PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – A typical workout on the court turned into the most important news of the summer for Lance Stephenson early this week.
He found out he’d been traded to the Clippers and let out an ecstatic scream when he heard the news.
“When I got the call, I was like, ‘What, are you serious!? I’m going to the Clippers!? I was very happy,” Stephenson said. “I was very excited.”
Stephenson, speaking Thursday from the Clippers’ training facility in Playa Vista at his introductory news conference, said he heard from head coach Doc Rivers immediately after the deal went down. The newest Clippers guard found out quickly what Rivers wanted from him.
“He just wanted me to play defense and be a good role player and just come in in the best shape I could get and be ready to win,” Stephenson said.
Rivers has had interest in Stephenson longer than just this summer, largely because of the multiple roles Stephenson can play. He can guard the one, the two and the three, and Rivers said Stephenson’s ball-handling skill and ability to play in the open court with power fit the Clippers well.
It appears Stephenson’s role will likely be off the bench in a utility spot, but figuring that out isn’t Rivers’ primary concern, and Stephenson said he’ll accept any role Rivers asks of him to help the Clippers win. Rivers wants to get deeper, more athletic, tougher and better defensively, and he feels like Stephenson can do all of those things for the Clippers.
Stephenson said he used to hate playing against the Clippers because of their athleticism and how fast they go up and down the court. That’s an element Rivers believes will fit Stephenson’s skill set, particularly with his ability to handle the ball.
“When Lance gets a rebound, I want him going coast-to-coast,” Rivers said. “When you think about him in Indiana, I think that’s one of the things he did so well…With our second unit to have that, it’ll be great. If he’s with the first unit, it’ll be great. We’ll figure all that out.”
Rivers is focused on being a more consistent defensive and defensive rebounding team that’s still capable of scoring. The hope is Stephenson can add to that, even after a year he’d like to move past.
Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal to go to Charlotte in July 2014 coming off a stellar season in Indiana, when he led all NBA players with five triple-doubles and played a major role in getting the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals by playing sound defense while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
He was one year into his deal in Charlotte, averaging 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists, before getting traded this week to the Clippers in exchange for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes.
Stephenson said it was a tough season in 2014-15 and a struggle he wants to put behind, but he feels like he can do that in Los Angeles with a strong cast around him. He said Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are great leaders, and he wants to follow in their footsteps and be someone to help boost the energy up and help defensively.
When Rivers decided to pull the trigger on the deal, he wasn’t only looking at the 2014-15 season in Charlotte, nor was he only looking only at Stephenson’s 2013-14 season in Indiana. He considered all five seasons of the 24-year-old’s career, as well as his potential.
“You’ve got to look at the whole thing,” Rivers said. “Lance has proven what he can do. He’s also proven he can have a tough year like anyone can have. You lean on a lot of stuff when you’re trying to make a decision – your own eyes, analytics, and the fact Indiana offered what they offered him told you they wanted him back. It tells you something. We did a lot of research, and we like where we came out.”
Stephenson said his energy, excitement, toughness and passion defensively should help. He said the Clippers need someone to get angry and get under peoples’ skin, and that shouldn’t be a problem for him. But he wants to clear up any negative rumors about him.
“I’m going to work hard on getting them rumors out, because that’s not the issue,” Stephenson said. “I’m very good in the locker room, you could ask all the players I played with, you could ask the coaches…When I’m on the court, I’ve got the type of energy where it looks like I’m yelling at somebody, but I feel like when I talk to my teammates it amps them up and makes them work harder. I want to take that title off my name, because that’s not me. I’m a good locker room guy.”
Rivers said there’s always risk involved with a trade, but it doesn’t seem as risky when looking at Stephenson’s full body of work.
“You can look at it any way you want to look at it, but there’s a lot of positives in it too, and I think they outweigh any risks that there are,” Rivers said. “You bring in as much talent as you can get, and then you figure it out.”