Trade grades: Changes of scenery could help Stephenson, Green

The Los Angeles Clippers have reportedly agreed to send Lance Stephenson and a first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jeff Green.
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The Clippers have reportedly agreed to send Lance Stephenson and a first-round pick to the Grizzlies for Jeff Green.

Who won? Who lost? Let’s take a look.

Los Angeles Clippers: C+

Clippers receive: Jeff Green

The Lance Stephenson era in L.A. lasted all of 680 minutes. Months after acquiring Stephenson from the Hornets, Doc Rivers decided to ship the mercurial guard following weeks of rumored movement. As with his handling of Josh Smith, another 2015 summer addition, Rivers wasted no time reversing course.

Although Stephenson meshed well with L.A.’s starters—posting a +19.9 net rating in 155 minutes alongside Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan—he never succeeded in gaining Rivers’s full trust. Even as L.A. gained steam in January despite an injury to Griffin, Stephenson received DNP-CDs and played sparingly, with Rivers turning instead to the likes of Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Assuming Austin Rivers returns from injury on schedule, Stephenson was likely going to be an odd man out come playoff time.  

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The Clippers’ motivation for adding Jeff Green should be fairly obvious: He’s an experienced, athletic combo forward who matches up more naturally with potential postseason rivals likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard than anybody on L.A.’s roster. No offense to Mbah a Moute, who has delivered great value on a bargain deal, or Pierce, a future Hall of Famer on his last legs, but Green (12.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.8 APG) has a level of pop and electricity they can’t match. Even though he famously struggles with consistency, Green is a better overall player than Johnson, too.

But Green’s forgettable tenure in Memphis, and the pick required to snag him, should dampen some of the excitement. With the Grizzlies, Green struggled to find a productive role alongside two traditional bigs in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, prompting coach Dave Joerger to swap him and out of the starting lineup. In L.A., he’ll face some of the same issues alongside DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, and he’ll need to shoot far better from deep than his 30.9% this season to be useful alongside two frontcourt non-shooters. Optimists will point out that Green is set to play with a natural playmaker in Paul and that he’s in a contract year, two factors which could help rally his efficiency and encourage more stable contributions. With Griffin out due to a broken hand, he’ll get a chance to make his mark right away.

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The big concern here is that Green, who played for Rivers in Boston, doesn’t truly lift L.A.’s outlook against the West’s top three (the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder). The Clippers were a clear fourth in the West before the trade and a clear fourth afterward too. With Green entering free agency this summer, forking over a first-round pick without altering the West’s landscape seems ill-advised. If Green is re-signed to big money or if he walks after a short-term rental, both of which are legitimate possibilities, L.A.’s fans will immediately commence yearning for that lost pick. The groan factor also increases once one considers all the former Celtics (Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Pierce, etc.) that Rivers has tried to revive with little to show for it.

That said, Rivers entered the season suggesting this might be the last go-around for the Paul/Griffin/Jordan core, and he’s done everything in his power to give them a fighting shot. He managed to retain Jordan last summer, he resisted the urge to trade Griffin despite his stupid punch, he quickly reversed course on players who weren’t working out even if that meant admitting personnel mistakes and he filled his roster’s biggest roster hole with a player in Green who is tantalizing (when he’s not frustrating). Will it be enough to push the Clippers over the top and into the Western Conference finals? Probably not, but this team is playing for today and not 2019, so Rivers’s asset-burning is understandable.

Memphis Grizzlies: B+ 

Grizzlies receive: Lance Stephenson, 2019 first-round pick was quite high on Green’s post-trade potential in Memphis last year; unfortunately, he wasn’t able to consistently unlock a more potent, small ball look for the old-school Grizzlies. The Warriors still won the matchup game in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, Green has had little impact on Memphis’s lineups this year (-0.9 net rating on the court, -0.6 net rating when off), and the Grizzlies have slipped out of contention while losing Marc Gasol indefinitely to injury.

In light of those developments, and Green’s impending free agency, it makes all the sense in the world for Memphis to cash out now. This deal, like the Grizzlies’ trade of Courtney Lee earlier this week, boils down to asset generation. Memphis will pitch impending free agent Mike Conley on a quick retooling effort around him and Gasol. Now, management can point to the five extra picks it acquired this week (one first and four seconds) as a method for crafting a younger, more versatile and more explosive supporting cast.

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Stephenson (4.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG) could be in line for real playing time down the stretch given Lee’s departure. Memphis holds a $9.4 million team option of Stephenson for next season, a nice bit of leverage that might help encourage “Born Ready” to remain on his best behavior down the stretch. In a best-case scenario, Stephenson finds a fit as a defensive-minded complementary player and he sticks around for 2016—17. In a worst-case scenario, his personality quirks and lack of shooting are too much to overcome (again) and he finds himself moving on to his fourth team since 2014 come July. Either way, coach Joerger will have his hands full trying to keep the Grizzlies in the playoff picture: Just imagine how tricky it will be to juggle a locker room that includes Stephenson, Matt Barnes, and P.J. Hairston, among other live wires.

Grizzlies fans would be forgiven for feeling like management punted on this season. It’s not quite that simple. With Gasol out and the Warriors and Spurs looming as insurmountable opponents for a Grizzlies team still devoted to gritting and grinding, these deals amount to some combination of “We took our shot last year” and “The next 3–5 years with Conley are more important than the next three months.” Conducting an honest self-assessment is usually preferable to clinging to false hopes, and the Grizzlies score points for taking a proactive approach to their shifting lot in life.