Beale Street Blues

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Last Thursday, the NBA’s trade deadline came in like, if not necessarily a lion, then a tiger cub exploring wilderness without its mother for the first time, but it went out like Dwight Howard – generally functional, marginally compelling, much more infuriating and with its movers likely coming away with the impression that they are all champions, no matter what.

While arguably the biggest move of the day involved Orlando sending Tobias Harris to the Pistons for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova and was more or less functionally about basketball, a number of less-heralded moves seemed to speak to the cultures of the teams involved: Cleveland traded for Channing Frye to hedge against Kevin Love questions, Oklahoma City nabbed Randy Foye as a more stable proxy for Dion Waiters in the backcourt and the disappointing Wizards ended up with the annoyed Markieff Morris. None of these says “cultural fit” so much as it does “cultural change,” but sometimes in the NBA, as in life, a move is good for the soul.

Speaking of which, two teams moved a pair of underperforming stretch wings. We take for granted that NBA teams are operating exclusively for their own best interests – make no mistake, they certainly are – but the Memphis Grizzlies’ trade of Jeff Green to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lance Stephenson last week seemed bigger than simple team improvement. In a lot of ways, it fulfilled destinies we didn’t even know were prophesied.

For Green, reuniting with his former Celtics coach Doc Rivers isn’t so much about Jeff Green as it is about Rivers’ Ubuntu philosophy and getting the gang back together – or, more appropriately, getting weird parts of different former gangs together for the first time°. Jeff Green is because every former Doc Rivers player is.

Much more interesting, at least to me, was the realization that Lance Stephenson, A.K.A. Born Ready, four-time New York City high school basketball champion and one-time borderline All-Star candidate, would now be on the Memphis Grizzlies. If ever there was a better fit between corporate culture and employment candidate, at least in professional sports, we’ve yet to see it.

Longtime readers will remember us heralding Lance Stephenson as a delightfully bewildering candidate to take the Charlotte Hornets to the next level; that we had seen the first of only eighteen three-pointers (out of a total 105 attempts, “good” for 17.1% on the season) sail through the net to beat the Atlanta Hawks in double-OT early last season stood as the exception rather than the rule, and Lance’s single season in Charlotte was frustrating for every party even remotely involved.

Stephenson, whose most notable contribution to pop culture may very well end up being his blowing air in LeBron’s ear during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, arrives in Memphis the same way he arrived in Los Angeles and Charlotte, as a player the coaching staff thinks was underappreciated, underused and misunderstood. At 25 years old, the Grizzlies may have the last best opportunity to extract blood from this cracked ruby.

More or less, he is an endless project, and this is a Grizzlies team willing to take a chance. With Marc Gasol out for the season due to a foot injury, combined with Memphis’ ever-dwindling championship window¹, the Grizzlies had to do something to affect its Mike Conley-Zach Randolph core. Stephenson can never hope to replicate Gasol’s production or defensive presence, but he may just be the kind of disruptive wrench Dave Joerger can throw into a machine like Golden State or San Antonio.

Where better than Memphis for Lance to thrive? His teammates include, but are not limited to: Matt Barnes, Vince Carter, Tony Allen², P.J. Hairston and two-time NBA champion Mario Chalmers. With the addition of Stephenson, a player notorious for disdaining authority sometimes to his own and his team’s detriment, the Grizzlies are now the league’s premier nightmare squad, perhaps even more than the Kings³.

As a player who has seen his season-best averages cut by nearly a third across the board this season, Lance Stephenson remains a conundrum. His first two games haven’t been the worst, with Lance peppering in a few really nice plays when he could be bothered to do so, though Wednesday’s game against the Lakers featured what Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky called “The Lance Stephenson Experience:” namely,  a one-man hunt for a ball technically already in his possession being inexplicably squandered while looking literally like a baby falling over himself to pick up some fallen Gerber off the floor.

Whether this Memphis version of Stephenson ends up being more like his Indiana self, a solid two-way contributor in spots, or his Charlotte self, a self-destructive caricature of John Starks losing himself in every challenging moment, remains to be seen. Memphis has precedence for a career revitalization – see Randolph, Zach – and maybe Joerger’s goon mob is just the place for him. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, we get to watch this circus hurtle itself toward the playoffs and a possible first round matchup with Stephenson’s former team, the Clippers. With Lance Stephenson, it’s never easy, but it’s almost always entertaining.

°Upon Green’s relocation, SBNation’s Rodger Sherman detailed all players for which Rivers has traded who had previously played for or against him, which is truly a fascinating exploration into competitive spirit and the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality.

¹My guess is it’s closed already. Then again, this is a team that took two from the Golden State Warriors in last year’s playoffs. I don’t know anything.

²Whose Grindfather nickname continues to inspire in perfectly inverse proportions to his offensive production

³Hell, why not do a sign-and-trade in the offseason, really bring the cows home:


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