlies will do this Summer as they look to build their roster. When the Jeff Green for Lance Stephenson and a 2019 first round pick went down, it was widely assumed and expected that the first rounder was the key piece of the puzzle. Lance may well play better than Jeff, but his $9.4 million team option for 2016-2017 would more likely than not be declined and Stephenson would go on his merry way. No harm done. Lance fills a need salary and roster wise the rest of this season and moves on to the next deal.
This has to have gotten at least a little harder to decide on for the Grizzlies' Front Office though, in recent weeks. Lance is thriving in the system that Dave Joerger has set up in the wake of serious injury, and Stephenson is playing as well as he has in his entire career. Is it possible to build a bench unit around Lance? Can he co-exist when the chips are down in the 2017 playoffs with a (hopefully, knock-on-wood) Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph as they quite possibly go through their last run together? Is keeping Lance worth the lost opportunity cost of what Memphis could potentially grab on the free agent market?
That last bit is what is particularly fascinating, at least in the short-term. Memphis may well be interested in a big splash in free agency, but historically the Grizzlies have not been a hot free agency destination. If you opt out on Lance and strike out on a (hypothetically) Chandler Parsons, or DeMar DeRozan, or even Kevin Durant, you are in a tough spot with about $24 million in cap space to overspend with (assuming you re-sign Mike Conley). If you opt in Lance, though, you will have roughly $15 million to build a bench unit with. You can use that space to re-sign a Mario Chalmers if you want, or a Jeremy Lin, as well as a wing like Kent Bazemore or Jared Dudley, or even re-sign a Matt Barnes if you want.
It is about probability. As the team looks to the "Core Four's" potential last stand next season, the Front Office of Memphis must decide whether or not keeping a Lance Stephenson and building a bench around his skill set is worth potentially missing out on a better player. The uncertainly of Lance's fit alongside a Marc Gasol, whose return will also bring much more structure back to the Grizzlies' offense and a certain degree of uncertainty itself, also looms large over any decision.
"Born Ready" Must Be Ready
The problem with Lance Stephenson is the inability to know exactly what you will get with him in the long-term. Say you choose to take his team option and let him play out one more free agency season- what next? Does he become a contract that goes away and Memphis has that much more room to rebuild around Gasol and Conley? Or does he become a piece of that rebuild? That statement isn't as crazy as it may have been a month ago. Memphis is the land of the reclamation project, and Lance is only 25 years old- he is actually younger than JaMychal Green. So he would be 27, in his prime, alongside Gasol and Conley as they reach the end of theirs. Add a Nikola Mirotic that Summer of 2017, or and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo as a Restricted Free Agent?
The team just got younger, and more versatile.
Those names above are speculative, but they are evidence of the potential value in an investment in Stephenson beyond this season. This will come down to Lance, though. It will be on him to adapt if and when the roster gets healthier. It will be on him to mature and continue to make good choices, both on and off the court, while maintaining the energy and effort that comes with his "Born Ready" moniker. He has gotten in his own way at times, hurting his personal success in Charlotte and in Los Angeles to an extent due to a lack of adaptability and control.
His time with the Grizzlies has been a great glimpse of his best. When his worst shows up, or when the Grizzlies get their best players back and his role changes, can he keep it from disrupting this Memphis opportunity?
The Bluff City has been the site of several new beginnings. Lance could be the latest in those success stories, or he could be on his way sooner rather that later. He has to continue to prove he is ready to be more than "Born Ready." He has to stay ready for whatever comes his way, in Memphis and perhaps beyond.
Considering the current state of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lance Stephenson situation is a great problem to have.
Statistics provided by basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats.