(Shot charts via NBA.com. Larger chart here.)
The shooting accuracy of Lance Stephenson was one of the main reasons the Pacers didn’t miss Danny Granger before the All-Star break. Stephenson’s entire arsenal of play — his creating, his drive-and-kick game, his transition explosiveness, his excellent defensive acumen — came as a surprise.
Anyone who said it didn’t is either lying or Larry Bird, who always had faith in the kid. There was really no NBA game evidence that allowed anyone to predict that Stephenson was this ready to be a starter in this league. Last year, it really didn’t even look like he was ready to be a fringe rotation player in this league.
But the biggest shock to start the season was his shooting.
During the 29 games he played this season before the new year, he shot 23-for-59 (39.0%) from three-point range. That’s some Ray Allen stuff. He was particularly deadly camping out in the corners, where he hit 9-for-18 (50.0%).
Then he fell back to earth in January and February before the All-Star break.
While he knocked down just 44.0% of his twos and threes combined — a large drop from the 49.2% he made before the new year — his three-point percentage over that stretch was a sad 31.8%. Then again, he was still hitting from the corner (8-for-22), and the main cause of the long-range dip was his poor shooting during nine road games when he made just 5-for-22 threes. His home rate (36.4%) remained good enough to help the Pacers make defenses pay for slow rotations.
There was one particularly bad stretch that stood out.
During the Western Conference road trip that started on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Memphis, Stephenson fell into a funk. He shot just 4-for-16 (25%) in the first three games of the trip, and it seemed apparent to coach Frank Vogel that something was off.
Stephenson sat during the whole fourth quarter and overtime in a loss in Utah in favor of DJ Augustin. The George Hill/Augustin back court was effective (the Pacers out-scored the Jazz 32-20 in the fourth), but there seemed to be more to the rotation change than the coach going with what was working. Since November, Stephenson had always been in the game for the bulk of the meaningful fourth quarter minutes. Until he wasn’t that night.
Vogel said that the two had a talk during the trip, something the coach relayed to the media after the team returned to Indiana. “He just didn’t seem like he was right,” said Vogel.
The coach speculated that there might have been some non-basketball reasons behind Stephenson’s poor production. “It seemed like something was bothering him,” said Vogel. “He wasn’t himself. He didn’t seem like he was engaged.”
Vogel said that he approached Stephenson to try to reinforce just how important the third-year guard had been to a team that started the season in a tailspin without Danny Granger. “We talked about his value on this team,” said Vogel. “He’s not a guy that’s just filling in for somebody. He’s a big reason for our success this year on both ends. He’s an in-your-face defender, whose improving with his discipline, and he’s a beast in the open court offensively. He’s just a freight train. When he’s at his best, we’re awful tough to beat.”
The pep talk seemed to work.
Starting with the final game of the road trip (in Denver where he scored a season-high 20 points), Stephenson put up double-digit point totals in five straight games and in nine of the next eleven.
Unfortunately, the upswing stopped there.
He has been in a huge shooting slump ever since.
Since the All-Star break, in 19 games through Indiana’s win over the Mavericks on March 28, Stephenson has shot 10-for-38 (26.3%) from three-point range and 18-for-69 (26.1%) outside of the paint.
That’s bad, bad news. And it gets worse when you realize that his long-range troubles have coincided with Stephenson missing a lot more layups. (He has shot just 62.3% in the restricted area over his past 19 games compared to 75.0% in his first 29 games this year).
He was particularly wretched from March 6-19, failing to hit a single three in eight of Indiana’s nine games over that period. In all, he went 2-for-23 from deep. (He managed to make 2-for-3 in the loss to the Lakers.)
In related news, the Pacers lost four of those nine games.
Stephenson has shot 2-for-4 from three-point range since — and he was brilliant overall last week against the Rockets. But looking at just four more shots, it’s hard to read anything into that.
At this point, there is no telling if Stephenson will get back to becoming a reliable long-range shooter. It’s possible — and it’s definitely probable that he’ll improve — but we don’t really know.
Perhaps it’s just a slump. Perhaps defenses have just started game-planning for him. Perhaps it’s harder for him to shoot on legs that are increasingly tired due to his increased role pushing the ball. Perhaps the team asking him to create more in the half court means he doesn’t have as much time to set his feet and dial in for catch-and-shoot jumpers. Perhaps this is just part of his erratic on-court nature. Or perhaps he’s just beat.
Vogel offered some thoughts on Lance’s downward statistical trend before the team’s game against Milwaukee on March 22.
“I think part of it is, he’s now part of the other team’s game plan,” said Vogel. “He’s a force in the open court, and as we saw in Miami, teams are making adjustments to slow him down. So, that’s part of it.”
As far as fatigue, Vogel said he didn’t see direct evidence that Stephenson is wearing down. Still, he is a third-year player who has never played major minutes in this league, so the proverbial rookie wall could be a factor. “He doesn’t seem to be playing tired,” said Vogel, “but you never know what impact those types of minutes have on guys.”
The coach expounded. “Early in the season, teams were just saying, ‘make him prove it,’ and giving him shots. He had fresher legs then, and he was getting better shots. Now, teams are more aware of him, and it’s getting to the fatigue part of the season.”
Regardless of the why, Stephenson’s inability to hit jumpers could keep the team from reaching its non-Granger potential.
His accuracy needs to return.
And at this point, he doesn’t even need to regain his early-season marksmanship. Stephenson just needs to get back to adequate. His still-stingy defense and ability to push the rock on the break will continue to make him a useful weapon for this team no matter what. But Stephenson’s shockingly superb season may end up being remembered differently if he proves unable to knock down shots in the playoffs.
Tags: Shooting Woes