This morning, intrepid Vertical hoops reporter Shams Charania broke a story that I think it’s safe to say no one saw coming.
Though the news came out of the blue, it makes a certain sense. Zach LaVine is out for the season with a torn ACL (I’m still not over it), the Wolves, after putting together a great stretch of games in January, is in another mini-tailspin, and Thibs is looking for answers anywhere he can find them. Lance Stephenson rose to prominence in Indiana as a versatile, aggressive defender/secondary playmaker, and those just happen to be two areas of the greatest need for the 19-33 Timberwolves. Stephenson’s defensive skills were on full display in his two years as a starter for the Pacers, when he and Paul George went head to head with D-Wade and LeBron two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Finals and held their own admirably.
In the 2013-2014 season, Stephenson led the league in triple doubles, was a bonafide All-Star snub and finished second in Most Improved voting. Of course, those were back in the boring days when five triple doubles could lead the league, but it shows the jack-of-all-trades value Stephenson brings when keyed in. He’s a bouncy, sometimes out-of-control dynamo in transition (think Shabazz Muhammad but willing to pass) and is capable of breaking down most perimeter defender off the dribble.
Sounds great right? But of course there’s a catch–there’s always a catch. Stephenson tends to dribble the air out of the ball, like a young Christiano Ronaldo, all showy moves and no progress made. Much has been made of his on-court antics (which this writer has often found more entertaining than abominable), which have often backfired for his team. He’s also an absolutely atrocious shooter. Well, that’s not totally fair. It’s more accurate to say he’s a wildly erratic shooter. He’s shot over 35% from three in two seasons (2013-2014, 2015-2016) and under 20% in two seasons (2011-2012, 2014-2015). On a team with non-shooters such as Dunn and (except for recently) Rubio, as well as similarly erratic shooters in Wiggins and Bjelica, the Wolves need all the space they can get on the floor, and Lance isn’t going to give them that.
What he will give them is attitude. Some people call Lance a detriment to the locker room, some call him a cancer (which is a terrible thing to say about anyone, even if you don’t like the way they basketball), but either way it’s hard to ignore the unprecedented meltdown the Pacers suffered the season before Lance fled for Charlotte (and we all know how that ended). Legal troubles followed Stephenson early in his career, including disturbing domestic violence and sexual assault cases that have been resolved out of court. These are not issues to be taken lightly, and on a personal, moral level, it’s hard to support or cheer for a person with such a past, especially when the team already employs a player with a similar domestic assault case to his name.
But seeing as this is a basketball blog, I’ll try to keep this about basketball for the time being.
When the Clippers traded Stephenson to Memphis in 2016, he had a bit of a Born Ready-aissance, averaging 14.2 points, 4.4 boards and 2.8 assists in 26 minutes a game. The Grizz didn’t bring him back, but there’s still talent there, waiting to be plumbed from the depths. Thibodeau, another defensive grinder who will brook no excuse or argument, is not unlike Frank Vogel, the coach who brought the best out in Lance, and I have to say, Coach could do a lot of fun lineup tinkering with Lance if he sticks around. There is valid concern that Stephenson could take minutes away from Shabazz or Tyus Jones, especially with how short Thibs’ bench is, but Stephenson, despite his NBA miles, is actually younger than Dieng and Rubio, and still could have a lot of basketball in his legs.
In the end, the thought of a Shabazz-Stephenson fast break is enough to make this 10-day contract more than worth it. And besides, this team needs a punk. It’s too nice. Wiggins has an ear-to-ear smile that’s so infections it makes me wanna puke. Towns is slick and composed like a politician-in-training. Rubio oozes a classic Spanish charm. What this team needs now is grit.
I hope this works out. I hope Lance becomes best friends with Cole Aldrich and they go on road trips together and the prodigy from Brooklyn falls in love with the frozen beauty of Minnesota in winter. Most of all, I hope Born Ready is ready to bring some swagger to the Timberwolves.