The Charlotte Hornets entered the 2014-15 season with high expectations, both because of the team's recent success and offseason additions like Lance Stephenson. The former Pacers guard was supposed to blossom in an expanded offensive role in Charlotte, all while contributing to an already strong defense under head coach Steve Clifford.
However, Stephenson and the Hornets appear to be a major work-in-progress on the offensive end. A year after finishing 24th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, Charlotte has actually dropped a spot in this year's rankings, tied with the injury-riddled Pacers team Stephenson left over the summer. The Hornets are 3-4 after a loss to Portland on Tuesday, but two of those victories came at the buzzer at home.
That's not the result many expected from the Hornets, not after a playoff berth in Clifford's first season and the addition of a rising star like Stephenson. The 24-year-old was supposed to emerge as a perfect backcourt partner to the quick and nimble Kemba Walker, bringing physicality and defense. Instead, he's looked totally lost on the offensive end.
There are surely others to blame in Charlotte for the underwhelming start, but Stephenson is easily the most obvious target given his numbers. The guard has averaged just 8.8 points on 33 percent shooting over his first eight games, and while he's contributing elsewhere, the Hornets badly need more from a guy who's playing more than 35 minutes a night.
But what exactly has gone wrong with Stephenson? From the most basic perspective, it's about shooting. He's still racking up assists (5.0) and turnovers (3.1) at similar rates to last season, and he's rebounding more than ever before. However, even a quick peek at his shot charts reveals much different looks from last season, when he set a career-high 14.1 points per game with Indiana.
Here's his chart for this season:
And here's his chart with Indiana last season:
There are primarily two factors working against Stephenson's success in Charlotte:
- The guard's effectiveness near the rim has completely fallen off this season. Stephenson was one of the better guards around the basket with Indiana, hitting nearly 64 percent of his shots, but he's at roughly 47 percent this season. Given that nearly half his shots come in this area, that's been the biggest factor in his decline.
- An increase in mid-range shots over three-pointers. Last season, just 12.8 percent of Stephenson's shots would qualify as long two-pointers. This season, it's over 18 percent, so he's basically replaced many of his corner and wing three-pointers with long twos. That's been a largely negative trade-off.
Addressing the kinds of shots Stephenson takes will surely happen in the coming weeks as the rest of the offense figures things out, but the missed shots near the rim are more concerning. Finishing was always one of Stephenson's strengths, and at 24 years old, there's no obvious cause for that aspect of his game taking a step back.
There are surely things that Stephenson needs to address, both in terms of his shot selection and general role in the offense, but none of that matters as much as getting the guard back to being an elite finisher. Even if he's never quite a stellar shooter or offensive creator, he can still be devastating as a strong, aggressive ball handler capable of penetrating defenses. But that always hinged on his special ability to finish near the rim, and right now, it's seemingly gotten away from him.
Whether this is the result of offseason rust, nagging injuries, a developing understanding of Clifford's offense or something else, Stephenson is clearly working through some issues of his own on the offensive end. However, it's possible time is just what the guard needs to round into form. He did miss portions of the preseason due to injury.
The Hornets will never be a juggernaut offensively, regardless of what Stephenson does this season, but his resurgence would likely bump the team into the middle of the pack. With the defense being played under Clifford, that would be enough to make Charlotte dangerous later in the season. It has to happen for the team to take another step forward.