PELICANS: Can Lance Stephenson Offset the Loss of Holiday?


With the tragic news of Jrue Holiday’s wife’s health problems, and the sudden addition of Lance Stephenson, Pelicans fans are recalibrating their expectations for the start of the season.

Being a Pelicans fan is a constant reminder of why “plans” can only get you so far.

The past four years of Pelicans basketball were all planned, but injuries and off-the-court issues never allowed the Pelicans to test their hypothesis.

The idea was that Jrue, a young All-Star, would captain the team next to Anthony Davis.

Meanwhile Eric Gordon, a young 23 point per game scorer in recent memory, would provide elite floor spacing and cutting off the ball.

Asik would be Bogut, Tyreke would be Ginolbi, and the Pelicans would grow together but avoid the learning curve by signing “young veterans.”

Needless to say, the last four years have not been the cakewalk many of us imagined.

Dec 2, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4) during the first quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries meant that the Pelicans top five players virtually never saw the court together, and constant 10-day contracts and role players shuffled through the organization to frantically plug the holes.

This season was supposed to be different.

Solomon Hill, E’twaun Moore, Tim Frazier, and Langston Galloway were all high character reliable workers who wanted to be here and could provide remarkably good depth.

Regardless, this team was build around Jrue and AD.

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As great as those role players are, they can really only be successful with a great playmaker captaining the offense and an elite scoring threat drawing attention away from them. Remove one from the equation and things begin to get dicey.

With the tragic news of Jrue’s wife needing immediate treatment, the Pelicans equation is beginning to fall apart.

Obviously, the only thing on Jrue’s mind should be his family, and he should take nothing less than as much time as he needs to return to basketball.

Regardless, the effects of his absence will be strenuous on a team where he was expected to be the Stockton to AD’s Malone.

Feb 21, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) celebrates with teammate guard Jrue Holiday (11) after making a three point shot during the fourth quarter. Davis scored 59 point at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pelicans defeated the Pistons 111-106. Mandatory Credit: Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Lance Stephenson, a player who was on every team’s wish list two seasons ago but now finds himself scrapping for minimum contracts.

The narrative of Lance’s fall from grace is strong, but the stats tell a slightly different story.

Statistically, last season very well might be the best of his career. Per 36 minutes, he rivals his ’13-’14 production in almost every category.

Lance Stephenson with the Pacers per 36 minutes in 2013-2014:

14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 49% from the floor, 35% from deep, 71% from the line.

Lance Stephenson with the Clippers/Grizzlies per 36 minutes in 2015-2016:

15.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 48% from the floor, 38% from deep, 78% from the line.

At a glance, the narrative that Lance has fallen apart seems exaggerated.

Apr 24, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Lance Stephenson (1) during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. San Antonio Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 116 – 95. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In 5/8 of the criteria above Lance was actually better last year than he was during his mythical 2014 campaign.

After being traded for Jeff Green and landing on the Memphis Grizzlies, his production skyrocketed in his final 26 games.

Lance Stephenson with the Memphis Girzzlies per 36 minutes in 2016 (26 games total):

19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.4 turnovers, 47% from the floor, 35% from deep, 81% from the line.

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So why the disparity in reputation vs. production?

The answer probably has to do with visibility.

Despite Lance’s production towards the end of the year, he played less than half the total minutes he did in 2014, and he wasn’t on an exciting playoff stage blowing in LeBron’s ear to close out the season.

At a glance, the signing of Stephenson makes some sense as a Tyreke replacement more than a Holiday one.

In Tyreke’s last season before joining the Pelicans he put up just 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists a game as an off the ball shooting guard.

Once Tyreke joined the Pelicans and became a point guard, he went from 3-4 assist per game to 6-7.

Dec 11, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Tyreke Evans (1) reacts after scoring on a three point basket against the Washington Wizards during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Wizards 107-105. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Sacramento Tyreke might be a perfect comparison for modern-day Lance Stephenson, but that doesn’t make the signing a immediate success.

After watching Tyreke struggle to grasp the dynamics of Alvin Gentry’s offense, the question can be raised whether we should expect Lance to be any better.

Lance is remarkably talented. His ’16 highlight video is filled with circus lay-ups, dunks, no-look passes and ankle breakers, but he is far from a high IQ player.

Lance is probably at his best as an 8th man. Someone who can give you a few buckets, but doesn’t set the pace or the gamelan for his team.

The Pelicans planned to start building good habits this season by signing high IQ role players. If they allow Lance Stephenson to captain the offense taking 13 shots a game, how great is the danger that the team adopts those same bad habits throughout the season?

Mar 7, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Lance Stephenson (1) rebounds in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The safer option would have just been to sign a less risky backup guard and try to focus on culture rather than immediate success.

Players like Mario Chalmers, Steve Blake, Norris Cole, Kirk Hinrich, Jordan Farmar, and Shane Larkin are all still available and probably could have been added for the same price as Lance.

Those players are undoubtedly less talented than Lance, but most of them could bring leadership, stability, and intelligence to the team.

Lance exploding for 20 early in the season might win a couple of games, but a safer option could have helped to construct the culture so the team succeeds more when Jrue returns in October/November.

Like most interesting NBA signings, Lance is a risk.

He could be an explosive 15-5-6 guy who gets the Pelicans through a challenging couple months, or he could cause locker room friction and destroy the Spurs-like system Gentry envisions the team to eventually adopt.

Time will tell…….